Gut bugs and the immune system
Dr Sinéad Corr, Trinity College Dublin
The physical distancing measures in place to slow the spread of COVID-19 can make it a challenge to eat a diverse, healthy diet - but recent SFI funded research indicates that a diverse diet could pay off for our gut bugs, which in turn strengthen our immune system against disease.
“In this pandemic, it may be harder for people to get to the shops for fresh, healthy food. But research has shown that eating a diverse diet, rich with a variety of high-fibre plant-based foods and limiting the amount of processed, convenience food promotes healthy bacteria in your gut.”
Why is this important during the COVID-19 pandemic? Because the bacteria that live in our guts ‘talk’ to our immune system, and this is an area that Dr Corr is actively researching.
“My work looks at how the microbes in our gut talk to our immune system and similarly how our immune system influences these microbes, we know that this communication is important for our health and well-being. We are particularly interested in what happens when there is a breakdown in communication or a change to the types and amount of bacteria in our gut, and how this effects our health. This is essentially what happens in Inflammatory Bowel Disease, where patches of the gut wall become inflamed and ‘leaky’ as a result of an inappropriate immune response to these changes.”
In examining the cross-talk between the gut bacteria and the immune system, Dr Corr has discovered an important role for a molecule called microRNA 21, and she is looking at how blocking its actions could help to dampen down the inflammation of IBD and other inflammatory diseases.
She also stresses the importance for everyone of maintaining a healthy population of gut bugs where possible, and what we eat is a big factor. “Eating lots of different foods helps to support a diverse gut microbiome and increases the amount of good bacteria, this is linked with better health and a stronger immune system,” she says. “So while it might be more difficult to achieve that at the moment, it’s worth making a conscious effort to try and avoid eating the same thing every day, and to include plenty of fruit and veg - even frozen and canned if fresh isn't an option.”
Dr Corr is curious to see if the communication between gut microbes and our immune system has any link to more severe symptoms for COVID-19.
“We know from previous research that the gut microbes play an important role far beyond the gut itself, and we can now apply this science to see if there is any role in fighting this virus.”