Most people are aware that digestive health is important for the effective breakdown of food and the absorption of nutrients, and with the growing research into the microbiome many other important functions in the gut are being identified. For instance, our gut bacteria are involved in the creation of chemicals that support our mood, our healthy blood sugar balance, and energy. We’re only beginning to understand the importance of our digestive system for our immune health.
When looking at winter immune health we predominantly think about looking after the airways, since inhalation is one of the main ways ills and chills tend to enter our system. If bugs establish themselves in areas like the nose, throat and chest they can start to increase in numbers, and in time this can start to affect normal function of the airways.
Understanding this process, we can see that to stay well our body needs to be ready to detect invaders as soon as possible and our immune system needs to be capable to mobilise defences quickly to provide protection.
Since this all takes place in the airways, how does our digestive immune system play a part? It comes down to some pretty sophisticated communication systems within our body. When the lung cells become aware they are facing an immune challenge they send out signals that reach the cells in the digestive system. In turn, our gut cells trigger a body wide alert system. Our natural immune system responds by mobilising the immune defences in the lung area, along with a clean-up team. With a fast response to the clever communications our body does an amazing job of defending itself.
How does the gut send out its warning messages?
We now understand that when cells in the gut receive a message from other parts of the body signalling an attack, enzymes called lysozymes are produced. Strangely these enzymes begin to break up and digest the good lactobacillus bacteria in our gut. The digested bacteria are broken into cell wall fragments which are used as the signals to be sent out into the body to alert the greater immune system.
It then stands to reason that to support a healthy immune response we need a healthy digestive system and an abundance of good bacteria to use as signals.
How can we support a healthy gut immune system?
Our lactobacillus bacteria perform a number of important jobs within the digestive system, as well as their key role in our immune health. For example, they support the health and integrity of the cells lining the digestive system, which provide a barrier between what we have eaten and the rest of the body. Lactobacillus bacteria produce lactic acid which creates a favourable pH in the digestive system that supports the balance of good and bad bacteria. They are also needed to create nutrients, like B vitamins. These bacteria also create chemicals that support the body in many ways, from mood to blood sugar balance.
However, the healthy balance of beneficial bacteria can be affected at times by things like stress, medication, poor diet, and pollution. Given their importance we need to work on keeping our lactobacillus bacteria populations at good levels.
Tips to support good bacterial balance
- Increase fibre especially from fresh fruits and vegetable. Fibre provides fuel for the body to create a large number and wide variety of healthy beneficial bacteria. Nature has provided us all we need to grow our own bacteria and create our immune defences. We just have to provide the right foods to do this.
- Fermented foods provide a great variety of bacteria from plant sources, Increase fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha and kefir.
- Probiotics can be supportive at times to give a boost to our beneficial bacteria. However, they only provide a small number of the bacteria species.
Support gut integrity
If you think your digestive system is not functioning at its best, your gut walls might not be as strong as they could be. Some signs of poor integrity can include reactions to allergens, poor skin health, poor digestion, increasing negative reactions to different food groups, as well as poor immune health.
We need strong walls to keep out the bacteria, pollution and undigested foods from entering into the blood stream. If this starts to occur, then the immune system within the bowel becomes preoccupied with trying to defend the gut wall and less efficient at sending the much-needed early warning signals round the rest of the body. Therefore, we need to keep our gut walls in good order, so they act as a first line of defence.
Tips to support gut integrity
- Increase good bacteria as they help maintain our digestive walls.
- Drink or cook with bone broth.
- Consume more turmeric, quercetin in citrus fruit, and glutamine to calm and soothe the lining.
When do we need some extra support?
If we follow this advice, then our digestive system will be ready for the advent of winter ills and chills. However, there may be times when despite everything we start to feel like we are coming down with something.
So, is there anything else we can do via our digestive system?
- Cell wall fragments of probiotics, known as lysated probiotics are non-living probiotics obtained from live probiotics that have been dried and broken. The cell wall fragments support our immune system signalling for a robust response. They can be used by people who feel they could use extra immune support in the winter months, to support our body with switching on its natural immune defences as quickly as possible.
- Beta glucans are sugars that are found in the cell walls of bacteria, fungi, yeasts, algae and plants, such as oats and barley. When consumed they are broken down by the digestive cells and support a healthy immune response. This can be supportive to use alongside our own immune defences.