Is There a Link Between Gut Health and COPD?
COPD is a chronic disease of the lungs, so you might be confused by the title of this article. I understand -- even though I am a retired RN, I never heard much about gut health and its impact on overall health until just a few years ago.
But more and more, experts are becoming aware of just how much what's going on in your digestive tract, also called your gut, can affect how you feel and function.
What is gut health?
Your gut is a complex system or environment where much of the body's business is conducted. We now know that 70 to 80% of our immune system is actually centered in the gut. Trillions of tiny organisms called bacteria, viruses and fungi reside in your gut. This mix of organisms is known as your microbiome. They work together -- or sometimes in opposition -- to help metabolize your food and also fight off infection, disease and other substances perceived as harmful.
You have both good (friendly) and bad (harmful) bacteria naturally in your gut. When they are in balance, your immune system tends to be strong. But when they get out of balance, havoc (or disease) may result.
"All disease begins in the gut." Hippocrates, more than 2000 years ago
Although this forerunner of modern medicine shared this realization centuries ago, health experts today are just beginning to acknowledge the importance of gut bacteria in relation to health and diseases of all types. Google "gut health" plus your disease of choice and you may find they are linked or at least suspected of being linked.
Gut health can be affected by a lot of factors, including:
- Antibiotic use
- Sugar & fat intake
Links between your gut & COPD
As I described above, a microbiome is a mixed colony of microorganisms. Just as you have a gut microbiome, you also have a separate microbiome in your lungs. It's possible that the makeup of your lung microbiome may influence the bacterial respiratory infections that commonly cause COPD flares.
That is not the focus of this article, although it has been said that the physiology and pathology of the lungs and gut are closely related. Plus, studies have shown that there is a clear link between inflammatory intestinal conditions and inflammatory lung problems.
However, I want to explore the relationship between your gut microbiome and COPD. What experts are beginning to see more and more is that disturbances in your gut bacteria can lead to disease in your other organs throughout the body. Conditions that may be rooted in poor gut health might include:
So, how does this relate to COPD? Well, one study found that changes in the gut microbiome could affect lung inflammation during acute influenza infection. Certainly, the use of oral antibiotics is one factor in the gut changes.
Smoking and COPD can also have an effect on the gut bacteria, so this link works both ways. The result can be a weaker immune response, which is never a good thing for your health stability.
How might gut health play a role in COPD?
Smoking, although a strong risk factor for COPD, does not always cause it. In fact, very few smokers actually develop COPD. So, health experts are trying to learn more about why some people develop COPD, while others do not. They propose that gut health might play a role.
One thing that is clear is that there is quite a bit of what is being referred to as "cross talk" between your gut and lung microbiomes. We are not sure how this occurs, but when these microbiomes get out of balance, people who have COPD are at greater risk of bacterial lung infections and COPD exacerbations.
This means that we don't know yet whether poor gut health contributes to the development of COPD. But we do know that the respiratory infections that trigger COPD flares can be a result of poor gut health and a weakened immune system.
Can probiotics be helpful?
It's hard to avoid all the media today who advise that probiotics are the new savior of gut and overall health. Probiotics are friendly bacteria. You naturally have them in your body all of the time, but when gut health is poor, you may not have enough of them.
So, it is possible to take a probiotic supplement. The sheer numbers and types of probiotic supplements on the market is staggering and quite overwhelming. Each brand claims to be better than the next. Your health care provider may have his/her own favorites.
Would taking a probiotic supplement be helpful in treating COPD? The answer to this is: possibly. Certainly, we know that it can be helpful in preserving good gut health to take a probiotic supplement any time you are on a course of antibiotics for an infection. This will help to preserve a balanced microbiome.
Most studies to date on this topic have been done with animals, not humans. So more research is needed. A human study was undertaken in China to examine the relationship between lung and gut microbiomes, but the results have not yet been made available to the public.
The need for further research
It seems evident that there is some kind of connection between gut health and COPD. Exactly what that is, though, remains to be explored more fully. Meanwhile, it is important to follow the COPD treatment plan given to you by your health care team. However, talk with your doctor about whether regular probiotic supplementation might be useful for you, especially if you have frequent respiratory infections.
How has your experience been navigating the healthcare system as someone with COPD?