Recent NHS estimates suggest that 70 percent of Britons could develop the Coronavirus (Covid-19) – and 15 percent of those could end up in hospital.1
So what determines who gets sick, and who doesn’t?
In a nutshell – it’s the health of your immune system. At this time scientists believe that although most people would be likely to suffer a mild version of it, with a cough, fever and muscle aches, the virus is most deadly for those who are elderly or have underlying health problems2 – in other words, people who have compromised immune systems.
How does your immune system work?
Inside your body, there’s a war going on.
We are constantly surrounded by microscopic viruses. They are around us all the time, in the air or on the surfaces we touch, just waiting for a host to come along. Viruses are parasites – tiny bundles of genetic material whose only purpose is to reproduce. They can enter us through the nose, mouth or breaks in the skin.3
Once inside your system, a virus must find a bacterial cell to infect. Cold and flu viruses will attack cells that line the respiratory or digestive tracts. Coronavirus is a respiratory virus; scientists believe that the virus causes severe damage to lung cells and their alveoli, the air sacs that take in oxygen, causing lung tissue to stiffen. The heart must then work harder to get limited oxygen to the rest of the organs.4
Once a virus has found a bacterial cell to invade, it will punch a hole in the cell membrane, insert itself into the bacteria and use that bacteria’s DNA to make multiple copies of itself. Eventually the bacterial membrane explodes, releasing all the new viruses, who all go out and repeat the process. With this kind of exponential growth, it’s easy to understand how viruses can act so quickly.
While the virus is hiding inside the bacteria, it’s hard to spot. Luckily your immune system has responder cells called T cells and NK (Natural Killer) cells. Imagine these cells like the SAS of the immune system, whose job is to search out and destroy viruses and pathogens inside your system.
T cells have specialised proteins on their surface called “T cell receptors,” which are like microscopic sniffer dogs that help them to recognise virally-infected cells.5 Once a T cell finds a virally infected cell, it will release “cytotoxins” that destroy the infected cell, preventing it from spreading more viruses.
But viruses fight back, too. Viruses are highly adaptable, and have developed ways to avoid detection, camouflaging themselves so that the T cells and NK cells can’t find them. Viruses can also evolve in a short space of time. Studies have shown that when a virus is prevented from infecting its target cell, it can evolve in order to attack successfully in just two weeks.6
So it’s a race between your immune system, which is working to sniff out and destroy the viruses – and the viruses themselves. Both sides are constantly learning, battling and evolving.
How do you support your immune system?
Boosting your immune system is your best protection against all viruses. And the fastest way to increase your immunity, is to improve your gut health.
70 percent of the body’s immune cells are packed into the gut, meaning it functions as the immune system’s “control tower” while still serving as a digestive organ.7
In addition to various types of immune cells, the gut also contains something else indispensable to your health: 500 different types of gut bacteria, totalling some 100 trillion organisms in total. Together, they constitute your intestinal flora, a virtual ecosystem that suppresses the infiltration of pathogens (germs) into the body.8
Gut bacteria help your immune system’s T cells develop—teaching them the difference between a foreign substance and the body’s own tissues. This is an extremely important process that determines how and what your immune system responds to, and the success of this critical process is determined, in part, by the health of your gut.
Inside your gut there are “good bugs” and “bad bugs.” Good bugs interact with your immune system, and keep pathogens at bay. Bad bugs create inflammation which disturbs the balance of the ecosystem, and promotes disease. Frequent or uncontrolled use of antibiotics and changes in dietary pattern have been shown to disrupt the microbiome, creating an imbalance called “dysbiosis.” When your gut is a state of dysbiosis, it cannot work properly to protect you from virulent pathogens, bacteria and viruses like Coronavirus.9
The Gut-Lung Connection
Scientists have now established the “gut-lung axis,” which shows that your gut bugs actually modulate your immune system during respiratory disease, by boosting the activity of your T cells.10 There is clear evidence that gut microbiota can influence pulmonary barrier and immune functions, as well as susceptibility to and the course of several respiratory diseases including infections.11
5 Top Tips to Improve Gut Health For Immunity
- Take a therapeutic probiotic. Gut health is all about increasing diversity inside the microbiome. Look for a diverse natural probiotic that is unflavoured and unsweetened, as sugar and sweeteners have been shown to do more harm than good inside the gut.12
- Take a complex prebiotic. Gut bugs are living organisms that feed on specific types of fibre that may not be present in your daily diet. Taking a prebiotic along with your probiotic will greatly enhance the immune-boosting effect.13
- Cut back on sugar. Sugar has been found to increase the populations of “bad bugs” inside your gut, which increases inflammation and harms your immune system.14
- Eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Restricted diets like the low FODMAP diet have been shown to negatively impact gut diversity over time.15
- Stick to a regular bedtime and get plenty of sleep. Scientists have now definitively linked gut microbiome composition, sleep physiology and the immune system.16
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