Just about everyone would say that being sick is downright unpleasant. We’ve all felt a little “under the weather” and have experienced the feelings of sickness and unrelenting fatigue that come with “catching a bug.” But what happens when these troublesome feelings persist – lingering for months after the initial infection?
This is the unpleasant and unfortunate reality of a growing number of people struggling with the residual effects of a COVID-19 infection. While we still have more questions than answers when it comes to treating the lingering effects of COVID, there’s mounting evidence linking these prolonged symptoms to the delicate ecosystem of microorganisms that reside in your gut.
Today we’re going to explore the fascinating link between COVID’s long term effects and the gut microbiome. Let’s dive in.
What Exactly Is the Gut Microbiome?
Within your digestive tract, there are trillions of microscopic microorganisms that make themselves at home. This collective ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, and viruses residing in your gut is known as your microbiome.
While the idea of trillions of microbes taking up residence in your body might seem unsettling at first, the truth about these tiny invaders is a little more complicated than that. You see, while some microbes are in fact disease-causing and dangerous, many of these microbial species are critical to your health. They play an intricate role in everything from your immune function to your mood.
But the microbes living in your gut are sensitive, and this harmonious balance can easily be thrown off balance – creating a condition known as dysbiosis.
Gut Dysbiosis Definition and Symptoms
So what is dysbiosis exactly? In simplest terms, gut dysbiosis is a disruption in the balance of the microorganisms that make up your microbiome. That means there’s a low population of beneficial bacteria and an overgrowth of harmful strains of microbes.
Some intestinal dysbiosis symptoms can include:1
- Gas and bloating
- Diarrhea and/or constipation
- Abdominal pain or discomfort
- Acid reflux
But these symptoms aren’t the only side effects of gut dysbiosis. If left unchecked this alteration in your microbiome can have far-reaching effects on your health.
Health Problems Associated With Gut Dysbiosis
Because the health of your gut is so intricately integrated with every facet of your overall health, it’s no surprise that an imbalanced gut microbiome can have monumental long term effects such as:
- Neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s
- Mood disorders including depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder
- Inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis
- Obesity and metabolic disorders
While the outcomes of chronic gut dysbiosis have been well defined, it’s important to note that the exact make-up of this imbalance is not necessarily the same in each individual. You see, there’s no such thing as a “perfect” or “ideal” gut microbiome – each individual’s digestive ecosystem is unique. While no microbiome is identical, the truth is, these unique and fragile ecosystems that make up our microbiome can be easily disrupted.
One way your microbiome can be thrown into disarray is from a viral infection. The long-term effects of a viral infection are on full-display right now, as more and more people infected with COVID-19 are becoming what’s known as COVID long-haulers.
What Are COVID Long-Haulers?
For some people, contracting the COVID-19 virus results in a short-term infection that passes and resolves without any lingering effects. But for others, this viral infection can drag on and on – with long-term residual symptoms lingering for months after first getting the virus. These individuals who continue to struggle with a barrage of symptoms long after the COVID virus has supposedly been cleared are known as COVID-19 long haulers.2
So why does COVID-19 result in these lingering symptoms in some people but not others? While we may not have an entirely clear picture, we do know that a viral infection like COVID-19 can cause a domino effect, creating a massive shift in the balance of your immune system – and subsequently your whole body that goes something like this:3,4,5
- Viral latency: Once you contract the virus, it can lay dormant in your body – dodging detection by your immune system.
- Persistent immune mediator production: While your immune system can’t directly identify and target the COVID-19 virus, it still senses an invader and triggers low-level inflammation by releasing pro-inflammatory mediators while hunting for the stealthy intruder. Over time this depletes your immune system and diminishes its ability to regulate itself.
- Decreased function of macrophages: Macrophages are a type of blood cell designed to engulf and remove cells infected with the virus. As your immune system continues to ramp up inflammation searching for an invader it can’t seem to find, the function of your macrophages is inevitably depressed. This furthers the vicious cycle of immune system burn-out.
- T-cell interference: T-cells help control whether your immune system ramps inflammation up or down. As your immune system continues to spiral further and further out of balance, your T-cells become confused. They start signalling your body to continue ramping up inflammation and throwing it even further out of whack.
- Mitochondrial burn-out: As the COVID-19 virus conceals itself within your cells, it’s able to manipulate the function of your cells in a strategic way to enhance its ability to replicate. One way it accomplishes this is by funneling energy from your mitochondria (the power source of your cells). This essentially drains your own cells’ power – leaving them deflated and burnt out.
This process causes your immune system to go haywire which subsequently causes a ripple effect throughout the rest of your body – particularly within your gut microbiome.
Gut Bacteria and COVID-19
Some of the hallmark symptoms of an acute COVID-19 infection are lung complications – ranging from a mild cough to full blown pneumonia and even respiratory failure. In fact, the virus that causes COVID-19 is officially known as SARS-COV-2 – with the “SARS” representing the abbreviation for “sudden acute respiratory syndrome.”6 But the COVID-19 virus doesn’t just stop at your respiratory system.
You see, your lung health is directly related to your gut health via a phenomenon known as your gut-lung axis. Your gut-lung axis is a bidirectional system in which the metabolites and endotoxins that come from the microbes in your gut directly impact your lungs and vice-versa.7 This means that an acute infection with COVID-19 can not only affect your lungs, but can also wreak havoc on your gut microbiome – causing a spike in strains of harmful microbes and a deficiency in beneficial ones.
More and more research is finding that this disruption in the microbiome might just be the key to understanding why COVID long-haulers suffer with residual symptoms.
