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Why Your Gut Flora Might be Your Best Protection Against Coronavirus

We are in the midst of a global pandemic the likes of which this generation (barring a few who witnessed the Great Plague) has never experienced before. The entire world is in lockdown and there is fear and uncertainty everywhere.

Why is the coronavirus (better known as SARS-CoV2) dangerous? Well, frankly, it is no more dangerous than your average flu virus. So it has a mortality rate (ability to cause death) equal to, or slightly greater than, the common flu. However, what makes it dangerous is the fact that because it is a “novel” virus, it is extremely contagious. And because of this highly contagious nature of the virus, people who are sensitive to it – the elderly, those with compromised immunity and with some or the other underlying health issues – are at a high risk of getting infected that increases the chances of the infection being fatal.

So what do we do? What is the best way for us to protect ourselves from this infection. In the absence of any treatment, our immune system is our best defender yet to this novel infectious agent. 

First things first:  What is immunity?

The ability of the body to defend itself from harm causing ‘foreign bodies’ is referred to as immunity.  Our body has to clear up dust particles that we inhale, reject infections and even kill cancer cells, on a regular basis. Immunity can be of two types – innate (that which we are born with) and adaptive (that which adapts to the type of disease-causing agent and mounts an appropriate response). Innate immunity can protect us only for a short duration of time. On the other hand, adaptive immunity possesses a certain amount of ‘memory’ which makes it effective in its fight against pathogens for a longer period as compared to innate immunity. All animals, plants and even fungi on this planet possess some kind of innate immunity, whereas vertebrates have adaptive immunity as well.

Adaptive immunity is essentially the story of antibody versus antigens. Antibodies are the human systems’ natural superheroes, defending and fighting external as well as internal ‘enemies’ called antigens. Antigens can be viruses, bacteria or fungi which cause infection and disease. An antibody is also known as an immunoglobulin, and is a Y-shaped protein produced by special types of white blood cells (B lymphocytes). Our immune system comprises of millions of these antibodies. When we have a healthy immune system, it is able to safeguard us against a plethora of diseases/infections, keeping us in good shape.

What is gut flora?

Gut refers to the stomach or belly, and flora, in relation to the human body, refers to a collection of microorganisms that reside inside our gut. This bunch of bacteria, and other microorganisms is collectively called the gut microbiota or microbiome. Our gut microbiome is our most important organ; in fact, according to new studies, the microbes in our gut could predict the state of our health – sooner rather than later. Probiotics is another genre of good bacteria and yeast that can influence the composition and health of our gut microbiome.

How does gut flora build immunity?

Our digestive tract starts at the mouth and ends at the anus. Our entire digestive system is lined with bacteria (of both good and bad kinds), which function as an extra shield to the digestive system’s natural protective layer. The ‘good’ bacteria work hand-in-hand with the immune system at the level of the intestine and colon (present in the lining of both), and help fight against disease-causing bacteria or other harmful substances.

The ‘good’ bacteria multiply quickly so the ‘bad’ bacteria do not have space to grow, thereby strengthening our immunity. The mechanics of this ‘defense activity’ hasn’t been fully understood by modern science yet.  However, it is commonly regarded that gut bacteria have the ability to influence inflammation, which is an important feature of our immune response. That apart, our gut microbiome releases several advantageous chemicals including Vitamin A, which further adds to our immunity.  We are said to have maintained an ‘equilibrium’ when there is a healthy bacterial balance in our gut and we have a ‘strong’ immunity.

One more thing about immunity…

It must also be kept in mind that it is possible to ‘over-boost’ the immune system and cause potentially deadly ‘immune over-reactions’ (which can harm vital organs of the body, cause respiratory failure and even lead to death).  This is another area where a healthy gut microbiome shines – it has the ability to guard us against such potentially critical immune over-reactions (hypersensitive reactions). We must therefore only ‘support’ our immune system and be careful not to “overboost” it – since an overactive immune response can be as risky as an underactive one.

What is coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that infect animals and humans.  Coronaviruses are ‘zoonotic’ in nature, i.e., they first develop in animals and then go on to infect humans. Many coronaviruses have been identified to cause respiratory infections in humans, ranging from the common cold to grave diseases like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and COVID-19 (coronavirus).

SARS started in China in 2002 and spread worldwide but, fortunately, was contained quickly. MERS was first reported in 2012 in Saudi Arabia (all cases have been linked to the Arabian Peninsula) and has spread since then to several other countries. COVID-19 was first identified in Wuhan (China) in December 2019, and has been declared a pandemic.

Getting to know COVID-19

Let us talk about the ongoing global pandemic of COVID-19 (coronavirus) as an example. While we know of ways in which we can encounter this virus, we still do not know why, in some individuals, this virus causes a clinical infection (showing symptoms) while in others, it shows no visible signs and symptoms. Furthermore, in the majority of individuals, the symptoms are hardly severe, while in others, it causes a severe infection, leading to death.

Why and how this virus interacts with our body is still a matter of research. However, the infectious nature of this virus has something to do with a bacterium called Prevotella (usually found in our gut) according to scientists researching the origin of the disease.  Coronavirus causes Prevotella bacteria to stick to the epithelial cells – i.e., cells which line the surfaces of our body – thus abetting the onset of COVID-19 infection.

Multiple species of the Prevotella bacteria are present in the oral, vaginal and gut microbiome. Prevotella are neutral – they are neither good, nor bad. The function of Prevotella bacteria is to break down complex fibers we consume through plants. They are also frequently found in the respiratory tract of a person with anaerobic infections (anaerobic infections are caused by bacteria that live and grow when oxygen is absent), such as lung abscess, aspiration pneumonia, pulmonary empyema, chronic otitis media and sinusitis.

An alarming number of COVID-19 patients from China and Hong Kong have been detected with Prevotella in their systems in massive amounts.

Gut flora: Our first and (currently) last line of defense against coronavirus

In the absence of a vaccine, our natural immunity becomes our most powerful and reliable weapon to combat the menace of coronavirus. This is where our gut microbiome comes in. As the most important defense mechanism in our body, it can help our body put up its most credible fight against corona virus should it attack us.

There is enough evidence that suggests that COVID-19 affects individuals with gut dysfunction. This clearly means that a healthy gut microbiome can protect us from the viral infection and also dampen the severity should we get infected.

It must be noted that the density of the microbiome in our body declines as we get older, making people above a certain age vulnerable to an onslaught of corona virus. All told, if we have a healthy gut flora, our chances of getting infected with COVID-19 significantly reduces.

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