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February 15, 2021 5 min read
Similar to our thumbprint, our gut microbiome sets us apart as no two are alike. Our bodies house over 100 trillion microorganisms, a readily evolving composition that changes with each bite we take. These microorganisms– some “good” and some “bad” either make up a balanced and diverse composition that supports digestion and immune health, or one out of balance linked to greater risk of illness and chronic disease. Here are five ways to boost your immune system through your gut.
What is gut health, how it affects your health and why it is important:
A multitude of factors influence gut health and it starts as early as birth. Babies that are delivered via C-section have less diverse microbiomes than those delivered through the birth canal where they gain exposure to diverse beneficial bacteria. Research suggests that C-section babies grow up to be at greater risk for allergies, asthma and diabetes. Additionally, growing up “too clean” has been found to do more harm than good to our microbiomes. Exposure to germs and bacteria within reason may help strengthen the microbiome and set kids up for less health problems later in life such as asthma, allergies and autoimmune diseases.
A healthy microbiome is one that is balanced and diverse, and is key to a healthy immune system. While researchers are continually learning more and more about gut health, it is currently believed that our gut houses 70 to 80 percent of our immune cells. This huge percentage makes maintaining the health and integrity of our gut that much more vital. Besides our gut’s link to immune health, research in the past two decades has revealed links to mood, mental health, brain health, heart health, hormones, weight, skin conditions and cancer. Besides factors at birth and adolescence that affect gut health, much is still in our control as adults including diet and lifestyle, which is empowering!
Five ways to improve gut health and boost your immune system
Probiotics are live beneficial bacteria that when introduced into the body, can help balance out the ratio of “good” and “bad” bacteria. These bacteria provide benefits in a multitude of ways. For one, they help extract nutrients from the food we eat including zinc and iron. Additionally, they may support immune healthy by inhibiting growth of harmful gut bacteria and promote production of antibodies and immune cells. Some research suggest that certain probiotic strains can also help support heart health by aiding blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Fermented foods are particularly rich in probiotics and include yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi and yogurt. Try a fruit yogurt bowl for breakfast or add a scoop of sauerkraut to your egg scrambles. Instead of milk in your afternoon smoothie, try kefir. If you are kicking a soda habit, try gut-friendly kombucha for familiar carbonation.
Prebiotics are fermentable fibers that pass through our system undigested and help feed the good bacteria in the gut. While fiber-rich plant-based foods are good options, foods particularly high in these prebiotic fibers include oats, apples, garlic, Jerusalem artichokes, dandelion greens, green bananas, onion, leeks and asparagus. Wonder Drink is the first brand to launch a prebiotic kombucha. The amount of prebiotics found in one 12-ounce can of Wonder Drink Prebiotic Kombucha is equivalent to that found in 15 green bananas or a half-pound of onions. While kombuchas are often touted for their probiotics, they often do not survive shelf life like prebiotics, and are sensitive to heat, moisture and acid. This is something to keep in mind when choosing kombuchas.
When both probiotics and prebiotics are incorporated into the diet, they work together to enhance gut health, digestion and overall immunity. Try diced onion as a flavor enhancer in stir-fry’s and soups, roasted asparagus as an easy weeknight dinner side dish or a handful of dandelion greens in your smoothie.
One study published in 2019 in the Frontiers in Nutrition journal found that individuals following a vegan or vegetarian diet had a more diverse and stable gut microbiota than those following an omnivore diet. These results suggested that a plant-based diet may be an effective way to promote a diverse ecosystem of beneficial bacteria that support overall health. Plant-based foods are naturally rich in fiber, which is a nutrient important for gut health and one that Americans do not get enough of according to NHANES data.
While you do not have to be a complete vegetarian or vegan to reap these benefits, there is something to be said for incorporating more plant-based foods and ingredients into your meal rotation. Try going meatless once a week and opting for new plant-based protein sources in lieu of meat like legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains. If you are feeling inspired, join a CSA and have a local farm box of in-season produce delivered each week to encourage creativity in the kitchen. If you want to start small, try simply incorporating one more serving of veggies every day.
While there are certain foods that can support a healthy gut, there are also foods that can do more harm than good. The Standard American Diet or “SAD” diet is characterized by foods that happen to reduce gut diversity and promote inflammation including hydrogenated oils, trans fats, refined carbohydrates, domestic meat and added sugar. These foods also may decrease the number of good bacteria in the gut and support an environment more conducive to allowing the “bad” bacteria to thrive.
Over-the-counter painkillers, drugs and antibiotics can also alter the microbiome in a negative way. Antibiotics, while prescribed for killing harmful bacteria, will do so while wiping out the good bacteria as well, thus disrupting the balance.
Alcohol is another gut health culprit that encourages overgrowth of harmful bacteria while reducing the population of beneficial bacteria.
There are many lifestyle factors that support gut health and thus immunity. For one, exercise may increase the diversity of gut flora. One 2020 study published in the Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition found that athletes have more diverse gut floras than non-athletes. Exercising for 150 minutes per week or 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week is the recommendation made by the CDC for healthy adults.
Sleep also plays a key role. Lack of sleep often leads to poorer food choices and increased alcohol and caffeine consumption, all of which can disturb gut flora. Some tips for getting a better night’s sleep include limiting screen time before bed, going to bed and waking up at the same time every day and using blackout curtains to support melatonin production, the hormone is produced in response to darkness that helps regulate sleep and wake cycles.
Emotional stress can also affect gut bacteria, which some scientists refer to as the “gut-brain connection”. Fortunately, lifestyle factors like adequate sleep and exercise can help alleviate this stress. Additionally, habits like journaling, yoga, meditation and social support may be of benefit.
While gut health is multifaceted and complex, the best way to support it is by simply following a healthy diet and lifestyle. Focus on incorporating more plant-based foods with an emphasis on prebiotic and probiotic foods as well. Getting regular exercise and adequate sleep will also do a world of good for your gut and immune system.
Mia Syn, MS, RDN is a nationally recognized registered dietitian nutrition expert and founder of Nutrition By Mia, a popular online wellness destination. She holds a master of science in human nutrition from Columbia University and has been featured by dozens of major media outlets including Women's Health Magazine, Cosmopolitan and BuzzFeed. As one of the most recognized and trusted young nutritionists in the country, she has helped millions of viewers, readers and clients learn and implement healthier, sustainable eating habits.
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