There has never been a better time to take a closer look at how effectively our natural defences kick into action when challenged. To keep that healthy, happy feeling, it’s important to understand how the various pieces of the puzzle fit together. For many of us, that means developing a deeper understanding of one of the body’s most important functions – the immune system. Think about your immune system and possibly one of the first things you picture are white blood cells working together to attack viruses, as well as harmful cells that we call pathogens and antigens.
While that’s true, over 70% of the immune system resides in the gut and it has even been described as the immune system’s ‘control tower’1! This means that to support the overall immune system and keep our bodies fighting fit, it’s important to focus on what we’re putting into our gut, and specifically how we fuel the trillions of bacteria in our digestive tracts. So, how does our gut contribute to the immune system? And perhaps more importantly, what can we do to support it?
Communication between the gut and the brain
The key to understanding this important relationship is that the digestive system operates on its own self-held nervous system, which communicates with the brain in what we call the ‘gut-brain axis’2. As well as keeping pathogens at bay from the food and drink we consume via the intestinal wall, the gut can also send signals to the brain that alter or change how our body functions. Importantly, this means that keeping a happy, healthy gut, could influence how effectively3 our bodies can fight threats from viruses or pathogens.
Harness the power of fibre
For some, dietary fibre – material that the body cannot easily digest or absorb – is most notably known for its use in relieving constipation. However, its benefits certainly don’t end there. Fibre is found naturally in a very wide spectrum of foods including fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, or can be taken independently as a supplement. Bifidobacteria, the ‘good bacteria’ in the gut are stimulated by fibre, which is the ideal fuel for them.
Many people today do not consume their recommended daily intake of fibre, and therefore aren’t getting the full benefits. A study4 conducted on behalf of Public Health England found only 9% of adults aged 16-64 and 7% of adults over 65 obtain the recommended intake of 30g of fibre per day. Fibre is a great way to support overall digestive health, which in turn could help the body react to harmful pathogens. By making sure our gut health is taken care of, we can support the other parts of the body as they perform their own roles – the immune system is no different!
Vitamins & minerals
Another way to strengthen the natural defences of the body is with other essential nutrients. Supporting long term gut health can play a key role in helping the body to fight off illness by allowing the complex system of organs to function at their most effective. As part of a long-term balanced diet, vitamins A, C, and D can play useful roles in bolstering immune function5. Vitamin A has been the subject of many recent studies looking at its role in strengthening the immune system by regulating immune responses6. Vitamin C supports the cellular function of both the innate and adaptive immune system, strengthening the epithelial barrier (the skin’s initial line of defence) and Vitamin D is thought to stimulate immunologic cells that protect us7.
While studies are ongoing, evidence suggests that a healthy and diverse microbiome could help to support the overall immune system8, including the significant portion that resides in the gut itself 9. When looking to strengthen and support the immune system, it’s clear the gut could be our most important single tool – and perhaps one of the most unexpected!
- Boosting immunity through gut bacteria
- The gut-brain axis: interactions between enteric microbiota, central and enteric nervous systems
- The interplay between the gut immune system and microbiota in health and disease: nutraceutical intervention for restoring intestinal homeostasis
- National Diet and Nutrition Survey
- Vitamin C and Immune Function
- Role of Vitamin A in the Immune System
- Vitamin D and the Immune System
- Role of the Microbiota in Immunity and Inflammation
- Microbiome and the immune system: From a healthy steady-state to allergy associated disruption
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