If you want to take care of your health and boost your immune system, look no further than your gut.
Do you find yourself getting sick often? If you’re constantly catching colds, bugs, or are just not feeling well generally, it may be time to make a plan to boost your immunity through healing your gut microbiome.
Most people don’t realize that there is a direct connection between the two. Of course, vitamins and minerals are important, there are herbal supplements you can take to support your immune system, and some of us may even exercise here and there. But if this is all we are doing to stay healthy we are missing some key information.
Let’s find out what the gut microbiome is, what it does, and how it impacts the immune system. Once we have a better understanding of this, it will be clear what needs to be done to heal the gut and create stronger immunity.
What is the gut microbiome, exactly?
When we talk about the gut, this includes everything in your gastrointestinal tract – mouth, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, liver, gall bladder, small intestines, colon, and rectum.
The gut microbiome is the trillions of microorganisms and their genes that live and work within your gut, and mostly, the colon. They are actually considered an organ unto themselves and even collectively weigh around 5 pounds!
Your gut bacterial cells, or microbiota, are involved in many of your bodily functions. They help digest the food we eat, they fight off bad bacteria and pathogens, they synthesize many vitamins we need, they produce and respond to neurotransmitters that affect our moods, and they regulate our immune system.
Basically, the gut microbiome is an ecosystem made up of trillions of microbes, good and bad, and balance is key. Just like the microbiomes in soils and oceans are the foundation of a healthy environment, our human microbiome is the foundation for whole-body health.
What is the immune system – and where is it?
Our bodies have different layers of defense that a pathogen such as a virus will first come into contact with.
First is our barrier immunity including the skin, and the epithelial layer of the respiratory system, stomach, and intestines. If the pathogen gets by this line of defense, several types of white blood cells from our innate and adaptive immune systems take over. These white blood cells have many jobs including first responders, antibody producers, killers, and even a cleanup crew.
The gut contains about 70% of the body’s immune cells mostly located in the gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT) in the intestines, which contains mesenteric lymph nodes.
Lymph is a fluid that contains white blood cells which are the key players in your immune system. You have other lymph nodes throughout your body including in the neck, armpits, chest, and groin. When these become swollen it’s a sign of infection, illness, or stress. It means that your immune system has kicked in and white blood cells are working their magic.
Scientists have found that the “microbiota plays a fundamental role on the induction, training and function of the host immune system.” Our microbiota actually trains white blood cells to recognize bad bacteria and to remember which ones are good bacteria. This ensures that good bacteria are not collateral damage.
So we know that our good bacteria are important in upholding the immune system, but it seems the reverse is also true: “The body’s immune system may be the keeper of a healthy gut microbiota, report scientists. They found that a binding protein on white blood cells could affect whether or not mice produced a balanced gut microbiota. Without the protein, harmful bacteria were more easily able to infect.”
It’s a symbiotic relationship where our microbiota protects and creates the immune system, and the immune system protects the microbiota. Whichever way we look at it the bottom line is the same:
It’s time to heal our guts.
Dysbiosis = Disharmony
Scientists are starting to find a pattern that a dysbiotic, or damaged and unbalanced, gut microbiome coincides with many diseases, and sometimes it’s found that the gut was damaged beforehand. The question is does it always precede the disease, therefore, cause the illness?
If this is true, it’s good news. Diseases that we had thought were primarily hereditary or environmental may be completely preventable. And there may be a more effective treatment. But there is still a lot we don’t know in this new area of research.
What we do know is dysbiosis is bad for our physical health and our mental health. If there is disharmony in the gut microbiome this means we can have problems digesting food, absorbing important nutrients, producing vitamins, creating neurotransmitters, regulating our moods, and our immune system won’t function properly.
And these are all connected. If your gut microbiota was killed off with an antibiotic for example, now it isn’t producing enough serotonin. So not only do you probably feel anxious, but you also may have diarrhea. Diarrhea means that you are not absorbing the nutrition from your food that you need for optimal bodily functions. And stress from all that anxiety is just going to suppress the immune system even further because the body is focusing on trying to preserve energy for a perceived threat that may or may not exist. Tasks like digestion take a backseat to fighting for your life, which is what your body thinks is happening.
Ya know, because of the anxiety.
Which causes an imbalance of gut bacteria. Because you killed them off with a bad diet or antibiotics. Because you got sick. Because your immunity is weak. Because you’re stressed.
Etc. ad infinitum.
Sometimes we don’t know where the cycle started but the cycle continues. Unless…
Put An End To The Cycle
Let’s step in and stop this dizzying downward spiral!
In order to heal the gut, we need to cover the basics. Building a solid foundation for all the good bacteria and immune cells to be able to work together in perfect harmony requires a holistic plan that includes the following:
- a diverse plant-based diet with lots of dark leafy greens
- daily exercise
- adequate sleep
- good hydration
- stress management
- time outdoors
- prebiotic foods
- probiotic foods
- possible supplements
Each of these can be talked about at length. If they are all addressed, your gut health will improve along with your mental health and immunity.
Great Gut Health Boosts Immunity
No one wants to get sick, but much of our health is in our own hands if we care enough to change our habits and try new things. You may be starting off in a really bad place and it may be a long road ahead. Remember to reach out for professional help when you need it. Always start with where you are.
It might be convenient to look at that long list and ignore things like stress management, time outdoors, or getting exercise. But these are just as important as eating your vegetables.
As we’ve seen, everything in the body is connected in a complex web. Trillions of cells are working together in tons of different systems trying their best to keep you in good shape.
You are their home!
So make sure you are giving them a great foundation to work with and everyone will get along great.
Was there anything that surprised you about the connection between the gut and the immune system? And is there anything else you’d like to know about the mystery that is the gut microbiome? Let us know in the comments!