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The diet so that our bacteria can fight against COVID-19

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If you knew everything that influences the way you eat, you’d be surprised. And it is within your body, more precisely in the intestine, there are very important bacteria that can affect your quality of life: from attacking COVID-19 to improving or worsening your chances of a neurological disease.

Your body is also the habitat of hundreds of thousands of microbes. In fact, there are more bacterial cells than human cells: we have about 100 trillion bacteria inside. What you may not know is that these bacteria can protect you from the most serious external threats, including COVID-19.

This community of bacteria within us is called the microbiome, which maintains a system, in which, each one fulfills a certain function in balance with the others. Those residing in the intestine have a very particular function in our body: to develop an immune response to any pathogen.

These bacterial cells are responsible for protecting the human body against all kinds of viruses, from influenza to norovirus and rotavirus, which cause gastroenteritis. Bacteria ‘command’ specialized immune cells within the gut, even telling them when to make antiviral proteins in order to prevent or eliminate infections.

The importance of diet in the microbiome 

Therefore, it seems evident that the gut microbiome is extremely necessary to maintain a healthy life. If we don’t have that internal ecosystem to act on pathogens, our immune system would be much more vulnerable.

But what does a good gut microbiome depend on? Like practically everything in the world of health, food plays a fundamental role in maintaining a healthy intestinal microbiome prepared to protect us from diseases.

“Our immune defense is part of a complex biological response against harmful pathogens, such as viruses or bacteria. However, because our bodies are inhabited by trillions of mostly beneficial bacteria, virus and fungi, activation of our immune response is tightly regulated to distinguish between harmful and helpful microbes,” explains microbiologist Ana Maldonado-Contreras in an article for The Conversation.

However, people who suffer from chronic immunocompromised diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, have a harder time maintaining a healthy microbiome. As our immune system cannot identify which are the harmful microbes from the beneficial ones, so it rejects them all. Given the difficulty of generating protective bacteria, it is more difficult to give an immune response to a threat. 

In the same way, babies born by cesarean section, people who maintain a poor diet and the elderly also have alterations in their microbiome. For all these cases, it is important to keep in mind that food may be the help they needed. 

Maldonado-Contreras assures that, according to the food we eat, it will be the bacteria that we will be able to develop. For example, she notes that fermented foods such as “kimchi, red beets, apple cider vinegar, coconut milk, yogurt, pickles, and sauerkraut can help develop beneficial bacteria.” 

How Microbiome protect us from COVID-19?

The microbiologist, who is dedicated to investigating which are the most important intestinal bacteria in a healthy microbiome, has concentrated on studying what they have in COVID-19 patients in terms of intestinal bacteria.

In the US, where she works, the answer is overwhelming: immunosuppressive chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. This results in faulty microbiomes.

For example, she points out that it is no coincidence that in that country there have been higher death rates from COVID-19 of black and Latino people, since they suffer a higher percentage of obesity and diabetes due to poor nutrition. These comorbidities expose them more to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, as well as to any other, and their microbiomes, in imbalance, cannot do much about it. 

In this sense, she pointed out that “As a Latina scientist investigating interactions between diet, microbiome and immunity, I must stress the importance of better policies to improve access to healthy foods, which lead to a healthier microbiome,” and added the importance of designing “culturally sensitive dietary interventions for black and Latino communities.”

She clarified that although a healthy diet does not by itself prevent COVID-19 infection – as well as any other, it can make its severity vary and its recovery is faster due to a balanced microbiome.

Gut – brain connection

Beyond infectious diseases, the gut microbiome may also be related to neurological diseases. On this subject, a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which created a system called ‘organs on a chip’ in which interactions between the brain, liver and colon are technologically replicated.

This system “sheds light on how bacteria in the human digestive tract can influence neurological diseases,” said the University statement. Because testing in mice may be limited, as its physiology is very different from humans, the MIT team’s technology system managed to “model the influence that microbes living in the gut have on both healthy brain tissue and tissue samples derived from Parkinson’s disease patients” , is detailed. For example, they found that short-chain fatty acids, produced by the gut microbiome and transported to the brain, can have very different effects on healthy and diseased brain cells. 

“While short-chain fatty acids are largely beneficial to human health, we observed that under certain conditions they can further exacerbate certain brain pathologies, such as protein misfolding and neuronal death, related to Parkinson’s disease,” says Martin Trapecar, the lead author of the study and an MIT postdoc.

The team has identified various connections between the gut and the brain, and this results in eventual neural diseases. As Trapecar explained, research continues to try to understand how short-chain fatty acids are related to neurodegenerative diseases. 

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