A leaky gut may be the link between poor gut health and COVID-19 severity

WASHINGTON — The most common symptoms of COVID-19 resemble the common cold or flu. In other patients however, gastrointestinal (GI) tract symptoms are also common. Could people with existing gut conditions be at a higher risk for severe COVID-19? A new study finds the answer to that question is yes and the problem may be in the genes the gut and other organs share.

Many patients have suffered nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting, suggesting that the virus doesn’t just target the lungs. Research has shown that GI and other internal organs are full of the ACE-2 receptors, which the virus uses as a door to infect cells. Korea University’s Heenam Stanley Kim recently tried to answer this question by examining existing research on COVID-19 and gut health. His study discovered plenty of evidence suggesting that poor gut health does make a COVID-19 infection worse.

A leaky gut can allow COVID to spread

Based on a thorough review of existing research, Kim hypothesizes that imbalances in the gut microbiome cause a leaky gut. This helps the SARS-CoV-2 virus because a weak gut barrier can’t stop the pathogen from crossing over to other internal organs. Those organs are full of ACE-2 receptors and are at high risk for damage by the virus.

Despite the findings, the connection still isn’t completely clear. Some people with coronavirus in their stool never experience GI symptoms. Several chronic conditions however, including diabetes and obesity, do have a connection to both microbiome imbalances and more severe COVID-19 cases. Previous studies uncovered that people with severe COVID-19 infections lack beneficial bacteria that produces molecules which keep the GI tract lining strong and leak-free.

There are a lot of puzzle pieces that fit together, but there is still one piece missing. Kim says researchers need to find empirical evidence that clearly shows a connection between the gut microbiome, poor gut health, and COVID-19 severity.

If scientists find that final puzzle piece, Kim suggests treatments targeting the gut could help people with more severe COVID-19. He also points out that boosting gut health by eating more fiber could not only help prevent severe COVID-19 symptoms, but also prevent more common and deadly chronic conditions such as diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and others which will still be around once the pandemic passes.

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

These findings are published in mBio.

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