The Gut’s Natural Defense Against Viruses

I listened to a podcast featuring the author of the new book by Robynne Chutkan, MD:  “The Anti-Viral Gut: Tackling Pathogens from the Inside Out”. She is an integrative gastroenterologist who founded the Digestive Center for Wellness which focuses on education around the importance of gut health. Her new book explains that it’s less about the pathogens but more about how we as the host (of our gut) manage these invaders.

A summary of highlights:
  • The first three years of a baby’s life are critical for establishing a healthy microbiome:
    • When babies are born, they turn posteriorly and on the way out, swallow a bunch of the mom’s microbes. As such, babies born vaginally are colonized with the mother’s bifidobacteria. But C-section babies are filled with hospital acquired bacteria and this is not a good way to establish the infant’s microbiome.
    • Human breast milk has oligosaccharides that feed the baby’s good bacteria.
    • C-section babies have higher rates of obesity, autoimmune disease, asthma and allergies and these risks can stay with them for several years.
    • A study at Mt. Sinai Medical Center showed that repeated use of antibiotics in early childhood was a big risk factor in developing Crohn’s Disease and ulcerative colitis.
    • Studies have also shown that pediatricians only prescribe antibiotics 7% of the time when parents do not expect it but 63% of the time when parents do. So parents need to be more mindful about the use of antibiotics for their kids.
  • It’s clear that frequent use of antibiotics INCREASES the risk of getting an infection because you’re killing off all the good bacteria.
  • Antibiotics also drive sweet cravings as they kill off the good bacteria.
  • A study at Johns Hopkins showed that Clostridium Difficile bacteria is linked to colon cancer – C-diff kills over 10,000 people in the US every year.
  • Viruses have gotten a bad rap. Did you know that 10% of our DNA is viral material? If a virus infects a reproductive cell like the sperm cell or ovum, it’s passed down and becomes part of our genetic material. So yes – we are viral entities.
  • We’ve seen a huge shift from antibiotics to probiotics. Remember the Triclosan soaps and toothpastes? Now the latest craze is probiotic everything!
  • It’s been said that if we had zero viruses, the world would be great for about 1.5 days and then we’d all die. Viruses are an integral part of our life on earth and necessary for plankton, salination of water and the ecosystem in general.
  • Women should NOT smell like a Summer’s eve!
    • Douches are bad as it destroys the vaginal environment. In the vagina, lactobacillus is the prominent bacteria and it’s this strain that is more resilient to STDs, HIV and HPV. Exposure to viruses is inevitable but infections and illnesses are not. If women don’t have enough lactobacillus, it increases risks for STDs – genital warts, carcinoma, etc. So, the host health matters!
    • com is a company that will run a full vaginal microbiome panel.
  • According to Pasteur’s germ theory, if the soil is healthy, the seed can pass without causing much disruption. But if the soil is disrupted, pathogens (like Ebola) can cause illness. It’s not the pathogen but the lack of good bacteria to balance out the bad that is important. There’s a lot of evidence that a weak bacterial microbiome makes you more susceptible to viral illnesses.
  • Chutkan indicates that only 0.5% of people get polio from exposure to the virus. Also, in two out of three people, exposure to Ebola does not make them sick. And 10% of HIV exposed people do not get infected. Why? Because the host is healthy and can fight off the invaders.
  • The Human Microbiome Project is researching the relationship between human diseases and the microbiome. One of the hallmark studies looked at the predictive value of the microbiome. High levels of good bacteria and low levels of bad bacteria was 92% more accurate in predicting respiratory failure, time in the ICU, and death than age and co-morbidities and inflammatory markers.
  • We are only as healthy as our least healthy citizens. Why? For example, with obesity, people that are overweight exhibit prolonged viral shedding. This gives more opportunity for the virus to mutate and infect others. So, if you have a large population of obese people, you will have higher levels of contagiousness and prolonged shedding with opportunities for viral mutation.
Now, how do we become resilient?   
  • First, we should look at our medicine cabinet:
    • Acid blockers like Prilosec, Nexium and others shut down stomach acid. So if you ingest a virus, you are unable to kill it and this will infect intestinal cells. A study came out in July 2020 of 54,000 patients showing that being on an acid blocker doubles your risk of a viral infection if you take it once a day and 3-4X if you take it twice a day! Why is there NO public health announcement about this?
    • NSAIDS and overuse of antibiotics damage the gut lining and make it easier for viruses to penetrate. For example, a study done in Korea showed that multi-system inflammatory syndrome in kids and adults is associated with increased intestinal permeability – they were able to isolate the virus in the stool and the bloodstream.
    • Mucus blockers: When you have a viral infection, you will have increased mucus production which comes from the gut – your body is doing what it needs to do. The mucus is generated to trap and expel the virus. You do not want to take an anti-histamine to dry up the mucus membrane.
    • Fever: Did you know that polio replicates 250X faster at normal body temperature vs. a fever temperature? Fever is our body’s way of slowing down viral replication and it also activates our immune system. Do not take fever reducers when the body is trying to do the right thing.
  • Sleep is necessary for the immune system to function properly. There’s plenty of data on the impact of sleep on immunity. A study conducted at Carnegie Mellon showed that those who are sleep deprived are at 76% greater risk of getting an infection. But for each additional hour of sleep one gets, there is a 12% drop in risk. Were you also aware that even vaccines are less effective when sleep-deprived?
  • It’s good to be dirty – our society is way too sanitized for our own good! Back in the day, we were lucky to have a bath once a month – now, we’re showering 2X a day with shampoos, body washes, fragrances, scrubs, etc.
  • Chutkan likes the Visbiome probiotic as a lot of research has been done on this product. It has 450B colony forming units in a packet.  It is available online without a prescription:
  • Adults have more stable microbiomes and the best way to feed these microbes is with a whole foods diet rich in fiber and fermented foods. Go to the farmers’ market and buy fermented veggies like sauerkraut and fresh produce. Also eat foods high in inulin like leeks, garlic and onions. Caveat: if you are sensitive to molds and histamine, fermented foods may not work for you so you need to know your kryptonite and find what’s suitable for your gut.

To find your gut bliss, check out the book here:

Listen to the podcast here:

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