Gut Health and Immunity – Is There a Connection?
By Elyse Therrien RD
Elyse Therrien is a Registered Dietitian who works for Loblaw Companies Ltd.
With cold and flu season fast approaching, you might be busting out the vitamin C and zinc supplements to help ward off those viruses. Something that doesn’t rush to mind is making sure your digestion is in tip-top shape. In fact, I find that digestion seems to worsen in these colder months as holiday parties increase and bring with them the treats and inconsistent eating!
So, why should you be concerned about your gut when thinking of trying to strengthen your immune system? It might surprise you to read that your gastrointestinal tract is home to the largest number of immune and microbe cells in the body. Up to 70 percent of your immune system is housed in your gut. These immune and microbe cells work together not only to promote optimal gut health, but also optimal immune health.
How do I know if my gut is healthy?
The short and sweet answer to this question is that you wouldn’t have any symptoms that suggest there’s something wrong with your gut to begin with. That means you wouldn’t be suffering from things like constipation, diarrhea, feeling bloated or very gassy on a regular basis. It’s normal to get these symptoms on occasion, but when they become regular occurrences, it might be a sign that there’s something off with your gut.
The hallmark of a healthy gut is a varied microbiota (the collective community of microorganisms that live in the gut), and the presence of the right balance of microorganisms in that community. Simply said, you want a lot of ‘bugs’ in your intestines, but you want the right kind of ‘bugs’ that will help fight off the other, less desirable ones. Unlike the population of our country, we can’t exactly do a census of the population of our gut. So how can we ensure that we’ve got this right balance of varied gut microorganisms?
Nutrition and gut health
The best thing you can do for your gut is to eat a healthy diet, including some key nutrients.
Probiotics is an umbrella term for the many good-for-your-gut bacteria. There are many types of probiotics and researchers only starting to scratch the surface of their many benefits. That said, we know that specific probiotics offer benefits specific to immunity. These include:
• Lactobacillus gasseri, CECT5714 or PA16/8
• Lactobacillus acidophilus, 74-2 or NCFM
• Lactobacillus casei, DN 114
• Bifidobacterium longum, SP07/3,
• Bifidobacterium bifidum MF 20/5
A much more delicious way of including probiotics in your diet is to make room for some fermented foods . The first thing that comes to mind when you think ‘fermented foods’ is probably yogurt, and you’re right! Yogurt can be a great source of probiotics if they’ve been added back after pasteurization, a process that kills off all bacteria: both the good and the bad. All you have to do to know if yogurt has had probiotics added after pasteurization is to look for the words ‘live active cultures’ on the label.
Other fermented foods that may not have come to mind as quickly include:
• Kefir, a fermented milk product that has a texture similar to drinkable yogurt
• Sauerkraut, fermented cabbage
• Kombucha, fermented tea
• Pickled vegetables
Think of fibre as the bones of plants; it’s more or less what helps plants keep their rigid shape, just as bones are the frame of our bodies. The closer a plant is to its original form (i.e. the less we process it), the more fibre it retains. Not only does fibre help keep everything moving from the belly button down (also very important for gut health), it can also promote healthy community of gut bacteria.
It’s important to remember that the good bacteria that live in your gut are just that: alive in your gut. Like any other like live being, they need to eat! Although it’s advisable to have a diet rich in all types of fibres (whole grains, legumes, whole vegetables and fruit), there are certain fibres called prebiotics , that are well known to feed your gut bacteria. Some common prebiotic-rich foods include rolled oats, chickpeas, lentils, savoy cabbage, onion, garlic, leek, barley, cashews, grapefruit, soy beans.
What can hurt my gut health?
We just went over the multiple ways we can encourage a healthy gut microbiota. If you’re wondering what can harm this community of bugs in your gut, it’s eating in a way that has exactly the opposite effect! The easiest way to describe such a diet is a typical western diet : typically highly processed foods, low in fibre, rich in simple carbs and saturated fats. All these things contribute dysbiosis, an imbalance of the bugs in your gut, by either feeding the bad-for-you-gut bacteria, or by not promoting the good-for-your-gut bacteria.
Another way we can negatively impact our microbiota in by taking antibiotics . Remember that these good-for-your-gut bugs are in fact bacteria, so sometimes a required round of antibiotics can offset the balance in the gut’s bug community. Ever notice an increase in yeast, or looser stools after taking these medications? That’s a sign that you’ve lost some good bacteria along with the bad! The best thing you can do is to take antibiotics exactly as prescribed by your healthcare provider. Secondly, you could consider increasing your intake of probiotics during this time which will help restore the good bacteria, not the bad.
What else can I do?
The gut can play an important role in immunity. You will also often hear about how important the importance of getting enough sleep, as this is the time your body restores itself and fights off infection and inflammation. Another common recommendation is to get into a regular exercise routine and to manage stress, as these can play a role in maintaining the balance of the bug community in your gut.
In addition to all of that, there are also several more dietary approaches you can take like ensuring your get enough of your antioxidants by eating a variety of different coloured vegetables and fruits. To help you tie all of these things together, or to help get you started, one of the most powerful steps you can take is speaking to a Registered Dietitian. They’ll help you get started with practical tips you can start incorporating right away!
If you would like support from a Registered Dietitian to help create an optimal diet that is just right for you, Dietitian services are available through Shoppers Drug Mart. Visit www.shoppersdrugmart.ca/dietitians and schedule a free 15-minute call to learn more.
The information provided is for personal use, reference and education only and is not intended to be a substitute for a Physician’s advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please consult your healthcare professional for specific information on personal health matters. Please note: Dietitian services are currently only available in Ontario. Please contact your store to learn more. ®/TM 911979 Alberta Ltd. ©2020 Shoppers Drug Mart Inc.
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