Good Gut Health Can Blunt Viruses, Doctor Says
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This flu season is off to a deadly start. The C.D.C. reports so far 2,100 Americans have died from the illness, including seven children. Most of the cases are influenza A (H3N2) viruses, but the proportion of influenza A (H1N1) is increasing slightly.
Fourteen mostly southern and eastern states are currently experiencing the highest possible level of flu activity, with many others not far behind. Approximately 38,000 people have been hospitalized for the flu so far this season, which is the highest level this early in the season since the 2009 Swine Flu pandemic.
Healthcare workers, like emergency medicine physician at New York City's Mt. Sinai Hospital Dr. Brendan Carr, are bracing for the possibility of overwhelming patient intakes this winter. "Here we are again," he said. "Thinking about and planning for a surge that will be really hard for us to absorb over the next couple of months."
The flu isn't the only virus affecting the U.S. right now. RSV, COVID-19, and the common cold are other viruses that are circulating the country that are likely to spread more widely during the holidays as people gather together inside.
However, being exposed to a virus doesn't necessarily translate into sickness. A strong immune system can make the difference between no symptoms, mild symptoms or severe illness, or even death, according to gastroenterologist and gut health expert Robynne Chutkan, M.D., author of The Anti-Viral Gut: Tackling Pathogens from the Inside Out.
Dr. Chutkan told CBN News, "70 to 80 percent of your immune system is actually physically located in your gut."
*** READ: The Best Things You Can Do for Your Gut
A strong immune system can be traced to higher levels of good bacteria in the intestines because those organisms can recognize when harmful viruses enter the body.
"And that results in the release of something called interferons," explained Dr. Chutkan. "Interferons are called interferons because they interfere with viruses. And then the interferons are the beginnings of this immune cascade, this whole series of events, like killer t-cells, and antibodies, that all rush in to protect us from the virus."
Good bacteria, which are so vital to a healthy immune system, are living organisms found in foods like yogurt and kimchi, beverages like kombucha, and some probiotic supplements.
However, just like soldiers in an army, simply possessing some of these good bacteria in our gut isn't enough to effectively withstand the onslaught of viruses attacking our bodies. Dr. Chutkan says we need to have lots of them. That's why she says it's critically important to feed the good bacteria fiber-rich foods so they grow and multiply.
"Thirty different plant foods per week was a sort of magic number for a healthy microbiome," she said. "So you get credit for fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, seeds, spices, all of it. I can get ten different plant foods into a bowl of oatmeal."
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And while fiber strengthens the gut, certain medications can harm it. Dr. Chutkan says these medications include antibiotics and stomach acid blockers.
"Stomach acid is one of your body's main defenses against viruses," she said. "When you ingest a virus, which is a common way for people to get infected, if you have intact levels of stomach acid, it unravels that viral protein and renders it inactive."
Still, those medications can be life-saving in some cases, so Dr. Chutkan recommends discussing with your doctor whether you really need them.
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