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Gut Microbiome and COVID-19

Medically reviewed by Kevin Tin, MD, Nathan Merriman, MD, Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on March 28, 2023

The gut microbiome has been found to play a significant role in many aspects of our health. An unhealthy gut with a poor diversity of bacteria has been linked to weight fluctuations, intestinal diseases, and even mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. Now, a study published in Gut has found the gut microbiome to possibly play a role in outcomes of COVID-19 infection.


What is the gut microbiome?


Our gut contains trillions of microscopic bacteria. The foods you eat have an impact–positive or negative–on your gut bacteria. A varied, healthful diet rich in probiotics and healthy foods increases the diversity of your gut bacteria, while a diet high in sugars, processed foods, and fried foods leads to negative effects on the microbiome. 


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What are Probiotics?

What are Probiotics?

Having a diverse gut microbiome plays a crucial role in your health. It is estimated that about 70% of our immune system is in our gut. A healthy gut biome can help in reducing your risk for developing inflammatory conditions, promoting good cholesterol levels, regulating blood sugar, and even staving off mental disorders. These are all relatively new findings, and scientists are still discovering more and more about how gut health affects our total body health.


The study


Researchers from the Chinese University of Hong Kong took blood and stool samples from 100 patients with COVID-19 hospitalized between February and May of 2020, as well as from 78 individuals who had not been infected with the virus but were involved in a previous microbiome study.


The researchers collected a total of 274 stool samples from both groups of participants. After analyzing them, they found that the microbiome makeup was “significantly altered” in the patients who had had COVID-19 compared to the control group. 


Specifically, the COVID patients had elevated numbers of Ruminococcus gnavus, Ruminococcus torques, and Bacteroides dorei bacteria, all species that have a negative influence on bodily functions. The patients were also deficient in “good” bacteria such as Bifidobacterium adolescentis, Faecalibacterium prausnitzii, and Eubacterium rectale.


The COVID patients also had higher levels of inflammatory cytokines as well as indicators of tissue damage due to their gut bacteria imbalance.


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COVID - Why get Vaccinated?

COVID - Why get Vaccinated?

Explaining the results


The researchers hypothesize that the gut microbiome could impact the host’s immune system, either by providing increased protection against the virus or by reducing the body’s ability to fight it off. Furthermore, the diminished gut bacteria levels measured after COVID infection were thought to be involved in cases of so-called “long COVID,” where a recovered patient experiences symptoms weeks to months after the virus has presumed to have been cleared from their body.


Although the study was only observational, the researchers say diversifying one’s gut bacteria levels may be able to prevent some of the severe COVID-19 associated outcomes. What we can all do with diversification of our diets is continue to work on improving our gut microbiome with a diet including prebiotics, probiotics, and healthy food choices (especially healthy fermented foods and drinks, such as yogurt, kombucha, and kefir).


“Bolstering of beneficial gut species depleted in COVID-19 could serve as a novel avenue to mitigate severe disease, underscoring the importance of managing patients’ gut microbiota during and after COVID-19,” they wrote.


How to increase gut bacteria diversity


As mentioned above, certain foods can increase the diversity of good bacteria in your gut. Try eating fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, and kefir to maintain a healthy gut microbiome and reduce inflammation. Studies show that foods high in fiber (for instance, most fruits and vegetables) are also beneficial to gut microbiome function. Having a diverse variety of gut bacteria not only helps your body fight off viruses like COVID-19, but also contributes to overall well-being.


Written by Natan Rosenfeld

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