Hang on, is there a link between gut health and long Covid?

If you’ve had Covid and are still experiencing dodgy gut symptoms, it’s not just you – there may actually be a link between poor gut health and long Covid. Writer Anna Bartter investigates. 

Remember way back at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020 when shoppers were panic buying toilet roll and we all thought they’d lost the plot? Turns out, they might not have been way off the mark.

We’ve known for a while that many people suffer gut-related issues when they have Covid. Studies show that up to 85% of acute Covid patients frequently experience gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, indigestion and diarrhoea. 

43-year-old integrative therapist Abbey Robb has struggled with her gut health since she caught the virus over 18 months ago: “I’ve always had a bit of a dodgy stomach, but since catching Covid, everything has really gone haywire. I developed serious aversions to a range of foods, and I still struggle to eat chicken and other proteins without feeling nauseous.”

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These days, there’s an increasing awareness of how important gut health is to overall health. A diverse gut microbiome is crucial for a healthy, functioning immune system and experts now believe improving your gut health could not only help prevent you from catching Covid in the first place, but also contribute significantly to long Covid recovery.

According to the Office for National Statistics, an estimated two million people are living with long Covid in the UK, and the symptoms (for some) are grim. With Covid showing no signs of being out of our lives anytime soon, this number is predicted to rise and the long-term implications are huge.

One in five long Covid sufferers have not returned to work since they contracted the virus, and many people living with it are simply unable to go about their daily lives. My own sister-in-law has been struggling since her second infection in January this year, and says that her whole system “seems to be on overdrive”.

“I’m exhausted all the time, but I can only sleep for two hours and feel constantly on edge. I feel like my body is malfunctioning and I have no idea how long I’m going to feel like this,” she told me. 

Dr Claire Shortt, lead scientist at Food Marble explains that our gut might be the key to managing these symptoms: “The link between gut health and long Covid is quite apparent, and many people with Covid experience gastrointestinal symptoms. In addition, several comorbidities (the simultaneous presence of two or more diseases in a patient) linked to severe Covid such as asthma and dementia are also associated with changes to the gut microbiome.” 

So, how is catching a respiratory illness related to the gut? Nutritional therapist Anna Mapson tells Stylist: “While we’re still learning about Covid and how it affects people, we know that it’s a multi-organ illness. We have mucus membranes in the gut which protect our body from invading pathogens (in this case, the Covid-19 virus) and our immune system ‘hangs out’ in these membranes, waiting to fire into action.

“When the immune system is fired up to respond to an attack, immune cells are drawn to the area under attack, releasing inflammatory cytokines to try and deal with the virus. This can cause localised irritation, such as diarrhoea, cramps and changes to the gut bacteria.” 

The link between covid and gut symptoms is now established, but how that metabolises in different people is entirely individual.

Abbey Robb developed severe IBS-D (irritable bowel syndrome with associated diarrhoea) following her Covid infection, leaving her unable to eat if she needed to go out and her indigestion became so bad that she ended up requiring an endoscopy. She now takes Omeprazole [a medicine to treat heartburn and indigestion] daily to manage her reflux.

This wasn’t just coincidence, as researchers across the globe have started to notice that Covid patients were suffering from dysbiosis – an imbalance between friendly and unfriendly gut bacteria levels. This was particularly noticeable in patients who reported gastrointestinal symptoms.

Can probiotics help with Covid-related gut issues?

Lots of people have reported an improvement in symptoms after taking pre- and probiotics either through their diet or via supplements. The King’s College Zoe App, which many of us used daily throughout the pandemic to report symptoms, showed that people taking regular probiotic supplements had a lower risk of catching Covid. 

As with any regime, you won’t notice changes straight away (and indeed, there’s not enough research out there to definitely say pre/postbiotics will help for sure anyway). But if you are keen to try them, perseverance is key. Since probiotics don’t remain in the gut for long, little and often is best.  

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How to eat to beat Covid gut problems

Diet-wise, clinical nutritionist Nishtha Patel advises eating a variety of plants, vegetables, nuts and seeds to help increase diversity in the gut. “They all contain sources of fibre which is crucial to the formation of good gut bacteria. Try to eat the rainbow and include pre- and probiotic rich foods. These provide the fuel needed for good bacteria to grow.”

Your gut is unique to you, so it’s important that, alongside the usual advice (get enough sleep, don’t smoke, reduce your stress) to focus on what works for you. Robb used a process of elimination: “Some foods weren’t doing me any favours. A combination of collagen supplements, l-glutamine and a few dates each day has really calmed my gut down and everything feels a lot more settled.”

Covid or not, it makes good sense to take care of your gut. Making a few simple changes can bring a host of long-term health benefits. Research into long Covid is ongoing, but you certainly won’t be doing any harm in being more aware of your gut health.  

Images: Getty

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