This might sound crazy, but it’s true: The best way to support and strengthen your immune system is by growing more bacteria – the good kind, that lives in your gut.
That’s because about 70% of your immune system is in your gut (gastrointestinal tract). It’s also home to trillions of friendly bacteria and other microorganisms. Collectively, they’re known as your gut microbiome.
Your microbiome affects your health in many different ways. It’s such an essential part of your body, that researchers call it “the last undiscovered human organ.” One important job of your microbiome to protect you from illnesses – everything from infections to cancer.
Good vs. Bad Bugs
You’re born with good bacteria, and they multiply, grow, and diversify throughout your life. If you feed them well and give them a happy home, they’ll boost your immune system by
- Acting as a barrier between your body and bad (also known as pathogenic) bacteria.
- Releasing toxins that kill harmful bacteria.
- Stimulating antibodies in your immune system.
Over time, a poor diet, combined with stress, lack of sleep, and things like medication (especially antibiotics) use can kill off your healthy bacteria. Gradually the good bugs become less diverse, and bad bugs, which are linked with more illnesses, start to move in.
Functional medicine doctors call this dysbiosis.
Your gut microbiome is much like a garden. The good bugs are like healthy, beautiful plants, while the bad bugs are like noxious weeds. When you fertilize, water, and maintain your garden, the weeds stay away. But if you ignore it and let it fend for itself, the weeds eventually take over and destroy it. The same thing happens in your gut with dysbiosis.
Your Microbiome and Your Immune System
Research on the microbiome has exploded recently. The more scientists learn, the more they realize – most diseases stem from dysbiosis in the gut. A healthy microbiome helps strengthen your immune system. It protects you from acute illnesses like colds, flu, and stomach bugs, as well as chronic diseases.
Here are just few of the health conditions that research suggests are related to dysbiosis:
Allergies – lower numbers of beneficial bacteria early in life allows harmful fungi and microbes to alter your immune cells. That increases susceptibility to allergies later.
Autoimmune diseases – It’s not clear if dysbiosis is the cause or an effect of these diseases. Researchers simply know that people with these autoimmune diseases have similar numbers of certain types of harmful bacteria in their gut:
- Type 1 diabetes
- Crohn’s disease
- Celiac disease
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Lupus (Systemic lupus erythematosus)
- Psoriatic arthritis
- Multiple sclerosis
Cancer – People with mouth, stomach, and colon cancers all have similarities in their microbiome. Higher numbers of harmful bacteria have been found in precancerous lesions, and they might stimulate cancer cells to grow.
Mood disorders and Alzheimer’s disease – dysbiosis is linked with anxiety and depression. Also, some types of unfriendly bacteria promote the kind of inflammation in the brain that’s associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
Overweight and obesity – Your gut microbiome affects how many calories your body extracts from the food you eat. Seriously. That explains why some people can get away with eating more, while others gain weight just looking at that piece of chocolate cake.
How to Nurture Your Gut Microbiome
Your gut microbiome changes throughout your life, mainly in response to what you put into your mouth. That means you can make it healthier over time. And the good news is – improvements begin fairly quickly. In some cases, you can see positive changes within as little as a day or two. For most people, the trick is maintaining the changes so your microbiome stays healthy. Here’s what you can do:
Eat more plant foods. Your good bacteria thrive on the fiber in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Researchers have found that prebiotic fiber is especially helpful in reversing dysbiosis. It functions as food or “fertilizer” for good bacteria. You can get prebiotic fiber from foods like slightly under-ripe bananas, garlic, onions, leeks, and asparagus several times a week.
Cut back on unhealthy fats. Diets full of burgers, fries, and pizza can actually kill off your healthy bacteria and promote the growth of the bad bugs. Try to limit processed foods and fast food and eat more whole-food meals at home.
Eat more bacteria-rich fermented foods. They’re packed with probiotics which are a type of healthy bacteria. Foods like plain Greek yogurt or kefir, sauerkraut, kimchee, and kombucha are excellent choices. You can also take a probiotic supplement if you like. By the way, prebiotic fiber is also food for probiotic bacteria.
Steer clear from artificial sweeteners like Equal, Splenda, and Sweet ‘N Low. Some research suggests it can promote dysbiosis.
Manage your stress. You already know that stress can give you an upset stomach. But it also makes an inhospitable environment for your good bacteria. Stress affects your food choices too. That pizza is a lot more tempting than a salad when you’re stressed.
Take medications only when needed. Antibiotics can wipe out your good bacteria within a few days. Also, NSAID pain relievers (aspirin or ibuprofen), metformin (a diabetes medication), and stomach acid blocking medicines can all disrupt your microbiome.
The Bottom Line
There are still so many things we don’t know about the microbiome. But the research really suggests it plays a vital role in your health and immunity. The bottom line – to support a healthier immune system, make sure you’re making healthy food choices for yourself and your microbiome.
If you’d like to learn more, or want help putting together a microbiome-friendly diet plan, contact Bodyworks for Your Health. Our team of nutrition professionals will work with you virtually. We’ll tailor a personalized plan to strengthen your immune system and support your long-term health.