Without the billions of microbes in our body, it would be very difficult to break down essential nutrients, receive signals from the body about our hunger or satiety, or keep our immune system under control! The body’s microbiome is a vital part of our immune system; about 70% of our immune cells are located in the intestines.
The microbiome of each individual is unique, like a fingerprint. The different bacterial species and the proportions in which they are found are different for each person, and this has made the study of the intestinal microbiome and its role in health and disease difficult. However, researchers are increasingly focusing not only on the species that make up the gut microbiome, but also on the overall balance of certain types of bacteria, how they work as part of our immune system, and the microbiome’s ability to produce certain chemicals.
The microbiome protects us from infections in many ways and even trains our immune cells! It also plays a very important role in regulating inflammation and how our immune system works. There have been many studies in the last decade that show how the health of the intestinal microbiome can affect lung health and immune responses to respiratory infections.
People at High Risk for COVID-19 Infections and Their Microbiome.
Researchers around the world are now investigating a compelling hypothesis that the gut microbiome plays a key role in protecting people from the worst symptoms of COVID, and how certain microbiome imbalances make some people more sensitive to severe symptoms.
People at highest risk for COVID-19 infection include people with diabetes and metabolic syndrome (the medical term for a combination of diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity). All of these conditions tend to be associated with particular imbalances in the microbiome, which contribute to inflammation – both locally in the gut and systemically in the body.
For example, inflammation in adipose tissue (body fat) is the basis of medically defined obesity. Although there are many factors that affect body weight, it is becoming increasingly clear how the microbiome often plays a key role – by influencing the regulation of blood sugar and nutrient absorption, as well as inflammation.
In recent years, research has shown that a healthy gut microbiome helps protect us from excessive inflammatory activity in the body. A study launched in late April 2020 by researchers in China revealed that the severity of COVID-19 symptoms can be predicted by a set of proteins present in human blood. The researchers correlated these proteins with the intestinal microbiome and identified which groups of intestinal bacteria were associated with these proteins and which therefore constitute a risk profile for symptoms of COVID-19 infection. The size of the study was relatively small (31 patients with COVID-19 and a group of 990 healthy people), but these preliminary findings are another strong indication that the health of the intestinal microbiome is a key factor in the severity of symptoms.
One of the most dangerous symptoms of COVID-19 infection is the “cytokine storm.” This is an overproduction of certain chemical messengers in the body, which leads to a kind of hyperinflammation that can be fatal. Inflammatory cytokines are regulated by the intestinal microbiome.
According to several reports, patients with type II diabetes and metabolic syndrome could have an up to ten times higher risk of dying when contracting COVID-19. This finding is believed to be due to the state of inflammation in the body that predisposes them to a high release of cytokines. Not only people in this category are at risk of severe symptoms in the case of a viral infection. In my practice, I notice this state of high inflammation even in much younger people who do not yet have an established diagnosis. So the severity of the inflammation occurs over time, gradually, and the earlier it is detected, the faster and more effective it can be corrected.
Causes of an Unbalanced Microbiome.
Our diet and lifestyle are major factors in determining the balance and function of microbial species, which make up the intestinal microbiome.
The modern diet is rich in sugars, processed carbohydrates and fats. It is low in the types of foods that feed a healthy microbiome and is rich in foods that feed the bacteria that contribute to inflammation. The modern diet is also poor in variety – people eat the same limited number of vegetables, fruits and grains each week – and this means that their microbiome is becoming even less diverse.
In recent years, research has shown that the microbiome becomes unbalanced as we age. Populations of bacterial species in the microbiome that protect against inflammation are declining, while those that contribute to inflammation are growing.
Among the factors that have been determined as the main causes in the alteration of the intestinal microbiome are:
Processed, toxic, restrictive food, and incorrect for your unique metabolism
Rising cesarean section rates
Reduction or elimination of breastfeeding
Use of antibacterial hygiene products
Lack of exercise
How Can You Rebalance Your Microbiome?
In general, people who introduce sources of prebiotics and probiotics (from food and supplements) and consume an adequate amount of fiber from vegetables and fruits, a lot of “colors” (polyphenols in foods that feed beneficial bacteria), traditionally fermented foods and healthy oils, will enrich their intestinal flora with beneficial bacteria.
Researchers in the United States are looking at the role of prebiotics in preventing hospitalization of COVID-19 patients in a clinical trial. A comprehensive article recently published in a Dutch medical journal also highlighted the potential of using nutritional strategies, including probiotics and prebiotics, to support recovery from COVID-19, but also as a way to protect people in the medical community.
Often, however, this is not enough to restore balance in the digestive system; many other aspects must be considered including: consumption of a diet suitable for the metabolic type, proper intake of nutrients from supplements, biochemical balancing, healing of “leaky gut” syndrome, elimination of intestinal pathogens, reduction of inflammation and toxicity.
The gastrointestinal tract is the main way in which the body eliminates metabolic wastes and dangerous chemicals. Intestinal imbalances such as chronic constipation, practically poison the body with pathogenic bacteria and toxic substances continuously. Ensuring proper bowel motility is therefore essential. For this, not only the digestive balance must be resolved, but also the function of the gallbladder and liver.
Other beneficial and important actions for maintaining a healthy microbiome that you can take are: avoiding medical interventions that cause dysbiosis (imbalance in the intestinal flora), avoiding processed foods, food additives, pesticides, pollution, avoiding restrictive diets for long periods, use of antibiotics and milk powder (for infants). As far as personal and household hygiene products, opt for natural ones, based on essential oils and avoid conventional products with synthetic and toxic antimicrobial substances.
Regarding the correct and precise detection of the presence of pathogenic and beneficial microorganisms, as well as the state of the intestinal microbiome, I use in my practice the GI Ecologix test. The result can thus bring many important clinical information that cannot be detected otherwise and contribute to the development of a targeted intestinal healing plan.
In my health program, restoring balance in the gut microbiome takes a center stage and I apply it to every person I work with, regardless of the conditions present. Because the long-term benefit will certainly be present in all cases.
For specialized consultation for your health problems you can schedule an appointment here.
Wanglong et al (25 April 2020). “Gut Microbiome May Underlie the Predisposition of Healthy Individuals to COVID-19.” MedRxiv, , 2020.04.22.20076091.
Bornstein et al (02 April 2020) Endocrine and metabolic link to coronavirus infection Nature Reviews Endocrinology 16: 297–298
Dhar et al (13 May 2020) Gut microbiota and Covid-19- possible link and implications Virus Res. 198018
Brodin et al (2015) Variation in the human immune system is largely driven by non-heritable influences Cell 160(0): 37–47