Recent COVID-19 Study: Gut Bacteria May Relate to Disease Severity

by Gabriele Amersbach
photo of scientists studying the coronavirus
Once again, gut bacteria could be the culprit in a major illness. Scientists have recently determined how ill you become with COVID-19 and how many persistent symptoms you experience is linked to the composition of your gut. Improving your gut health may be a vital step to reduce your vulnerability to the virus and other diseases.

Researchers at The Chinese University of Hong Kong found that patients who were ill with COVID-19 had a very different gut composition than those patients who were uninfected. Patients had fewer beneficial bacteria, like bifidobacteria. Even after they recovered, the study participants continued to have an unhealthy balance of bacteria in their gut. The scientists linked this poor balance, or dysbiosis, to an increased risk of long-term symptoms related to the virus. 

The most common long-term symptoms according to the CDC include:

    Less common but more serious long-term complications include:

    • Inflammation of the heart muscle
    • Lung function abnormalities
    • Acute kidney injury

    Microbiome significantly less healthy

    The Hong Kong scientists obtained blood, stool, and hospital records from 100 patients with confirmed cases of COVID-19 and from 78 people without the infection who were part of a microbiome study before the pandemic began. The research team collected an additional stool sample from 27 of the 100 patients 30 days after the patients had recovered.

    They found that the composition of the microbiome was significantly less healthy compared to that of uninfected individuals. Even 30 days after the patients had recovered, the bacteria mix was still short on beneficial bacteria known to reduce inflammation and boost the immune system.

    “This data shows that the composition of the gut microbiome and higher inflammatory markers play a role in the magnitude and severity of symptoms of people with COVID-19,” says Dr. Deanna L. Kelly, PharmD, BCPP, a professor of Psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and Director, Treatment Research Program, Maryland Psychiatric Research Center. Dr. Kelly studies the impact of microbiota (bacteria in the gut) on specific diseases.

    “By improving gut bacterial composition and reducing inflammation, we could possibly prevent poorer outcomes when people contract this virus. Prebiotics, such as Prebiotin, have been shown to increase short chain fatty acids (aiding in decreased inflammation) and could be a strategy to minimize severity of the COVID-19 infection.”

    The Key to Disease Prevention and Immune Health

    Healthy eating with vegetables

    For over two decades, scientists have demonstrated the benefits of prebiotic fiber in both prebiotic supplements and foods like asparagus, bananas, apples, anything in the onion family, whole grains, and chicory root in reducing disease risk.

    “Studies demonstrate that a diet high in fiber from whole foods, especially brightly colored fruits and vegetables, are key to disease prevention and immune health,” says Leigh Greathouse, PhD, MPH, MS, RD, an Assistant Professor in Nutrition Sciences at Baylor University and director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics.

    She continues, “Having a healthy immune system is directly linked to the diversity and function of your gut bacteria. While whole foods should always be the first choice, prebiotic fiber supplements like Prebiotin may improve the ability of your gut bacteria to support a healthy immune system.”

    Reducing inflammation

    The prebiotic fiber in whole foods is fermented in the colon and nourishes the growth of certain beneficial gastrointestinal bacteria, especially bifidobacteria and lactobacilli. These beneficial bacteria produce chemicals called short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that are important in reducing inflammation throughout the body.

    SCFAs, especially butyrate, help to strengthen the gut blood barrier. This prevents toxins from the digestive process from leaking into the blood stream (or leaky gut syndrome), which causes inflammation that is at the core of so many common diseases, possibly even COVID-19.

    “Prebiotics, such as Prebiotin, have been shown to increase short chain fatty acids (aiding in decreased inflammation) and could be a strategy to minimize severity of the COVID-19 infection.”

    – Dr. Deanna L. Kelly, PharmD, BCPP, a professor of Psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and Director, Treatment Research Program, Maryland Psychiatric Research Center

    If you can’t eat enough of these types of foods, Prebiotin® Prebiotic Fiber is an effective supplement. Prebiotin contains oligofructose-enriched inulin(called OEI) derived 100% from chicory root. This is one of the richest sources of prebiotic fiber. Studies have shown it is also fermented in the colon and improves the ratio of beneficial bacteria in your gut.

    “We can’t tell you that taking a prebiotic supplement like Prebiotin will prevent you from getting COVID-19 or any other disease,” says Dr. F. Wilson Jackson, Prebiotin Medical Director. “We can tell you that by eating a diet rich in fiber and supplementing with a product like Prebiotin, you will improve the ratio of good to bad bacteria in your gut. Emerging data suggests that a healthier mix of gut bacteria can reduce susceptibility and severity of a number of diseases.”

    A promising response to the virus

    The Hong Kong research team also support using a supplement to give the patients’ immunity a boost. According to an interview with Reuters News Service, Dr. Siew Ng of The Chinese University of Hong Kong stated that the team has created an oral formula of probiotics, the live bacteria that are fed by prebiotic fiber. In the pilot clinical study, more COVID patients who received the immunity formula achieved “complete symptom resolution.”

    This group had fewer markers for inflammation in their blood, more favorable bacteria in stool samples, and “developed neutralizing antibodies to the virus.”

    “In the pilot clinical study,  more COVID patients who received the immunity formula achieved ‘complete symptom resolution.’”

    —from an interview with Dr. Siew NG, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, on the team’s pilot study results. (Reuters News Service )

    In an interview with the BBC’s Science Focus Magazine, Dr. Ng emphasizes that from this study, the team could not determine whether the virus has caused the changes in the microbiome or whether the gut microbiome determines the course of COVID-19: “We cannot discount the possibility that composition of the gut microbiota was a product of disease, clinical management and/or medication.” More research must be done.

    However, since the hardest hit populations are those who are poor, with less access to healthy foods and more environmental hazards that degrade the microbiome, it is hard to discount that dysbiosis may be a factor in determining the impact of COVID-19 on an individual. The research team’s pilot study demonstrates patients taking a supplement to improve the bacteria mix in the gut have fewer long-term symptoms. This approach offers a promising response to the virus.

    “We know it’s too soon to tell people to change their diet and take our supplement to avoid COVID-19 or to get a more mild form of the disease,” says Prebiotin CEO Ron E. Walborn Jr. “However, decades of research with Prebiotin demonstrate that improving the healthy balance of our microbiome before, during, or after illness is a plus for our immune system and can have a significant impact on our health,”

    Supporting your personal journey to good health and well-being

    Our goal with all of our blogs and social media posts is always to educate you about how to improve your gut health and build up your immunity. We select topics that are relevant to your health at all stages of life and include the most recent research—like the work of the team of Hong Kong scientists who have found a link between the microbiome and COVID-19 risk.

    Since Prebiotin® Prebiotic Fiber has been part of numerous NIH and university-based studies, we will also keep you updated on the most recent research results that demonstrate how supplementing with Prebiotin can support your personal journey to good health and well-being.