Most of us are well versed in the crucial practices of washing our hands and not touching our face by now, to protect ourselves from pathogens (a bacterium, virus, or other microorganisms that can cause disease) on a surface level.
But it’s just as important to take care of our immune system from within. The immune system is composed of various organs, white blood cells, and proteins called antibodies that work together against these pathogens threatening the body.
Basically, it hunts down and kills viruses. Now, some people may have a naturally weakened immune system either from underlying illnesses or an invasive medical treatment like chemotherapy. But for most people, our food and lifestyle choices can have a profound effect on the immune system.
So even if I do catch anything, having a robust immune system means I’d have the ability to put up an effective fight.
Which is why I’ve put together for you a three-part guide to try and offer some understanding on how you can strengthen your immune system – starting with the profound effect our gut health has on it. I hope these guides will not only help you protect yourself against the recent coronavirus outbreak but can also act as a reference point for the myriad of pathogens you’ll encounter through life.
Please note though, our immunity system isn’t built overnight. It takes time and continued effort to build it up. So the important thing is to start now.
Gut Health And Your Immune System
The health of our gut is incredibly important to our wellbeing, and of course our immune system too. The gut has more immune cells than the rest of the body put together, while some 70 percent of the immune system’s tissue is located around the intestines.
Our body’s greatest exposure to the outside world is through the lining of our intestines. This lining is extremely thin as our body needs to absorb nutrients from food through these walls. Because the layer is so thin, we must have a good defence mechanism in place, to keep the pathogens out. That’s where a type of white blood cell called intraepithelial lymphocytes come in.
These antibodies are the first line of gut defence against these pathogens, firing off toxin-killing proteins called cytokines and helping to repair the thin intestinal lining whenever it is breached.
Green Vegetables And The Gut
A 2011 paper from the National Institute for Medical Research in London, found that a dietary compound in green vegetables is key to maintaining the population of these intraepithelial lymphocytes in the intestine.
Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, kale, cauliflower, cabbage, and brussels sprouts are all great examples of vegetables rich in these compounds. Vegetables in our gut also act as a signal to our immune system.
With vegetables in our gut, it works as a signal to upkeep our immune system.
Now, most of us have been fed the idea that eating your greens is good for you since birth. But, during times like these, when deadly pathogens are at a high, it’s a good thing to remember what our parents drummed into us.
Feed Your Short Chain Fatty Acids (SCFAs) Properly
SCFAs are post-biotics – the byproduct of what the bacteria inside your colon is doing. We’re not capable of producing SCFAs on our own. What you need to give them is fibre – which is a prebiotic – that then goes on to feed and nourish our beneficial bacteria.
They then release these SCFAs which positively affect the entire body. For example, SCFAs have been shown to enhance the absorption of beneficial minerals, improve insulin sensitivity and shut down a leaky gut. SCFAs also directly inhibit unhealthy bacteria like E.coli and salmonella.
The key to getting more SCFAs is through our food. SCFAs are only produced by eating plants – it’s a by-product of fibre. But only five percent of us are getting the minimal amount of fibre we need.
When we starve our microbes from the SCFAs it needs, you’re losing the vital anti-inflammatory bacteria and promoting the pro-inflammatory bacteria. Once again, it all comes down to having plant diversity in your diet.
3 Easy Ways To Improve Your Gut Health
Eat More Prebiotics
Prebiotics are compounds in food that induce the growth of beneficial microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi in the gut. Essentially they’re food for our beneficial bacteria.
Having a diverse range and abundance of beneficial bacteria in our gut helps to program an effective immune response to any rogue pathogens or illness.
Eating whole foods, with a focus mainly on fruits, vegetables, seeds, legumes, beans, will provide you with an abundance of antioxidants and fibre, and are crucial as a prebiotic for our gut.
Start slow and work up. Don’t go from eating no vegetables to eating eight cups a day.
Another big tip to bear in mind when increasing fibre in your diet, is to coincide the uptake with drinking more water. People can get bloated from increasing fibre because they’re not drinking enough water to push the food through. Which leads us onto the next point.
Make Sure You’re Well Hydrated
Water benefits us in many different ways, from gifting us with beautiful skin to improving our cognition and mood.
So it’s little surprise then that drinking plenty of good quality filtered H2O has been shown to have a beneficial effect on the mucosal lining of the intestines, while also benefiting the balance of good bacteria in the gut.
The average person in the Nederlands only drinks 1.7 litres per day, which is well below the recommended average of 2.5 litres. So make sure you keep an eye on your water consumption and get those eight glasses into your daily routine.
Keep A Check On Your Stress Levels
While you may think of stress as more of a mental state, it can also have a physical effect on our gastrointestinal system and the bacteria that reside within it.
A 2017 study found that high levels of stress can have a similar effect on your gut bacteria as a high-fat diet. Another study from the same year also raised the idea that a reduction in beneficial gut bacteria can in turn produce stress-induced activity.
It’s a vicious cycle, with stress altering the bacteria in your gut, and the gut bacteria then having a significant influence on your stress levels.
Mindfulness practices can be key in this instance such as meditation. Research from Johns Hopkins University was able to draw a strong link between mindful meditation and reports of decreased anxiety and depression.
So, in admittedly anxious times like we are in it makes sense to at least attempt to practice some form of mindfulness. If not for your sanity, then do it for your gut.