How Covid-19 can take a toll on your gut health

Science is finding links between gut health and Covid-19. But simple lifestyle changes could help increase the healthy bacteria you need for better wellbeing.

As if the pandemic hasn’t given us enough to worry about, research is now finding there may be a link between the health of your gut and Covid.

While a runny nose, sore throat, headaches and fatigue are common symptoms of Covid, the disease’s impact on the gut is becoming clearer as we learn more about it.

Clinical nutritionist Lee Holmes has seen an influx of clients of all ages suffering gut health problems since the pandemic began.

“Covid-19 can enter the digestive system through an enzyme in the gut called angiotensin-converting enzyme 2, which can affect the gut lining, causing it to become either perforated or inflamed, which leads to a range of symptoms,” Lee says.

“I’m seeing clients suffering reflux, bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhoea, nausea and a variety of abdominal aches and pain.

“That discomfort is impacting their weight, their energy levels and definitely their mood.”

How gut health and Covid-19 are connected

In an interesting twist, it’s thought your gut bacteria can also affect how you experience Covid.

Research published in online journal Gut reveals the health of your microbiome (the variety and volume of bacteria that make up your intestinal tract) can influence Covid severity and your immune response in both the short and long term.

Scientists found several “good bacteria” missing from the gut of people with Covid infection.

They also concluded the composition of a person’s gut microbiome at the time of infection might influence whether they experience “long Covid” (long-term health effects that can last for months after the initial illness).

Perth GP Dr Joe Kosterich says viral illnesses can be worse for those with underlying health issues.

“And Covid is no exception — as shown by those with metabolic health issues who’ve had higher rates of severe Covid illness,” Dr Kosterich says.

“We have more bacterial cells in the gut than ‘human-being cells’ and the importance of the gut microbiome in metabolic health and conditions such as diabetes and heart disease is only starting to be understood.”

Common causes of gut health issues

Lee says gut issues have been exacerbated during the past two years.

Increased stress, lack of exercise and changes in diet, with people eating more take-away food and less fresh fruit and vegetables, are all taking their toll.

“The gut is the epicentre of your health, so if you’re suffering from gut issues you need to work on improving your gut microbiome, which will enhance your overall wellbeing,” Lee says.

Four easy ways to love your guts

1. Change your diet

“Avoid foods that inflame the gut including alcohol, gluten, dairy, sugar and caffeine,” Lee recommends.

“Gut-friendly foods include lightly steamed, sauteed, stewed or roasted vegetables, bone broths, fermented foods in small amounts, extra virgin olive oil and coconut oil, fibre-rich foods, sprouted grains, soaked or fermented gluten-free grains and nuts and seeds.

“Taking a pre or probiotic can boost the number of beneficial bacteria.”

2. Sleep and rest

Lee describes these as really important.

“There’s a strong gut/brain connection, and it’s thought that poor sleep has a negative influence on the diversity of your microbiome and gut health,” she says.

3. Lower your stress levels

Dietitian Rebecca Flavel says higher levels of stress are hard for your whole body, including your gut.

“Finding ways to manage your stress might help reduce uncomfortable gastrointestinal symptoms and get you back in balance,” Rebecca advises.

Try taking a daily walk, meditation or just spending time with friends and family.

Happy gut, happy you.

4. Stay hydrated

Rebecca recommends drinking water.

“Drinking plenty of water has been shown to have a beneficial effect on the mucosal lining of your intestines and can help promote the balance of good bacteria,” she explains.

Written by Liz McGrath.