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The gastrointestinal tract houses a significant proportion of the body’s immune cells. A whopping 70-80% of immune cells including varying types of white blood cells live within the gut, playing a vital role in regulating immune responses and defending the body against infections and threats. Gut health is, therefore, key to supporting immune health.
Poor nutrition, disruptions to the gut microbiome, along with both emotional and physical stress, can all negatively affect gut health and are all major players when it comes to low immunity and the development of notorious winter coughs and colds.
The “gut” aka the gastrointestinal tract, is home to trillions of microorganisms, collectively known as the gut microbiome. This diverse community of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microorganisms interacts with the immune system. The microbiome is made up of a mixture of good bacteria (known as the commensals) and those with the potential to be problematic bacteria. It is important to strike a balance between the good gut bugs and the potentially bad ones, by increasing the abundance of the beneficial bacteria.
A balanced and diverse microbiome is essential for a healthy immune response. Lack of fibre, colour and diversity in your diet can negatively affect the microbiome. This has the potential to cause low levels of beneficial bacteria, that support immunity via antimicrobial, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties.
The gut barrier
The lining of the digestive tract serves as a physical barrier that prevents harmful substances, such as pathogens and toxins, from entering the bloodstream. A well-maintained gut barrier is crucial for preventing infections and supporting immune function.
Processed foods and food additives, excessive alcohol intake, environmental toxins and chronic stress are factors that can play a role in the breakdown of healthy tight junctions in the gut. This can lead to what is known as ‘leaky gut’, whereby substances that would normally be restricted to the digestive tract can pass through the intestinal lining and enter the bloodstream, which can trigger an immune response.
The immune response
The gut is rich in immune cells who patrol the gut, identifying and neutralizing potential threats. The presence of immune cells in the gut is essential for early detection and defence against pathogens.
Immunoglobulin A (IgA) is the most abundant antibody in the mucosal immune system with approximately 90% residing in the gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT). It is the first line of mucosal immunity, playing a crucial role in immune defence as well as the regulation of the gut microbiome. Low IgA can be a result of factors such as ongoing emotional or physical stress or prolonged use of medications such as antibiotics. Lack of specific nutrients such as vitamin D can also have a role to play in the levels of IgA.
Supporting your immune system
A balanced and diverse microbiome is crucial for maintaining a healthy immune system. But how do we support the microbiome?
Eat a diverse range of foods
Consume a variety of different fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices.
Add fibre-rich foods into your meals
Fibre can help support the growth of short-chain fatty acids. These are the main fuel source of the cells within the colon, that help to maintain a healthy intestinal lining. Additionally, short-chain fatty acids promote bowel motility, helping to avoid constipation.
Swap ultra-processed foods for whole foods
Processed foods can contain lots of additives, emulsifiers and potentially harmful ingredients that can negatively affect the microbiome and lead to gut permeability. Opt for minimally processed foods as close to their natural state as possible, e.g. a potato (natural) vs. a crisp (ultra-processed).
Add in some probiotic sources
Incorporate some live yoghurt, kefir, fermented pickles, and miso into your meals. These are the foods that will help to populate the beneficial bacteria.
Include prebiotic-rich foods
Include prebiotic foods such as onions, garlic, leeks, and chicory on your plate. Prebiotics are non-digestible fibres that help to feed the beneficial gut bacteria.
Go easy on the alcohol
The festive season can often be accompanied by an increase in alcohol intake. However, excessive alcohol can cause inflammation in the gut as well as damage to the gut lining, affecting the integrity.
Lifestyle Tips for Boosting Immunity
Promoting a healthy gut and immune response also involves adopting lifestyle changes. Here are my top 3 lifestyle tips to support your immunity this winter:
1 – Manage stress levels
Stress comes in many forms, be it emotional, physical, or even chemical stress. It not only disrupts the gut barrier, but it can also increase cortisol levels and affect the immune response.
- Support emotional stress via breathing techniques, meditation, mindfulness practices, yoga and increasing social connection.
- Support physical stress via avoiding overtraining or having too little fuel in your body. Swap excessive cardio for low impact training and ensure you’re not skipping regular meals.
- Support chemical stress via the avoidance of harmful toxins such as cigarette smoke and environmental pollutants.
2 – Prioritise your sleep
Sleep deprivation can weaken the body’s immune response, with the potential to increase susceptibility to infections.
For a better night sleep, aim to:
- Create a regular sleep-wake cycle
- Get to sleep as close to 10.30pm as possible
- Sleep in a cool and dark room
- Try using a white noise machine if you are a light sleeper
- Avoid screen time 1 hour before bed
3 – Get outdoors in nature
Being in nature can have multiple benefits, including a positive effect on the microbiome, calming the nervous system and the regulation of the circadian rhythm.
- Get outdoors first thing to get morning sunlight to support a healthy sleeping pattern.
- Take gentle walks in nature to calm your mind.
- Access local woodland / coastal areas for some fresh mineral-rich air.
Winter is a time to slow down, focus on comfort and spend time nourishing the body.
During this time, focus on the small changes that are sustainable for you to keep as regular daily habits.
The Linwoods range offers easy and convenient products to add into your everyday routines. The milled flaxseed with Bio Cultures and added vitamin D is a perfect breakfast topper to elevate your gut health and immune system this winter.
Registered Women’s Health Nutritional Therapist & Nutrigenomics Practitioner
Cara Shaw is a Registered Women’s Health Nutritional therapist & Nutrigenomics Practitioner with a special interest in PCOS, infertility and hormonal imbalances. Her expertise in nutritional therapy is all about uncovering the root cause of issues and diving deep into the ‘why’, in order to support an individual via both nutritional and lifestyle recommendations. She draws from personal experience to empower others.