Could Gut Dysbiosis Be the Cause of COVID Long-Haulers Symptoms?
According to some emerging studies, those struggling with long-lasting COVID symptoms have been found to have a distinct and specific gut microbiota signature.8,9 That means that individuals who experience long-term effects after an infection with COVID-19 have an identifiable shift in the balance of their microbiome. In particular, these individuals have been found to have an increase in harmful opportunistic microbes such as:10
Along with a spike in “bad” microbes, these COVID long-haulers have simultaneously been found to have a decrease in beneficial microbes such as:10
This information might just be the key to understanding the long term effects of COVID, and most importantly – what we can do about it. Because if we can identify dysbiosis as an underlying cause of symptoms, then we can begin working on re-balancing the microbiome and healing the gut.
How to Better Balance Gut Bacteria After COVID
So how exactly can you begin balancing your microbiome and healing your gut? By taking a big-picture holistic approach and integrating lifestyle changes, including:
- Probiotics: Incorporating a high-quality daily probiotic is one of the most effective and simple ways to ensure you’re re-introducing beneficial bacteria to your gut. Daily probiotics also provide continued support to these crucial microbes. Another favorite of mine is the new Spore Probiotic with IG!
- Plenty of gut-supporting nutrients: Your gut relies on certain compounds and nutrients to function properly and heal – particularly when trying to bounce back from dysbiosis. Two of my favorite gut-supporting supplements are collagen to help reinforce the lining of your intestinal tract and Gut Calm or Gut Shield in yummy chocolate to bolster your gut lining while supporting a diverse and thriving microbiome.
- A gut-friendly diet: Probiotics and gut-supporting nutrients are a waste if your diet doesn’t also support gut health. Focus on quality foods like fresh vegetables and fruits, high-quality proteins, and healthy fats – while also minimizing inflammatory processed foods.
- A lower overall toxic burden: An accumulation of harmful toxins can wreak havoc on your gut – breaking down your intestinal barrier, promoting dysbiosis, and skyrocketing overall inflammation. Taking steps to reduce your exposure to toxins while simultaneously enhancing your own natural detoxification pathways can help your body focus on healing and rebalancing your gut. Click here to learn more about the exact steps you can take to begin lowering your toxic burden today.
- Ways to minimize and manage stress: Just like you have a gut-lung axis, you also have a gut-brain axis. Meaning stress, worry, and negative thoughts can put a serious damper on your gut health. While you certainly can’t avoid all stress, taking steps to minimize it while incorporating healthy ways to manage the unavoidable stress can play a pivotal role in helping your gut heal post COVID. Some tried-and-true ways to cope with stress include working out, meditation, connecting with a loved one, or simply spending some time in the great outdoors.
- Seek out the guidance of a functional and integrative medicine practitioner: At this point, the lingering symptoms seen in COVID long-haulers are complicated, and quite honestly, not very well understood. So if you’re concerned that you or a loved one is struggling with long-lasting COVID symptoms, it’s crucial to get support.
While all of these steps are important to recovering and balancing your gut after COVID, I cannot overemphasize the importance of working with an experienced functional and integrative medicine practitioner. They will help you identify the root cause of your symptoms and come up with a comprehensive plan to get you on the road to recovery. If you’re new to the functional medicine approach, head over and read my article all about how to choose the right functional medicine doctor for you by clicking right here.
Are You Struggling With Lingering Symptoms After COVID-19?
We are just beginning to understand the true impact of not only COVID-19, but also our gut microbiome. While we still have much to learn, there’s no arguing the fact that your microbiome and gut health have a monumental role in your health and ability to recover from disease.
So if you’re concerned that you or a loved one may be struggling with COVID long-hauler symptoms, I encourage you to seek out the guidance of a functional medicine practitioner and put healing your gut at the top of your priority list. Prioritizing your gut health is crucial to enhancing your overall well-being, fortifying your defenses against infectious microorganisms, and giving your body the support it needs to begin healing.
If you enjoyed this article and are looking for some easy-to-implement ways to show your gut some love and prioritize your health, head over and take a scroll through my blog. It’s full of helpful and in-depth articles to take the overwhelm out of healthy living. And if you want my very best advice and resources delivered straight to your inbox, you can sign up for my weekly newsletter by entering your name and email address in the form below.
Now it’s time to hear from you. Were you surprised to learn about the link between COVID long-haulers and the microbiome? What steps are you taking to keep your gut happy and healthy? Leave your questions and thoughts in the comments below!
- Dysbiosis – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics
- The tragedy of long COVID – Harvard Health
- Chronic viral infections in myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) | Journal of Translational Medicine | Full Text (biomedcentral.com)
- Possible Causes | Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) | CDC
- Mitochondrial dynamics and viral infections: A close nexus – ScienceDirect
- Early Large Dose Intravenous Vitamin C is the Treatment of Choice for 2019-nCov Pneumonia (orthomolecular.org)
- COVID-19 and Gut Microbiota: A Potential Connection (nih.gov)
- Frontiers | The Unique Impact of COVID-19 on Human Gut Microbiome Research | Medicine (frontiersin.org)
- Gut microbiota composition reflects disease severity and dysfunctional immune responses in patients with COVID-19 | Gut (bmj.com)
- Persistent intestinal dysbiosis after SARS-CoV-2 infection in Brazilian patients | Research Square
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The product mentioned in this article are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information in this article is not intended to replace any recommendations or relationship with your physician. Please review references sited at end of article for scientific support of any claims made.