Flu season may be months away, but a new study offers insight for warding off the infection’s worst effects before winter hits. Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis discovered that gut microbes could help flavonoid-rich foods like black tea, red wine, and blueberries boost the immune system.

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For the study, researchers first identified a microbe found in our guts that helps metabolize flavonoids. Known as clostridium orbiscindens, it breaks down the plant compounds and creates a new substance in the process, which scientists believe is the key in minimizing the effects of the flu, particularly lung damage. Desaminotyrosine (DAT), the new substance, is essential in the metabolic process, according to the research.

“We were able to identify at least one type of bacteria that uses these dietary compounds to boost interferon, a signaling molecule that aids the immune response,” study co-author, Thaddeus S. Stappenbeck, MD, PhD, said in a statement. “This prevented influenza-related lung damage in the mice. It is this kind of damage that often causes significant complications such as pneumonia in people.”

Next, the team administered DAT to a group of mice before infecting the rodents with influenza. They found that mice who had been treated with DAT had less lung damage than the control group. While the gut microbe did minimize complications of the flu, it didn’t ward it off completely.

“The infections were basically the same,” Stappenbeck said. “The microbes and DAT didn’t prevent the flu infection itself; the mice still had the virus. But the DAT kept the immune system from harming the lung tissue.”

The new finding could explain why some people seem to experience the flu more harshly and are more susceptible to pneumonia than others. Many people who have the flu never come down with pneumonia, but the virus is a common cause of the lung infection. According to Everyday Health, about one-third of pneumonia cases stem from a viral infection. In most cases, people can recover from pneumonia within a couple of weeks, however, it can be deadly, especially in children and older patients and those with compromised immune systems.

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Pneumonia causes inflammation in the lungs as the air sacs fill up with fluids. This makes it hard to breathe and prevents oxygen from reaching your blood, meaning your cells don’t get the nutrients needed to function properly.

The team from this study hopes that their discovery could help develop better treatments and also prevent the flu from escalating.

“This strategy doesn’t target the virus. Instead, it targets the immune response to the virus,” study co-author Ashley L. Steed, MD, PhD, said in a release. “That could be valuable because there are challenges with therapies and vaccines that target the virus due to changes in the influenza virus that occur over time.”

Eating a flavonoid-rich diet may not cure your illness, but researchers advise including these foods in your diet before the flu season rolls around.

See Also:

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