Heal It - The Immune System and your Microbiome
Welcome to my new “Heal It” series. The first few articles will focus on immune health and simple actions you can take to improve the function of your immune system.
Improve your gut health to improve your immune system.
You’ve probably heard that your gut is its own little ecosystem with a plethora of bacteria – around 100 billion of them! This incredibly diverse group, called the microbiome is made up of around 900 strains of bacteria. Sometimes a few of them get a bit overzealous and start taking up more room than they should at the expense of others. When things get unbalanced you might experience symptoms such as bloating, food sensitivities, excess gas, diarrhoea and constipation. An imbalanced microbiome has even been implicated inflammatory auto-immune diseases such as Chrone’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis and type 1 diabetes.
What can damage your microbiome?
Ultra-processed foods and foods with added sugars feed unhelpful bacteria, so it's best to keep these foods to a minimum. Sudden changes to your diet can also play havoc, such as when travelling overseas, or going on a diet which removes whole food groups. When travelling it’s a good idea to take a shelf stable (i.e. doesn’t need refrigeration) probiotic product with you. If changing your diet, get advice on how to minimise the impact on your gut health.
Some medications and antibiotics can damage a healthy microbiome and so it might be necessary to take a probiotic supplement. If taking antibiotics, don’t take them at the same time as a probiotic, as the medication will simply kill off the good guys you’re trying to build.
What should you eat to keep your microbiome healthy?
The bacteria in your gut love fibre, both insoluble and soluble. Insoluble fibre is the type you can see in fruit, vegetables and whole grains. Insoluble fibre is the type that turns into a sticky gel substance from cooked oats & chia seeds. Other great sources of insoluble fibre are avocados, sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts, pears and barley.
Fermented foods are also great sources of helpful bacteria. Think sauerkraut, apple cider vinegar (with the ‘mother’), miso, low fat yoghurt, kimchi and kefir.
A word of warning on kombucha! Yes, kombucha is a great source of probiotics, however some brands I’ve seen have over 7g of sugar per serve. Be sure to read the nutrition label! Aim for under 1g of sugar per serve.
What are targeted probiotics?
While using a general broad spectrum formula (i.e. lots of different stains) is always good for general wellbeing and digestive function, at times, I might recommend using a targeted formula. Targeted probiotics are strains which have been shown to have specific benefits or specific functions. Some great examples are:
Lactobacillus Plantarum for “Leaky Gut”: You may have heard the term “leaky gut”. No this doesn’t mean your intestines are leaking as the name suggests. What it does describe is a decreased function of the intestinal barrier. Inflammation, illness, medications and nasty bugs like helicobacter pylori can lead to the sticky (mucous) lining of the gut not being as effective as protecting the delicate layers underneath. This can lead to bloating, cramping, diarrhea and excess gas. L plantarum can help repair the gut lining to reduce the symptoms.
Lactobacillus Rhamnosus (LGG) for immune support: People who get frequent colds and allergies may benefit from this strain. Studies have shown that L rhamnosus increases immune cell function to reduce symptoms of respiratory tract inflammation and viral infection.
Bifidobacterium animalis BB12 for chronic constipation: People with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and older adults may find themselves with the discomfort of chronic constipation due to the reduced action of the bowel (peristalsis) in moving the stool. BB12 has been shown to increase the frequency and comfort of bowel movements.
These are just a few examples of how specific strains of probiotics might be chosen to improve your immune system and general health.
Diversity is key
Evidence points to the more diversity of microbiome, the more beneficial it is to your immune system. It has been identified that each of the major systems of mammalian life (yes, that includes humans) benefit from different populations of the microbiome. Organs of the respiratory, gastrointestinal, neuromuscular, cardiovascular and even the skin all have interactions with microbiome.
Our microbiome is a vital part of our wellbeing. If treated with respect, the cross-talk between these amazing organisms and our body has the potential to improve our immune system and heal disease.
Next time in Heal It, we’ll learn about immune boosting foods. Does vitamin C really stop you getting a cold? Why does chicken soup comfort us when we’re ill. Can mushrooms improve our immune system? Stay tuned as we deep dive into more natural health therapies in my Heal It series.