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The Leaky Gut Connection for COVID-19 Long Haulers

If you follow the news, you know that patients with the most severe and long-lasting COVID-19 symptoms are those with underlying chronic medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, lung disease, and neurological disorders.

The common denominator of all these conditions is inflammation, the result of immune system dysfunction that can often be traced to an underlying condition called increased intestinal permeability (aka leaky gut or leaky gut syndrome).

The Leaky Gut Connection for COVID-19 Long Haulers

Taking a step back for a moment, the quotation that, “all disease begins in the gut” is commonly attributed to Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician commonly referred to as the Father of Medicine.

And modern medicine mostly dismissed that claim — until recently. Today, most medical experts recognize the integral relationship between the gut and the immune system and the vital role that the gut plays in defending the body against infectious diseases.

By several estimates, about 70 percent of the immune system is attributable to the gut. Even medical experts who doubt that number admit that gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT) comprises most of the immune system.

In addition, many beneficial bacteria and other microorganisms that live in the gut —far outnumbering the human cells of the body — contribute to fighting pathogens (disease-causing viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites).

So, it came as no surprise when medical researchers, who observed extreme variations in the severity of symptoms among COVID-19 patients, suspected a possible connection between gut health and COVID-19.

Leaky Gut as an Underlying Condition for COVID Long-haulers

A leaky gut is a digestive condition where tiny gaps form in the intestinal walls, allowing pathogens and substances that shouldn’t pass through those walls to escape into the bloodstream. This triggers an immune response, which causes inflammation and, in some cases, can trigger autoimmunity — a condition in which the immune system attacks healthy cells of the body.

What causes a leaky gut? Gut dysbiosis is an imbalance of beneficial and harmful bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract often related to poor diet, certain medications (especially antibiotics), stress, toxins, and certain lifestyle factors (such as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and lack of exercise).

Think of the connection between gut health and increased severity and duration of COVID-19 symptoms as a domino effect: Poor diet, certain medications, stress, toxins, and lifestyle factors cause dysbiosis, which causes leaky gut, which triggers immune dysfunction, causing inflammation and weakening the body’s ability to defend itself against pathogens.

The resulting inflammation makes the gut lining more permeable, allowing viruses to pass through the lining into the bloodstream and infect numerous organs, including the heart and lungs.

It’s no wonder that people with underlying medical conditions experience more severe and long-lasting COVID-19 symptoms.

Exploring the Connection Between Gut Dysbiosis, Leaky Gut, and the Severity and Duration of COVID-19 Symptoms

There was a recent article in the Journal of the American Society for Microbiology that was titled, “Do an Altered Gut Microbiota and an Associated Leaky Gut Affect COVID-19 Severity?

The article summarizes the “accumulating evidence that supports the hypothesis that an altered gut microbiota and its associated leaky gut may contribute to the onset of gastrointestinal symptoms and occasionally to additional multiorgan complications that may lead to severe illness by allowing leakage of the causative coronavirus into the circulatory system.”

From a functional medicine perspective and our own clinical observations here at BioDesign Wellness Center, the evidence is not surprising. We often see patients at our Tampa Functional Medicine practice with irritable bowel syndrome who test positive for gut dysbiosis, inflammation, and leaky gut. Specifically, their lab results often show the following:

  • Microbiota showing low levels of Faecalbacterium prausnitzii — a beneficial bacteria that reside in the colon and produces butyrate, which has anti-inflammatory properties and promotes gut health.
  • Elevated calprotectin — an indicator of gut inflammation.
  • Elevated zonulin — a protein that modulates the permeability of the tight junctions between the cells that form the walls of the digestive tract. Excessive zonulin significantly increases the permeability of the intestines.

Additionally, it is well known that the coronavirus is present in the fecal matter of infected individuals and can be transmitted through fecal shedding. So, it’s possible that infected people with leaky gut may pass the virus through the intestinal lining, where it re-enters the bloodstream instead of being eliminated completely through the feces. When it enters the bloodstream, the virus can be spread quickly throughout the body to vital organs, including the heart and lungs.

Although the evidence does not draw a conclusive connection between altered microbiota, leaky gut, and the coronavirus, we know with certainty that leaky gut — whether it’s the root cause or aggravating factor — is related to inflammation and immune system dysfunction. Here at BioDesign Wellness, we can check for leaky gut and altered gut microbiota by running a stool test from the Diagnostic Solutions Lab. We have treatments that address issues revealed by the lab results.

Restoring Gut Health and Supporting Healthy Immune Function

Leaky gut and COVID-19 complications seem to go hand in hand, so our treatment approach for patients who become seriously ill or have symptoms that persist beyond a couple of weeks (so-called long haulers) focuses on restoring gut health to minimizing inflammation and supporting healthy immune function — this is a tenant of functional medicine.

We covered our treatments for lingering COVID-19 symptoms in a previous post titled “Treatments for COVID-19 ‘Long Haulers’ in Tampa.” Additionally, if your lab results indicate dysbiosis, gut inflammation, or elevated zonulin, we can address these issues with the following treatments:

  • Next-generation probiotics that are high in butyrate-producing gut microbes — butyric acid — are produced by many beneficial gut bacteria through the fermentation of dietary fiber. They play a pivotal role in protecting and restoring the mucus membranes that line the walls of the digestive tract.
  • High doses of butyrate are taken orally.
  • Increased dietary fiber provides the food that butyrate-producing gut microbes need to manufacture butyrate.

If you tested positive for COVID-19 and are experiencing symptoms that are more severe or persist longer than a couple of weeks, we encourage you to consult with a functional medicine practice to explore treatment alternatives. To discuss your case with us, call our office: (813) 445-7770.

Most conventional treatments include antiviral medication, bed rest, pain relievers, corticosteroids (to reduce inflammation), and blood thinners (to prevent blood clots).

What’s missing is any treatment that addresses gut dysbiosis and leaky gut. And until gut health is restored, your symptoms are likely to linger for longer than necessary. In addition, your body will likely continue to be more vulnerable than it should be to infections from variants or other pathogens.

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Disclaimer: The information in this blog post about increased intestinal permeability’s connection in COVID-19 long haulers and other high-risk populations is provided for general informational purposes only and may not reflect current medical thinking or practices. No information contained in this post should be construed as medical advice from the medical staff at BioDesign Wellness Center, Inc., nor is this post intended to be a substitute for medical counsel on any subject matter. No reader of this post should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this post without seeking the appropriate medical advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a licensed medical professional in the recipient’s state, country or other appropriate licensing jurisdiction.