Understanding Gut and Immune Health

Woman with a happy healthy stomach
With current events and the heightened risk to our immediate health and immune system, due to COVID-19, it’s important to speak to the basics of our immune system and how crucial our gut health is to how they function together and keep us healthy! They really do rely on each other to keep us protected from harmful pathogens, because 70% of our immune system tissues are IN our gut (1). Our immune system functions within a body of tissues, housed within our intestinal walls. Which is where most of its operations happen to protect us from outside pathogens, or harm.

The connection between our Gut and our Immune System

To put this into some perspective – our entire intestinal tract, small and large intestines, are a combined length of about 25ft. That’s an incredible amount of real estate our gut occupies! Now, all along that same 25ft of intestinal tissue, there is a small layer of tissue within that intestinal lining that reads, evaluates, and responds to everything that passes through our intestinal tract and comes into our body. Everything! This is called our gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT), making up that 70% of our immune system!

When receiving contents that we eat, our gut digests it down to more manageable pieces that our immune system knows how to read. Those pieces come through our intestinal wall, and on a microscopic level the immune system goes through an evaluation process of those pieces – deciding “is this part of me, my body, or healthy for me?” or “is this dangerous, not part of me, and bad for my body?” If it’s safe, it gets tagged as safe with an antibody so we don’t get an inflammatory response, and everything is great. But, if it’s dangerous, it gets tagged as dangerous with a different kind of antibody that starts a whole series of reactions to eliminate it.

Starting with inflammation – our body’s alarm system that alerts the heavy hitters of our immune system (macrophages, neutrophils, eosinophils, mast cells, B-cells, T-cells, etc.) to come take care of the problem and then create more antibodies that will recognize that harmful thing the next time it comes into our gut for optimal safety and protection!

That is really the fast and quick way to describe the front line of our immune system and how it interacts with our gut. So I hope that helps to paint a basic picture of exactly how our immune system functions, and how it really does rely on our intestinal lining being in prime condition. This way, our immune system is primed and ready to attack real invaders, like a virus!

When problems arise with our gut lining

BUT – what if your gut lining wasn’t healthy so now and larger pieces of what we consume pass through it? Otherwise known as a “leaky gut” where a lot of normal things we eat, pass through in bigger pieces our body doesn’t recognize as safe. How might our immune system respond exactly?

If you guessed, it wouldn’t respond happily, you’re right! Which means we start to see chronic inflammation started by our immune system, and an increase in immune system sensitivity (due to it being on high alert for harmful things coming in). Now, because our immune system is on overdrive when this happens, it places us at a higher risk of other infections and chronic conditions. Leaky gut has a prevalence of 30-65% of people with diabetes, about 35% of individuals with irritable bowel syndrome, and similarly, 36% of individuals with polycystic ovarian syndrome and autism.

Most of these conditions WE as individuals can do something about to help reduce the severity in how these conditions present themselves, or at least help reduce the load on our immune system to give it a much needed break so it can focus on much more important protective duties, right?

So, to know how to help keep our guts healthy, it’s important to know what damages that lining and causes it to “leak” unwanted contents past our immune system!

Common triggers of leaky gut

  • Diet high in processed omega-6 fatty acids or trans fats: fried foods, process foods like crackers, processed peanut butter, vegetable oils, corn oil
  • Altered gut microbiome – often times caused by frequent antibiotic use
  • Stress
  • Nutrient deficiencies
  • Chronic use of medications

These are all pretty common triggers for the majority of people nowadays. I can imagine we all experience stress more often that we would like, enjoy some great foods either in celebration or to sometimes help cope with that stress, have gone to the doctor for a sinus infection or 2 throughout a year, and many have medications they need for a chronic condition they have.

Now that we have clarity on these things, it’s equally important to think about what we can control, prevent, reduce, or do better with, to ensure our gut health is in the best condition it can be in. Because, we now know that if our gut health is in good condition, our immune system will be as well!

Things that keep our gut healthy

  • Reduce processed fats – try to avoid having fried foods often, look for peanut butters that DON’T have hydrogenated oil, and use oils such as olive oils, coconut, or avocado oils.
  • Include more fermented foods or drinks like kombucha, kimchi, pickles (less ingredients the better).
  • Create a stress management or self-care routine to help reduce that burden on your mind, and your gut.
  • Eat the rainbow – eating whole foods that are vibrant in color like sweet potatoes, berries, yellow/orange/red peppers, bright collared swiss chard or broccoli, can help boost your phytonutrient intake and whole foods sources of vitamins.
  • A good quality probiotic
  • And depending on the type of medication you might be on – it may be worth asking your prescribing physician if there is a plan to reduce or eventually eliminate it.

At STRONGLIFE Functional Medicine in Lithia, FL, Dr. Justin Scott can help you address any underlying issues, whether you realize they’re there or not, and improve your overall health.

“I hope that you found this as valuable as my patients have over the years. If you’re interested in a patient-centered process that takes into account all aspects that affect your health, then I would encourage to visit our website at www.stronglifefunctionalmedicine.com to see how we help our patients improve their health and to find if you are a good candidate for a Functional Medicine approach.

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2515351/
  2. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/327235797_Association_between_increased_intestinal_permeability_and_disease_A_systematic_review#read

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