Healthy digestion can help fight covid-19

Good gut health

Over the past decade the importance of gut health has stepped into the spotlight. Ten or so years ago the term ‘gut microbiome’ was probably rarely heard outside medical and nutrition communities. Today, it has evolved into a crucial topic when it comes to discussions about health and wellbeing, which is why I’ve blogged about digestive health extensively.

(Just in case you don’t know what the gut microbiome is, it is the “community of bacteria that lives within our digestive system with each microbe species performing specialised jobs.”

The more scientists discover about the gut microbiome, the more we know about its importance for our overall health, and especially our immune system. According to Giulia Enders, author of Gut: The inside story of our body’s most underrated organ, about 80% of our immune system is located in the digestive system.

The gut has been called our ‘second brain’

As it has also been linked to mental health, cardiovascular health, sleep, and dermatological conditions, is it any wonder that the gut has been referred to as our ‘second brain’?

Now, new studies are claiming to have found that the gut microbiome plays an integral role in the immune response to Covid-19 infection—that is, a healthy digestive system may help fight off coronavirus and prevent severe symptoms.

Researchers investigated whether the variety and quantity of microbiome played a role in Covid-19 infections. The study, published in the journal Gut, found that the composition of gut microbiome had changed in Covid-19 patients, compared to those who did not have the infection.

The severity of Covid-19 correlates with a person’s microbiome

Reflecting on the study, Daniel Davis, professor of immunology at the University of Manchester, states that “our knowledge of gut microbes has exploded in recent years. So it’s perhaps not so surprising that the severity of Covid-19 also correlates with the composition of a person’s microbiome.”

Another study conducted by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School found that “the composition of the gut microbiome is the strongest predictor of COVID-19 severity compared to a patient’s clinical characteristics commonly used to do so.”

What are the easiest ways to keep my gut microbiome happy and healthy?

As knowledge of the importance of a healthy digestive system grows, there has been a proliferation of foods containing probiotics or ‘good bacteria’ on our supermarket shelves.

But the truth is you don’t need to spend money to improve your microbiome. Here are six (completely free!) habits that can lead to a happier and healthier gut.

1. Follow a routine for meal times

I recently wrote about the powerful ways in which a morning routine can set the course for the rest of your day. It should come as no surprise then that following a routine for your meals throughout the day also contributes to a healthier, happier gut, and can also help you reduce the urge to snack impulsively.

You should aim for a break of four to five hours between meals, and to eat dinner at least two hours before going to bed to avoid indigestion and acid reflux, also known as heartburn.

Just like we do after a heavy day’s work, our gut needs a rest after digesting a heavy meal. “When your gut takes a break from food for 12 (or more) hours between last night’s dinner and today’s breakfast, it has time to heal—because digestion is an abrasive activity,” according to science communicator Leanne Edermaniger.

2. Eat slowly and mindfully

We know immediately when we have eaten something too fast—we feel bloated, a bit gassy and most often, guilty! The simplest and most effective habit we can practice to avoid becoming bloated is by eating mindfully and chewing our food slowly and thoroughly.

How many times have you eaten breakfast while scrolling through the news on your phone, only to look down at your bowl to suddenly find it completely empty? While watching TV or flicking through social media at lunchtime, have you ever felt surprised that you’re down to the last bite of a sandwich, without really being conscious of eating the rest of it?

Try to remove all devices and other distractions when you’re eating so you can focus entirely on your food. After all, good food is a privilege not everyone is able to enjoy, so it should be savoured, not scoffed. Not only will this assist with proper digestion and absorption of nutrients, it will also help cultivate gratitude and create some calmness in your day.

3. Wash it all down with water (and a little bit of lemon)

The importance of drinking enough water for good gut health cannot be underestimated. According to Healthline, drinking plenty of water has been shown to have a beneficial effect on the mucosal lining of the intestines, as well as on the balance of good bacteria in the gut.

If you’re struggling to drink enough, keep a jug of water on your desk and carry a water bottle with you at all times. A simple way to make water a little more exciting is by adding mint leaves, lemon or cucumber slices.

According to Dr William Cole, lemons contain various properties that promote gut health, such as vitamin C and fibre, which we all know by now is crucial for a happy microbiome. Dr Cole suggests using the lemon pulp as well as the juice to maximise the benefits. 

4. Get moving for a healthier gut

At least 30 minutes of exercise per day is essential for good gut health, as research has shown that individuals who lead a sedentary lifestyle have a less diverse microbiome.

According to Lancaster University senior lecturer in gastro-intestinal health, Rachael Rigby, one study found exercise promotes the growth of bacteria which produce the fatty acid, butyrate.

“Butyrate can promote repair of the gut lining and reduce inflammation, therefore potentially preventing diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease and insulin resistance, which leads to diabetes.” Exercise-induced shifts in the gut microbiota can also guard against obesity and improve metabolic function, she noted.

Remember, you don’t need to do 30 minutes of exercise in one block; you could try ten minutes in the morning, another ten before eating lunch (not straight after as your body needs energy to help you digest your food) and then another ten before dinner.

5. What to avoid and what to eat so your gut will thank you

Cutting back on sugar is an important step for a healthier microbiome, as refined sugar can cause gut imbalances. Unfortunately, artificial sweeteners are not the answer to your sweet cravings either, which I’ve written about previously.

Try to avoid processed foods and soft drink (soda water with a squeeze of lemon is a great alternative if you’re craving something bubbly). Although a glass of red wine every now and then is ok, excessive alcohol consumption is very bad news for your microbiome.

According to science communicator Leanne Edermaniger, alcohol “affects the gut barrier and even influences the speed at which it moves food towards the exit. Booze can also increase the abundance of pathogenic microbes, in addition to constipation, diarrhoea, and bloating, none of which bring any joy.”

Foods to prioritise for a happier gut include those that are high in fibre (try this list of fibre-rich foods to promote good gut bacteria). Fortunately, many of them you probably already have in your kitchen, such as onions, garlic and bananas.

Fermented foods and drinks such as kimchi, miso, sourdough bread and kombucha have exploded in popularity with our increasing knowledge of their many and varied benefits. According to nutritionist Jo Lewin, the fermentation process enables “the transformation of sugars and starches which enhances the natural, beneficial bacteria in food. These bacteria, known as probiotics or ‘good’ bacteria are thought to help a multitude of health issues, specifically digestive health.”

Remember to check out all the healthy and delicious recipes on our website for some culinary inspiration to keep your gut and mind happy.

6. Be conscious of your ‘gut-mind connection’

Nutritional therapist and gut expert Eve Kalinik wrote about the gut-mind connection in her book Happy Gut Happy Mind: “the gut-mind connection is a two-way street: a happy mind is a happy gut and vice versa.”

Stress and anxiety doesn’t just lead to physical and emotional exhaustion—it can even decrease the amount of important probiotic bacteria. Gut microbes themselves can influence stress levels and mood hormones, hence the gut-mind connection.

Our website offers a wealth of resources for managing stress, including blog posts on how to stay positive (especially during lockdown), and a vast range of information about cultivating mindfulness and gratitude. You can also head over to our YouTube channel for meditation videos, such as Meditation for Emotional Balance.

It’s definitely time to take care of our ‘second brain’ to benefit our physical and mental health and wellbeing in so many ways.

Here’s to happy digestion…

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