How Gut Health Boosts Your Immune System

It’s a known fact, but it never ceases to amaze: Humans are made up of as many bacterial cells as human cells, with the bacterial cells actually outnumbering the human cells at a ratio of about 1.3 -1. Bacteria lives on our skin, in our noses and ears, and most importantly, in our guts, where approximately 70 percent of the cells that make up our immune systems reside. The friendly bacteria in our guts break down and digests food, communicates with the immune system, and keeps inflammation in check.

Inside and Out

Because our intestines are inside us, we don’t think of them as what they are: a protective barrier between our bloodstream and the external world. What is inside our gut is actually “outside” our bodies. Our guts handle the pathogens in everything we ingest and therefore need an effective immune system to prevent illness. “Good” bacteria in our guts boost the effectiveness of gastrointestinal immune cells and prevents pathogens from being absorbed. Too many bad gut flora, including yeast and parasites, can have a negative effect on both your health and your waistline.

What Causes an Unbalanced Gut Microbiome?

Poor Diet: The food we eat determines the environment in our digestive tract. Eating processed foods high in sugar and fat, and low in fiber allows the wrong kind of bacteria and yeast to grow.

Medication: Anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, acid-blocking drugs, and steroids damage the gut and block normal digestion by killing good bacteria.

Toxins: Residues from pesticides, triclosan from antibacterial personal care products, BPA from plastics, heavy metals found in soil and drinking water, mercury, and mold can all disrupt the gut microbiome.

Decreased Digestive Enzymes: Stress, acid-blocking medications, and zinc deficiencies can all contribute to a lack of adequate digestive enzyme function, which means you won’t properly break down and absorb the nutrients in your food. Digestive enzymes also break down digestive plaque, which traps harmful bacteria in the gut.

Stress: Chronic stress can cause a decrease in blood and oxygen flow to your gut, an imbalance in gut bacteria and inflammation.

What is a Prebiotic?

Prebiotic foods are a food source for the good bacteria in our guts. “I take a food-first approach to improving the beneficial bacteria in your gut,” says Jenn Gargiulo, RDN, CSSD. “I encourage people to eat prebiotic foods, which are fiber-rich foods that feed the good bacteria and help produce butyric acid, which fuels digestive cells and protects the digestive tract from harmful bacteria.” Prebiotics are found in many fruits and vegetables, especially those that contain complex carbohydrates, and are not easily digestible, so they pass through the digestive system to become nutrition for bacteria and other microbes. Some prebiotic food sources are asparagus, avocado, banana, radicchio, garlic, onion, apples and potatoes. 

What is a Probiotic?

Probiotics are live microorganisms, most commonly specific strains of bacteria, that help maintain digestive health and boost the immune system when ingested. “Probiotics can be replenished with food and supplements to maintain healthy colonization in the digestive tract,” Gargiulo says. “You should eat fermented foods regularly.” That includes yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, tempeh, kimchi, miso, kombucha, pickles and buttermilk. However, you probably made a face reading that list; not everyone has a taste for fermented foods. Luckily, today, probiotics can be cultured in a lab and taken in supplement form.

Probiotic Strains and Their Benefits

The human body has over 500 different strains of probiotic bacteria, and many have been cultured in a lab and created in supplement form. However, each strain has specific benefits and targets specific problems. For example, lactobacillus acidophilus helps the body absorb nutrients and digest dairy foods. It supports immune and vaginal health. Bifidobacterium lactis, the probiotic strain in VitaHustle Reds & Greens, promotes a healthy immune response.  Recent studies have shown it to reduce respiratory tract infections and viral shedding in response to rhinovirus, which causes the common cold, to reduce the symptoms of nasal allergies, and to encourage a healthy immune response to vaccination. VitaHustle Vegan and Whey Protein contain a blend of lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacterium lactus, which supports respiratory health and energy levels in physically active adults, helps to reduce bloating and supports immune function.

The X Factors

There is no quick fix when it comes to overall health. While a healthy digestive system does contribute to the health of the immune system, so do many other factors. “When it comes to your overall health, sleep, exercise, stress, diet and fluid intake all play a role,” Gargiulo says. “Taking a probiotic supplement is unlikely to be of huge benefit if all these other factors aren’t addressed.”

Lindsay Berra

Lindsay Berra

Sports Journalist - http://lindsayberra.com/

Lindsay Berra is a New Jersey-based freelance sports journalist who contributes regularly to the Sports Business Journal, Baseball America, ESPNW, Fast Company, Men’s Health, Bodybuilding.com and other outlets. At MLB.com and MLB Network from 2013 through 2018, she established herself as an authority on baseball fitness and injuries. As a senior writer for ESPN Magazine from 1999 through 2012, she covered primarily ice hockey, tennis, baseball and the Olympics. Lindsay graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she played varsity softball and men’s club ice hockey. She is a Level 1 CrossFit coach, triathlete, avid hiker and yogi.