The COVID-19 virus is still raging through the human race. It is 10 times more lethal than the influenza, making it the worst pandemic in recorded history. It had attacked so quickly, with weapons and strategies so new, doctors and nurses have been bravely holding the frontline. Tirelessly discovering and designing the weapons, themselves, against the adversary. It has been 6 months since the first case was reported. Now, due to many sleepless hours of research, international collaboration, and many lives lost, discoveries are being found on how to defeat this miniscule tyrant. One offensive strategy might be found in our intestines, using probiotics.
The virus is a respiratory virus, causing respiratory complications to its victims. However, a surprising discovery is that the virus could be transmitted through faecal contamination. People who have recovered from the illness, showing 10% of virus genetic material through standard samples, still showed 50% viral genetic material in their faecal matter. The virus seems to be surviving in the intestines of its host, even after illness and treatment, for up to 37 days. This is why, after falling ill and recovering from the virus, the distressed victims should remain in isolation for an additional 3 weeks.
This behaviour by the virus is unexpected. How is it surviving in the gut? Why is it surviving in the gut? Answers are starting to be discovered. A very good article summarising these new discoveries was written by Dimitri Jacques in the French journal Alternative Santé (Annuaire Thérapeutes). The article was subsequently translated into English and published by Arnaud Savarin on LinkedIN.
The COVID-19 virus is covered with proteins, called spike proteins. The spike proteins are used to attached to host cells, by binding to very specific proteins covering the host cell. One of the main spike proteins of the COVID-19 is called the S1 protein, which bind to an enzyme called ACE2. Binding to the human ACE2 is like medieval soldiers infiltrating a castle wall using ladders or mobile scaffolds, it is the virus’s way of forcing itself into a well defended fort. The ACE2 is obviously found in the epithelial cells of the lungs, hence the respiratory complications; it is also found in the cells of veins and arteries, and also the epithelial cells of the small intestines.
And here, the answer starts to unravel. If the small intestines contain ACE2, is the virus also infecting the small intestines? Possibly, but with little to no symptoms, perfect for a good hide out after infecting the lungs.
Here is where things get very interesting. The way the virus attaches to the lung seem to be changing, evolving all the time. This is the explanation on how the virus became infectious to humans, when it seemed to be a normal virus for other animals. By changing constantly, the probability that the S1 protein changed sufficiently to bind to human lung cells became a reality in November 2019. But, and very interestingly, the way it seems to bind to the cells of the small intestines, seems to be very constant, unchanging.
The small intestines is a complicated organ, working very closely with resident microorganisms (the gut microbiome) to maintain functionality, efficient digestion and nutrient absorption, and even protection. The gut epithelial cells are usually covered by a thick mucous layer, easing the passage of digesting food, but also preventing infection by pathogenic bacteria and viruses. The formation of this mucous layer is directly related to the bacterial population distribution – a healthy gut microbial population induces the cells of the gut to produce the mucous layer. An un-balanced gut microbiome results in a poor mucous layer, and therefore a high risk of gut infection and gut maladies.
Chinese doctors and scientists directly witnessed these findings with COVID-19 patients. Testing the microbiome of faecal samples from patients who died and who survived, revealed that all patients who died had an unbalanced gut microbiome. Their levels of the good bacteria Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria were low, and in contrary the opportunistic bacteria, Corynebacteirum and Ruthenibacterium, were elevated.
The immune system of the small intestines is also important in regulating the general immune system of the body. Therefore, lower gut immune system results in a lowered response to the general immune system. Elderly often have out-of-balance gut microbiota, whereas the youth have more higher levels of Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli. This concept, therefore, helps to explain the fact that the COVID-19 virus is a more critical infection in the elderly.
Getting deeper into the findings, there seems to be a link to a lung pathogenic bacteria, called Prevotella, and the COVID-19. This pathogen has been often found in high numbers in the small intestines in the patients who have passed away due to the COVID-19 virus. What this actually means is being researched, but it definitely is indicating a link between gut health and severity of the COVID-19 infection.
Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria are very well studied bacteria, and are the stars of the show in most probiotic products. They are known to be vital in healthy gut systems, and a sign of overall good health. As a product developer for a probiotic and beneficial microbe company, the articles mentioned above, and including this article, is not saying that by having a good gut microbiota is a cure for the virus, or, that it will prevent infection. But, by looking after your gut, one could possibly change the outcome of a COVID-19 infection, between mild symptoms or critical care. It is no wonder, then, that the Chinese doctors have added probiotics to their cocktail of treatment medications of COVID-19 patients – restoring the right balance of gut microbes does help in the successful recovery from the virus.
How do we maintain a good gut microbiota, and possibly avoid critical symptoms? Eat fibre rich food, vegetables, fruit, add fermented foods into your diet, consume pre-biotics (foods known to promote healthy gut bacteria), daily take probiotics or fermented products (which contains many different types of probiotic bacteria), exercise, and avoid carbohydrate rich diets and processed foods. But, for now, listen to social distancing regulations, wear a mask outside the home, be safe, and maybe take this time to start fermenting your own food.