Ever wonder why some people get sick more often than others? Or why some people get hit harder with the flu or cold while others seem to get over it more quickly? We are all exposed to germs, however, the mere exposure of germs does not correlate to getting sick. What impacts susceptibility to illness is the function of our immune system.
When looking at ways to optimize immune function, it’s important to acknowledge the connection between our immune system and two other systems; the digestive system often called our “gut” and the nervous system or the brain. Approximately 70-80% of the immune system is found within the gut, which means proper diet is key to a healthy immune system. There are also more neurotransmitters, brain cell messengers, in the gut than in the brain.
In this first part of a three-part series, we will address how to optimize gut function by manipulating our diet and the use of key nutritional supplements. Part two we will address how to optimize nervous system function and finally in part three we'll discuss the immune system itself.
Optimize Gut Function
First of all, it is important to recognize symptoms that are connected to how well our gut functions. Some symptoms may be more obvious, such as gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, irritable bowel symptoms, but others are less commonly associated with poor gut function. These include skin issues such as acne, rosacea, psoriasis, dry skin, rash, as well as yeast infections, congestion, allergies, asthma, brain fog, joint pain and mood issues like anxiety, depression and irritability.
The two main dysfunctions of the gut is dysbiosis or imbalanced gut flora, more bad bacteria than good and intestinal permeability. Intestinal permeability, happens when the villi that line and protect the gut, become damaged. Chronic elevated cortisol levels due to stress is a common cause of intestinal permeability often called “leaky gut”. When the barrier is damaged, food proteins leak into the bloodstream undigested. This initiates an immune response which in turn becomes overactive, producing inflammation throughout the entire body.
The 3 Rs: Reduce, Replace, Restore
To rebuild healthy gut flora, restore the integrity of the gut barrier and improve immune function, I recommend the 3 Rs, reduce, replace and restore.
Reduce Carbohydrates. Gut bacteria feed on carbohydrates, especially sugars. In addition to reducing sugar intake, I recommend decreasing overall carbohydrate intake as well as avoiding certain types of longer chain carbohydrates as bad bacteria like to feed on them.
Longer chain carbohydrates to avoid include:
- Grains: wheat, rye, barley, oats, quinoa, rice
- Legumes: beans, soybeans, chick peas, bean sprouts
- Starchy veggies: corn, arrowroot, cornstarch, tapioca starch
Carbohydrates that are okay in small quantities include:
- Fruit: low-sugar fruit such as berries are a good choice
- Root veggies: winter squash, rutabaga, turnips, celery root
- Non-starchy, low-carb veggies
Reduce Sugar & Artificial Sweetener Intake.
Sweeteners to avoid include:
- Sugar, high-fructose corn-syrup, agave syrup, honey, maple syrup, coconut palm sugar, aspartame (NutraSweet) and sucralose (Splenda)
Reduce Common Food Sensitivities. If the immune system in the gut is busy defending itself from foreign food proteins that leak into the bloodstream, rather than being digested, it may miss more serious foreign matter, such as bacteria and viruses. The following are the most common food sensitivities.
- Peanuts and other nuts
- Artificial colorings and preservatives
When rebuilding healthy gut flora and restoring the integrity of the gut barrier, I recommend eliminating the most common food sensitivities for at least 3 weeks. If you still struggle with any of the gut issues listed above, then I would recommend testing for food sensitivities.
Replace Digestive Enzymes and/or Hydrochloric Acid (HCl). Compromised stomach acidity is a common dysfunction of digestion. Additionally, when you don’t have enough digestive enzymes in your gut, you can’t properly breakdown foods into the raw materials necessary to run your body and brain. Supplementation with broad-spectrum digestive enzymes before eating may help. If you are experiencing indigestion, acid-reflux, or GERD-like symptoms, supplementation with HCl with betaine may help. It is best to work with a practitioner when supplementing with this.
Replace Depleted and/or Deficient Nutrients.
- B-vitamins, especially B-12, and folate. If the gut isn’t working properly, it has difficulty absorbing nutrients. Supplementation with a quality B-complex formula may be helpful.
- Vitamin D. Research shows that vitamin D deficiency may be contributing to intestinal permeability or leaky gut. Vitamin D also plays a critical role in modulating the immune system and down-regulating inflammation. Supplementation with vitamin D3 is often necessary, especially in the winter months.
- Magnesium. Magnesium is the most commonly deficient mineral. It plays an important role in how food passes through the digestive tract. Supplementation with magnesium is often necessary. If constipation is an issue, I recommend magnesium citrate; if it is not an issue, I recommend magnesium glycinate.
Restore Probiotics. These friendly bacteria that live in the gut have many important functions, such as aiding in digestion and absorption, production of vitamins, elimination of toxins, keeping bad bacteria under control and providing vitamin support to the immune system. Not only do they help in the development and operation of the immune system in our digestive tract, but they also aid in the production of antibodies to pathogens.
Eat fermented foods such as:
- Unpasteurized sauerkraut and pickles, as well as Kevita or Kombucha type beverages
Supplement with high-quality probiotics:
- A quality probiotic supplement should ideally contain >15 billion species
Restore with Bone Broth. Bone broth helps restore a healthy gut lining that is often damaged from chronic stress, bacterial overgrowth and certain medications. Bone broth is also rich in collagen, gelatin and glutamine, which is especially beneficial for those with a damaged gut lining. For more information on bone broth and how to make it, check out Vanessa’s article: Bone Broth: Can Food Be Medicine?
In the next part of this series, we’ll talk about how to optimize the nervous system and brain health in order to support the immune system. In the mean time get started on the 3 Rs and you will be on your way to a healthy immune system.
About the Author
Andrea McDaniel, is a Holistic, Integrative and Registered Dietitian, Sports Nutritionist, Certified Personal Trainer and owner of My True Health, LLC. Andrea believes in an integrated approach to achieving true health and weight loss. She helps her clients get off the disease path and onto the path towards optimal health by getting to the root cause of their health issues.
Copyright © 2012 Andrea McDaniel, My True Health, LLC
This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.