Ever heard the phrase, “you are what you eat”? This may take on a whole new meaning when considering gut health and your immune system.
The foods you eat influence how healthy your gut is, but did you know that it may also influence the way you fight off sickness and infections?
What is even more interesting is that it is because of the trillions of bacteria that live within your gut.
But how exactly does good gut health boost your immune system? And how can you use this understanding to promote a strong, powerful immune response? First, an understanding of what good gut health is can begin to make this connection.
What is Good Gut Health?
The gut is made up of trillions and trillions of bacteria collectively called the gut microbiome. This microbiome contains a mixture of “good” and “bad” bacteria, and it is believed that the balance of these is vital in maintaining good health.
Research has shown that the gut microbiome is responsible for multiple aspects of human health, including metabolism, heart health, and brain function (1).
The makeup of your gut microbiome is directly influenced by what you eat. This is probably no surprise since eating certain foods and following certain diets is well-known to influence your overall health status.
There are certain foods that promote good gut health. These include foods rich in good bacteria, or probiotics, such as yogurts, kefir, and kimchi. In addition to foods, researchers have recommended taking some supplements too boost levels of good bacteria and promote good gut health.
The Gut-Immune System Connection
The immune system is responsible for fighting off infections and diseases from pathogens trying to invade the body. It is the body’s defense mechanism to keep you healthy.
While this system is powerful and extremely high-functioning, most people get sick sometimes. A lot of research has gone into the best ways to keep your immune system functioning as best as possible to avoid getting illnesses and infections.
If you want to improve your health, you start with your gut as research has established a clear link between the state of gut health and immune system function (2). The foods you eat have a direct influence on your health status and the general risk of getting sick, making a clear link between gut health and immune health.
Bacterial Metabolites Interact with Immune Cells
The gut is separated from the rest of the body by a layer of cells that makes up the intestinal wall. While this wall acts as a barrier to keep contents inside the gut, it also allows for the transportation of selected molecules and compounds into the bloodstream. This allows those compounds to be distributed throughout the body and includes nutrients and minerals released during the digestion of food, as well as metabolites of bacteria in the gut.
The bacterial metabolites are transported throughout the body, where they interact with immune cells. These metabolites can influence the immune function response in the body, therefore impacting the overall response to pathogens.
The Immune System Monitors the Gut Microbiome
Immune cells are also found within the intestinal wall and play a role in transporting bacterial microbes into the bloodstream and monitoring the internal gut microbiome. The constant sampling of the gut microbiome by immune cells allows the immune system to develop. The system regularly scans the bacteria for threats and unwanted pathogens.
This process allows the immune system to develop a response to the bacteria already within the body to ensure optimal function should unwanted pathogens enter the body. The presence of immune cells in the intestinal wall also promotes a healthy immune response.
Does Good Gut Health Help Your Immune System?
Due to the clear link between the two systems, good gut health is important in promoting healthy immune function. The bacteria in the gut directly influence gut health, and subsequently, how well your immune system functions is also altered.
As the bacteria in your gut function, they release metabolites that are picked up by immune cells. Increased proportions of good bacteria in the gut promotes a highly functioning and powerful immune system.
Promoting a Healthy Gut
The foods we eat directly impact our gut health, influencing our immune function. So it is important to consume foods that are high in good bacteria (probiotic foods), in order to increase good bacterial populations within the gut.
Additionally, healthy, whole foods are important as they promote the growth of good bacteria. Fatty, sugary foods will promote bad bacterial growth and the subsequent release of toxins.
Also, supplements can be used to provide extra probiotics, nutrients, and minerals to promote good gut health.
Promoting a healthy gut microbiota means more positive metabolites are taken up by the body, causing an increase in overall immune function and response to infection. An imbalance, or overrepresentation of bad gut bacteria, can cause dysregulation of the immune response leading to an increased risk of chronic health conditions and inflammation (3).
Research Demonstrating the Gut’s Influence on the Immune System
A review from the University of Arizona concluded that the bacterial makeup in the gut has a significant influence on immune function (4). Among other conclusions, the researchers found that the microbiome influenced the development of autoimmune diseases.
Another scientific review concluded that environmental factors, including diet and supplement consumption, influence the microbiome (5). In particular, the researchers demonstrated that what individuals consume can lead to microbial imbalances within the gut that subsequently impacts immune function.
The Bottom Line
Our gut is home to an enormous amount of bacteria, both good and bad, that help to digest and break down our foods. Through this, they release molecules into the body that directly impacts immune cells and the immune system.
The balance of the bacteria in the gut directly influences how the immune system functions. It is important to maintain good gut health in order to promote a healthy, happy lifestyle.