You will know that strong immune system is vital to help us ward off common illnesses such as colds and flu, as well as reducing our chances of developing more serious diseases and autoimmune disorders. But did you know how important the gut is in overall health?Around 80% of our immune system can be found in our gut, where our gastrointestinal tract plays host to up to 1000 species of bacteria which can be the key to a person’s immunity and health status.1
Luckily, it is easy to be kind to your gut and strengthen your immune response with a few easy lifestyle changes.
Why bacteria are so important for our health
In the fight against illness, bacteria might seem like a dirty word. However, the presence of trillions of microbes and bacteria in our bodies- known as our microbiome- is not only completely normal but also very important to our health. This population of friendly microbes lives mainly in the gut, and plays a major role in the functioning of our immune system, which helps keep the whole body well. An imbalance in our microbiome leads to digestive issues such as bloating, diarrhoea, indigestion and can exacerbate conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Good and bad bacteria
Out of the trillions of bacteria that live in our bodies, so-called ‘friendly’ or ‘good’ bacteria are beneficial microbes which help the body perform vital functions such as digestion. The ‘bad’ bacteria are the rarer type which can cause infections if the body is not able to fight them off. The levels of friendly bacteria in the body must be abundant for the immune and digestive systems to work effectively, so it is important that we make lifestyle choices which support our microbiome.The latest research indicates that keeping this balance of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria is a vital part of overall health, and a healthy microbiome has been linked to better digestive health, weight management, boosted mood and fewer allergies. Our gut microbiome changes with factors such as pregnancy, age, environment, stress, diet, and medications each making an impact. Scientists in the US have been studying the gut microbiome’s role in metabolism, immune defence, mood and behaviour and the huge role your gut plays in overall health is only just beginning to be fully understood.2
Dirt is not the enemyYou may remember being taught to fear catching germs as a young child. Perhaps you listened, or perhaps you were one of those adventurous babies who was caught trying to sneak soil into your mouth while playing in the garden! Well, there may have been logic in this after all, as scientists now believe that exposure to dirt and germs in infancy is vital when it comes to building a healthy immune system, as the body must learn which microbes are harmful and which are benign. There is strong evidence that lack of exposure to germs in infancy could increase the risk of health problems such as colitis and allergic asthma.3
Too much of a good thing?
Many of us use products such as hand sanitisers in an effort to stay healthy and germ-free. However, these products do not discriminate and destroy our ‘good’ bacteria along with the ‘bad’, which can end up compromising our immunity defences. Being deprived of exposure to common bugs leads to a weakened immune system, which can then go into ‘defence mode’, triggering an inflammatory response when faced with even the most harmless of microbes.Excessively disinfected environments caused by hand sanitisers and the over-use of anti-bacterial household sprays have been linked to the increase of conditions such as asthma and inflammatory bowel disease over recent years.4
Of course, it is sensible to practice good hygiene such as washing your hands before meals and after a visit to the bathroom to protect ourselves from potentially dangerous germs. However, excessive use of anti-bacterial products can be detrimental to your body’s immune response.
How can I feed my gut microbiome?
Eating a diverse diet rich in fruit, vegetables and fibrous foods is a great way to feed the good bacteria in your gut and help keep it in balance.Probiotic foods that promote good bacteria in our gut include fermented products such as sauerkraut, miso, kimchi, and probiotic yoghurts. These foods help prevent gastrointestinal disorders.5
Don’t worry too much about disinfecting every surface in your home, as exposure to everyday dirt is important in ensuring your immune system is firing on all cylinders.
Take antibiotics only when recommended by your doctor, as these can wipe out your population of friendly bacteria along with your infection.
Wash your hands with soap and water after visiting the bathroom, and before preparing food.
Let children play outdoors and get muddy. This will ensure they develop a strong immune system which will benefit their health enormously as they grow up.
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1. Enders, Gulia. Gut. London : Scribe, 2015.
2. [Online] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26449893.
3. [Online] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3411171/.
4. [Online] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2841828/.
5. [Online] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4844621/.