Enhancing your immunity through gut health
With the chill of winter around us also comes the winter coughs, colds, sore throats, the dreaded flu virus that changes every year, and that feeling of just being under the weather in our health. Many of us seem to pick up every virus or bug going around, and can feel sick of being sick, while annoyingly others never seem to fall ill. So why is this?
Genetics may play a part, but the most important difference is that those who do not fall ill easily have better immune defences against foreign invaders such as bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi. Your immune system is a highly complex defence mechanism consisting of millions of cells that constantly circulate the body looking for invaders and effectively ‘nuking’ these and keeping us healthy. Interestingly our gut microflora (also known as probiotics, gut flora or beneficial bacteria) which are present in our intestines, play a major role in modulating the immune system.
Approximately 80% of your immune system lies in your gut with no less than 500 different species which all play a role in your health.
So keeping this in mind, for optimal immunity, your gut must function seamlessly.So how do we enhance our gut function to improve our immunity? Nutrition and emotional wellbeing play a major part.
Eating For The Gut
To improve our beneficial bacteria in the gut, we must have a solid population that outnumbers any pathogenic bacteria that negatively impact on our wellness. This is not difficult to do, as we can add probiotic foods into our diet and also add supplements at necessary times. Foods which have been fermented are a rich source of probiotics that then enter the gut and supplement the existing colonies. It is important that these are eaten regularly to enhance gut health.
Probiotic foods come in many forms such as: pickled vegetables, kimchi, kombucha, sauerkraut, kefir, yoghurt, and sourdough bread. When choosing a probiotic food from your local health shop ensure that they are unpasteurised or raw, as the heating process in pasteurising food destroys most, if not all, the beneficial bacteria. A tell-tale sign of a raw fermented pickle or sauerkraut is that it will be stored in the chilled section. Kombucha is an extremely popular drink you can now find in many cafes and supermarkets and is usually flavoured with fruit or spices to give it a sweet taste. Again, check it is raw and has no additional sugar added to the end product. When choosing yoghurt for its probiotics, you are best to find a natural full fat yoghurt than going for fat-free, which is usually filled with sugar to make it taste better. The problem with these added processed sugars is that they can lower your immune systems ability to fight bacteria for a good few hours after eating them. Actimel yoghurt drinks are also a good source of probiotic cultures you could include in your daily regime. If you want to make your own pickles or sauerkraut at home, there are lots of fabulous ideas you can find on the internet with videos to help you. You can then include these fermented foods in your salads and meals. By doing it yourself you can choose your favourite vegetables to include and you will know that it is raw. With the time your give to making it, maybe you will be more likely to eat it.
You can also get probiotics from supplements. There are a variety of good brands you can choose from, but sometimes this purely comes down to cost, as they can be expensive. Always look for a good multi-strain of bacteria, as well as how many bacteria per serving. Anything less than a few billion is probably not enough. If you feel your gut or immune system is compromised, I would suggest looking at a 3 month program using a liquid probiotic called Symprove. The flavour takes some getting used to for many people, but it is a well researched product and has good results. If you decide to supplement, still try to eat fermented foods for a good source of probiotic variety and also the nutrients that they contain.
Another thing to consider is increasing fibre intake. There are two forms of fibre: fibre that is soluble (dissolves in water and is fermented by beneficial gut bacteria) or insoluble (doesn’t dissolve in water and is not fermentable). Soluble fibre can also be called prebiotic fibre and has plant components in it such as inulin, beta-glucans and oligo-fructose, to name a few. Prebiotic fibre effectively feeds your gut bacteria, thus promoting their growth and sustainability. Remember, the more beneficial bacteria you have in your gut, the less pathogenic bacteria can flourish. So feeding them is vital! The richest plant sources of inulin and oligo-fructose are chicory root and Jerusalem artichoke. You can also include in your diet whole oats, rye bread, asparagus, bananas, garlic, onions, leeks and apples which also contain good levels of prebiotic fibre.
You could consider buying an organic prebiotic inulin fibre from a good health shop and add to soups, smoothies or juices to increase your intake, especially over the colder months . However, don’t get too focussed on solely prebiotic foods as eating a variety of fruit and vegetables is essential. Not only do these provide good sources of both forms of fibre, but they also contain important nutrients vital for the health of our immune system and its ability to fight infection effectively.
There are a number of things to consider in your lifestyle that may be decreasing your immune system’s ability to optimally to fight infections and stay healthy.
1. Long periods of stress (emotional and physical) may negatively impact on optimal immune function
2. Lack of sleep does not allow the body to heal and repair effectively thus impacting on your immune systems ability to fight infection
3. High intake of alcohol can disrupt immune function
4. Smoking contains many chemicals that can weaken the immune systems response
5. Lack of exercise or excessive exercise can both be detrimental to a healthy functioning immune system.
Many nutrients such as vitamin C, E, A and D and the minerals zinc and selenium (which are mostly obtained from plant based foods) are vital for the complex running of the immune system in your body. However, your beneficial bacteria also play a starring role in how your immune system functions and responds to foreign invaders.
If this article has spiked interested in finding out more about the gut and its role in our health, I would recommend a well written book called GUT - The Inside Story Of Our Body’s Most Under-Rated Organ by Giulia Enders.
To finish, a lovely quote by the father of medicine.
Photography by David Lezcano, Laura Ockel and Brooke Lark