A lot has been learnt in regards to washing our hands and the etiquette around coughing and sneezing. However, one aspect of protection that has received little to no attention is our gut health.
Our gut makes up around 70% of our immune system. It is our first line of defence against harmful bacteria, viruses and toxins in the environment. The gut plays a major role in maintaining a healthy immune system, much more than you may realise.
Immune System overview
Our immune system is made up of an innate (built-in) and an adaptive (responsive to threats) component. Innate protection includes physical barriers such as skin, chemicals in the blood and immune system cells that attack foreign cells within the body. It’s sometimes called the non-specific immune system because it attacks common foreign pathogens (harmful substances) only if it recognises them.
Whilst the adaptive immune system, as the name suggests ‘learns’ about new threats and develops ways to deal with the specific pathogens and builds immunity for the future. Sometimes, the adaptive immune system inadvertently sees our own body cells as ‘invaders’ and attacks them. This is known as an autoimmune disease. The most common autoimmune diseases include Lupus, Rheumatoid arthritis, Psoriasis, Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), Type 1 Diabetes and Multiple Sclerosis (MS).
The role of the gut in immune response
There are trillions of bacteria that live in our bodies, especially within the gut. These tiny organisms are a complex and diverse group that live in our digestive tracts, and are commonly known as microflora or gut flora, but often are referred to as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ bacteria.
As the name suggests, good bacteria help protect our health, whilst bad bacteria is out to harm us. To learn more between the difference of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria, read Digesting the difference between good and bad gut bacteria.
The gut microbiota can regulate not only the local intestinal immune system but also the systemic immune response. In other words, it interacts with the innate and adaptive systems to protect us.
What can go wrong?
Because the gut is our first line of defence, we need to ensure that it is performing at its best. There are several factors that can impact how well it does its job.
An imbalance between good and bad bacteria
Known as gut Dysbiosis, it can affect our health in many ways. Dysbiosis is implicated in inflammatory bowel diseases, as well as metabolic disorders such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. It may also affect the nervous system. The integrity of the gut lining depends on commensal bacteria, a kind of bacteria that live in a relationship where one organism derives food or other benefits from another organism without hurting or helping it.
When the lining of the gut is compromised by poor gut health, the intestinal walls can become permeable – a condition known as Leaky gut or intestinal permeability. Which means our gut barrier ‘leaks’, and the harmful substances can get in. When this happens, our immune system goes into overdrive, and things go from bad to worse.
A number of factors are known to disrupt the natural balance of gut microflora:
- Antibiotics and antibacterial medicines
- Increased consumption of sugars, refined starches and processed foods
- Increased consumption of food additives such as preservatives, emulsifiers and artificial sweeteners
- Traces of harmful chemicals in our foods (from pesticides or toxins on unwashed fruit and vegetables)
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- High levels of physical or psychological stress
How to maintain good gut health – and a strong immune system
The most effective way to avoid gut health issues is to avoid the causes listed above. However, this is not always possible, especially stress. And exactly what goes into our food is not always under our control.