It seems this time every year we are bombarded with ads for cure-all remedies, promising to help boost immunity and ward off colds and flu this season.
These remedies come in the form of supplements, super-foods, over-the-counter medications and the flu shot.
However, though many of them can offer a level of preventative benefits, the lesser-known key to boosting immunity lies in cultivating a diverse and healthy gut microbiome.
In today’s article, we’ll look how functional medicine uses specific foods and lifestyle changes to help you boost the health of your gut microbiome for stronger immunity.
The Gut Health-Immune System Connection
Thanks to Jamie Lee Curtis and early 21st century yogurt ads, most of us are aware that the majority of our immune system, about 70%, resides on our gut.
Therefore, it makes good sense that a healthy gut will help protect you from a variety of immune zapping invaders like viruses, bacteria and yeasts.
But how exactly does your gut health help protect you during cold and flu season?
The relationship between the gut and the rest of your immune system including your spleen, lymphatic system, mucous membranes, thymus, etc. is complex, but to put it simply they all work together to provide a protective barrier against infections[note]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0072579/[note].
Let’s look at how the gut works to protect you against pathogens:
A healthy gut has a strong resilient intestinal wall—picture it like a tightly knitted scarf, that allows nutrients in while keeping unwanted invaders out. While the inner gut ecosystem is teeming with a delicate and diverse balance of beneficial microbes.
The role of these microbes is vast, ranging from regulating digestion and mood to assimilating nutrients and modulating immunity, but one of their main functions is to create an environment in your gut mucosa which is inhospitable to “bad” bugs[note]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4528021/[/note].
In contrast, an unhealthy gut (also known as: Leaky Gut) has a weak and porous intestinal wall—picture it like a stretched out knitted scarf.
These holes and tears allow unwanted pathogens and undigested food particles to slip in, which disrupts and irritates your immune system. Since this is the location of most of the immune system, this ultimately leads to inflammation, allowing a potential overgrowth of “bad” bugs and a weakened immune response.
Therefore, to prevent infection and boost immunity you want to take steps to ensure your intestinal wall is healthy and strong, and the best way to do this is by diversifying and feeding your gut’s inner ecosystem.
Let’s look at how to do that right now.
The Top 3 Ways to Enhance Your Gut Immunity Today
While the study of the human microbiome and gut health immunity is vast and complex, the good news is there are 3 key things you can do right now to boost your gut immune system and reduce your chances of falling ill this season.
#1: Start eating these gut health superfoods daily (and stop eating these other ones)
With the holidays approaching and sugary treats rolling in, it can be easy to lapse into less-than-optimal eating habits fast.
However, while a cookie or a few chocolates here and there are unlikely to cause a problem for most, the key is to offset those indulgences by eating more gut-friendly foods daily such as:
- Cultured foods—such as sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir, cultured vegetable, kim chi and kombucha are all rich in probiotics which support gut diversity.
- Bone broths—like chicken, beef, turkey or fish broths are rich in gut-healing nutrients like collagen, amino acids and glycine. Chicken broth, specifically, has been shown to help ward off the early stages of the flu due to the amino acid: carnosine[note]http://journals.lww.com/americantherapeutics/Abstract/2012/01000/Management_of_the_Virulent_Influenza_Virus.14.aspx[/note].
- Fiber-rich vegetables and fruits—specifically vegetables and fruits rich in prebiotic fiber (which feeds probiotic cultures in your gut) such as onions, garlic, asparagus, chicory, jerusalem artichokes, mushrooms and bananas. You’ll also want to consume plenty of immune and detox-boosting colorful vegetables like leafy greens, sweet potatoes and brassica vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy, Brussel’s sprouts).
In addition to consuming these gut-immunity superfoods daily, we recommend avoiding excess amounts of refined sugar, white flour, gluten (especially if you have an existing chronic disease and/or you’re prone to infections), alcohol and dairy products.
Do you need to also take a probiotic supplement for your immune system?
While probiotic supplements can be very beneficial for enhancing your gut health, cultured foods can usually do the trick just as well for most.
However, if you’re unable to commit to consuming quality cultured foods daily, have persistent digestive or immune issues or feel like you’re coming down with something, a multi-strain probiotic supplement with prebiotic fiber would be a wise investment.
#2: Get more sleep
Of all the things NOT to skimp on this holiday season, sleep is paramount.
Why? During sleep is the time your body produces immune-boosting T-cells which help protect you from infection.
Further, a lack of sleep has been linked to higher susceptibility to the common cold and flu, higher inflammatory markers, immunodeficiencies and unhealthy changes in gut bacteria [note]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3256323/[/note] [note]https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/news/20161209/sleep-loss-tied-to-changes-in-gut-bacteria[/note].
In other words, a lack of sleep seriously impairs your entire immune system.
In the late fall and winter months, plan to get into bed as soon as possible. At the minimum you want 7.5 hours of sleep, but closer to 9 would be ideal.
The best way to do this is to start winding down after dinner and get into bed before 10PM…9PM is even better if your lifestyle permits.
If you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, check out previous post: “The 7 Undebatable Laws of Self-Health Creation” for some helpful, natural sleep tips.
#3: Try these stress-busters to strengthen your gut and overall immunity
Finally, the holidays can be a joyously stressful occasion, which leads to (you guessed it) poor digestive/gut health and immunity.
In fact, studies have shown stress can negatively affect trillions of healthy gut bacteria resulting in a slew of digestive and autoimmune issues[note]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22314561[/[note].
To help counter this, make a promise to yourself to practice at least one of the following gut-strengthening stress-busters:
- Practice deep belly breathing at least 3 times a day
- Exercise at least 20 minutes a day, 3 times a week
- Listen to music
- Connect with a friend
- Take a hot bath
- Get a massage
- Do some journaling
- Tap into your creative side—draw, sing, dance, etc.
- Focus on what you’re grateful for
- Laugh out loud
While these may seem like trivial things, self-care rituals like this have been shown to make a big difference to your stress levels, which will directly impact your gut health and overall immunity. Check out our membership page to learn more.
Though specific tinctures, supplements and Grandma’s chicken soup can be of great help and comfort when you’re under the weather, science says a healthy, diversified gut microbiome is your best defense against immune system invaders; now or any time of year.
Happy Healthy Holidays from The kNew Health Team