Severe COVID-19 linked to poor gut health

Research has uncovered the connection between severe COVID-19 cases and GI symptoms. Poor gut health can adversely affect how the body responds to the disease, and chronic diseases are also associated with depleted gut microbiota, according to clinical evidence. Fortunately, if studies can empirically demonstrate the connection between COVID-19 severity and gut health, then microbiologists will be able to gain more insight into managing the disease and devising treatment plans. 

Gut Microbiome & COVID-19

The most common symptoms that people experience include high fevers and respiratory issues. However, studies and autopsy reports have shown a large range of affected areas of the body, including the heart, kidney, liver, spleen, and gastrointestinal tract. Hospitalized patients have reported breathing issues on top of diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. This suggests that COVID-19 can increase in severity once it reaches the GI tract.

Man sick in bed, COVID
Research has uncovered the connection between severe COVID-19 cases and GI symptoms. Poor gut health can adversely affect how the body responds to the disease. (Photo by cottonbro from Pexels)

In an open-access journal of the American Society for Microbiology, research by microbiologist Heenam Stanley Kim, Ph.D., suggests that poor gut health is linked to a greater risk of COVID-19 and the need for hospitalization. This risk can also increase with age and chronic conditions, and these factors are also connected to an imbalance of gut barrier integrity. With poor gut health, it is more likely for pathogens to enter the cells of the intestinal lining. 

“There seems to be a clear connection between the altered gut microbiome and severe COVID-19,” says Kim in a statement

Bacterial Diversity & COVID Symptoms

The connection between gut health and COVID-19 has not been proven through observation. Researchers, however, have argued that poor gut health can lead to more severe infections.

A study on COVID-19 patients in Singapore, for example, found half of them had a detectable level of coronavirus within their stool. Only half of those patients, however, actually experienced GI symptoms. This study suggests that COVID-19 may not cause problems once it reaches the GI tract. The deciding factor for symptom development, therefore, is the patient’s gut health.

Studies have also shown a reduced amount of bacterial diversity within gut samples of those with COVID-19 compared to samples of healthy people. Coronavirus has been associated with the depletion of beneficial bacteria, such as ones that produce fatty acid to reinforce the gut barrier. The disease also encourages the development of harmful bacteria. This imbalance can also be seen with influenza A infection, but the viruses differ in their impact on the gut’s composition.

Kim said that he started analyzing gut health studies after realizing that developed countries with strong medical infrastructures, such as the United States and nations in Western Europe, were struggling the most with the virus. The “western diet” often is low in fiber, and fiber-deficient diets are one of the main reasons for altered gut microbiomes and chronic diseases. 

If future studies show that gut health affects COVID-19’s severity, Kim believes that clinicians should use the connection for finding better strategies for managing the disease. There may be treatments available for reducing the severity of the coronavirus against depleted gut microbiota. Eating more fiber, for instance, may lower the severity of COVID-19. The problem with gut health, however, goes beyond COVID-19. 

“The whole world is suffering from this COVID-19 pandemic,” says Kim, “but what people do not realize is that the pandemic of damaged gut microbiomes is far more serious now.” 

Find this study in the mBIO.

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