Perhaps more than ever before, people are searching for ways to strengthen their immune systems. I’ve been talking a lot with patients about immunity, and many of them are surprised when I mention the link between the gut and the immune system.
While your gut may not be the first thing you think of when it comes to immunity, it actually plays a vital role in immune health. In fact, over 70 percent of your immune system is located in your gut!
The gut and the immune system have a mutually beneficial relationship, working together to help one another grow and flourish. They even “talk” to each other, starting when you’re born and continuing throughout your life.1
The development of your immune system is affected by your microbiome, the constantly-changing community of bacteria and other microorganisms that lives in your gut. And your immune system, in turn, has an impact on the composition of your microbiome.1
Beneficial bacteria in the gut work directly and indirectly to prevent illness, preventing the growth of bad bacteria while also stimulating your body’s immune response.2
The organisms in your gut also keep the walls of your intestines strong, creating a barrier that prevents disease-causing pathogens from entering.2
Because the gut and immune system are so entwined, a healthy gut is key to a strong immune system, and to overall wellness. But when the delicate balance between good and bad bacteria in the gut is thrown off — whether by too much junk food, a course of antibiotics, stress, or other factors — your immune system may be weakened.3
Just as lifestyle choices like diet can negatively affect your gut, so can they work to help heal it. Here are some steps you can take to balance your gut and strengthen your immune system.
1. Eat a Diet Rich in Whole Foods
When discussing gut health with patients, I typically start by asking them to look at their diets. Changing the way you eat is a relatively simple yet very effective way to improve gut and immune health.
I suggest avoiding processed foods. Instead, focus on vegetables, fruit, and other whole foods that will provide the beneficial bacteria in your gut with fuel. Make sure to incorporate fermented foods like yogurt and kimchi that contain probiotics (good bacteria) as well as prebiotic foods like onions and garlic that promote the growth of good bacteria in the gut.
2. Cut Out (Or At Least Cut Down On) Refined Sugar
I know it’s not easy to eliminate sugar from your diet, but it really can make a huge difference in the health of your gut. Refined sugar can decrease the diversity of bacteria in your gut, and can allow illness-causing microorganisms to crowd out beneficial ones.4
Remember when I explained how gut bacteria help keep the walls of your intestines strong? Excess sugar intake has been associated with a condition known as “leaky gut” or intestinal permeability.4 With leaky gut, the barrier provided by your intestinal walls is compromised, potentially allowing harmful organisms and allergens to enter your bloodstream and make you sick.
3. Consider Probiotic Supplements
Even if your diet includes probiotic-rich foods, you may want to consider a probiotic supplement. They typically contain multiple strains of beneficial bacteria that prevent harmful microbes from colonizing your gut. When your gut is full of good microorganisms, the bad ones don’t have room to grow.
Since a balanced gut is key to a strong immune system, taking a probiotic supplement is a good way to boost your immunity. I’m happy to work with you on choosing the right product for your unique needs.
4. Find a Way to Reduce Stress
Ever notice that you seem to get sick more often when you’re stressed out? That’s because chronic stress can weaken your defenses, lowering your body’s ability to fight off illness. This is due at least in part to the effect of stress on your gut.
Stress can interfere with communication between your gut and your brain, leading to impaired immune function. It’s also a contributor to leaky gut, meaning your intestinal walls aren’t able to effectively keep out the pathogens that may make you sick.3
5. Consult an Expert
While there are general things everyone can do to support gut and immune health, working with a functional medicine practitioner like myself gives you the opportunity to personalize your care. We can work together to identify food intolerances, and I can make specific dietary and supplement recommendations.
Your gut and your immune system are deeply connected, so a balanced gut is critical for a strong immune system. Supporting both will help you stay healthy.
1. Nicholson JK, et al. Host-gut microbiota metabolic interactions. Science. 2012 Jun 8;336(6086):1262-1267.
2. Lazar V, et al. Aspects of gut microbiota and immune system interactions in infectious diseases, immunopathology, and cancer. Front Immunol. 2018;9:1830.
3. Karl JP, et al. Effects of psychological, environmental and physical stressors on the gut microbiota. Front Microbiol. 2018;9:2013.
4. Do MH, et al. High-glucose or -fructose diet cause changes of the gut microbiota and metabolic disorders in mice without body weight change. Nutrients. 2018;10(6):761.