Hippocrates once said that “all diseases begin in the gut,” and recent science supports this quote. From your digestive tract to your cardiovascular system and beyond, the presence of a diverse array of healthy bacteria in your gut is critical to your overall health and wellness.
Like any well-oiled machine, the human body requires a balance between systems to achieve optimal function, especially gut health. While much of our world is hyper-focused on decreasing bacteria in our day-to-day lives through antibacterial soaps and cleaners, antibiotics and other similar agents, our bodies actually rely on nearly 100 trillion such cells to carry out essential functions.
Less exposure to bacteria – good and bad – than ever means we are now seeing increased rates of certain conditions like obesity, cancer and heart disease.
Here’s how gut health and bacteria impact immune function, plus a few simple ways you can ensure the bacteria in your body are set up to thrive.
The Good and the Bad of Gut Bacteria
Bacteria play a wide range of important roles in our day-to-day lives, and some of the most essential of these microorganisms make their homes in our gastrointestinal tracts and digestive systems. At proper levels, the trillions of bacteria that inhabit our bodies are mostly beneficial to our health and well-being, with contributions like:
• Setting up checks-and-balances to protect the immune system
• Controlling metabolism by helping to break down carbohydrates and toxins
• Limiting the growth of harmful bacteria
• Producing and synthesizing vitamins like folic acid, niacin, and vitamins B6 and B12
A healthy gut microbiome has also been scientifically linked to lower rates of heart disease, improved mental health and better immune function, among other positives. If bacteria levels are out-of-balance or a person’s gut lacks necessary bacterial diversity, individuals are likely to experience GI distress. This can include symptoms like:
• Heartburn or reflux
• Other digestive discomfort
• Allergy responses to food or the environment
Additionally, the system-wide inflammation often associated with bacterial overgrowth (dysbiosis) may lead to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease, colitis, or Crohn’s disease. People with imbalanced gut bacteria are also more likely to have significant health problems, like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and autoimmune disorders.
Factors That Harm the Human Gut
The development of your gut microbiome starts before you are even born, and it is impacted by nearly everything you do after. This means you have a lot of ability to influence the quality and quantity of gut bacteria through the foods you eat, the environments to which you are exposed, and other factors.
Factors that can harm your GI tract include things like:
• Eating an unhealthy diet that is high in fat, sugar, dairy products and processed foods
• Exposure to toxins in your environment from chemicals in household cleaners and personal care products
• Consuming medications like antibiotics or laxatives that are known to alter the gut microbiome
• High levels of stress
Though not all these factors can be easily controlled, managing what you can will significantly impact your digestive system’s function – and ultimately improve the operation of your immune system and your overall health.
Good Digestive Health = Good Immune Health
While some lifestyle choices decrease the presence or diversity of beneficial bacteria in your internal ecosystem, one of the easiest ways to bolster your immune health is through optimizing your gut health. You can do this by helping good bacteria flourish by:
• Eating a healthy diet that includes high-fiber foods (like leeks, legumes, and whole grains), prebiotic- and probiotic-rich foods (like tempeh, sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, miso, or other fermented foods), and healthy fats
• Staying adequately hydrated by drinking plenty of water
• Engaging in regular exercise
• Avoiding alcohol, smoking, and other damaging habits
• Managing stress
• Getting enough sleep
• Taking supplements meant to support the growth of healthy bacteria
Taking such proactive steps can help to safeguard your body against a weakened immune system from poor gut health.
Supplements to Improve Gut Health
Several supplements improve your gut microbiota by supporting the production of naturally occurring vitamins, nutrients and enzymes in your system. Common supplements for improving gut health include:
• Probiotic supplements, which can help prevent infections and alleviate symptoms of GI upset.
• Digestive enzymes, which can supplement the role of naturally-occurring enzymes to adequately break down food and toxins in the body.
• Glutamine, which is the preferred food source for the gut and helps maintain its villi, the finger-like cells responsible for absorbing nutrients and carrying them to where they are needed in the body.
• Omega-3s, which work to increase the growth of the strains of bacteria responsible for producing anti-inflammatory fatty acids.
• Comprehensive GI Support, to assist in reparing the lining of your gastrointestinal system.
Supplements are available over-the-counter and should be used in conjunction with healthy lifestyle choices to achieve the best results in terms of immune function and overall health. You should always consult with your primary care physician or qualified wellness expert before beginning a long-term supplementation regimen.
A healthy gut is a vital part of a healthy life. From supporting essential functions like digestion to combating harmful, disease-causing agents, your body relies on a precise balance of good bacteria to maintain well-being. For more information on improving your immune function by taking care of your gut, contact Village Green Apothecary and speak to a nutrition advisor.