Most people are told to wash their hands, exercise regularly, and prioritise sleep to support a strong immune system. In fact, it’s likely that you’ve been hearing these ‘tips' since you were a small child. Yet, every year the dreaded cold season returns, and with it comes an itchy throat, stuffy nose, and headache. So you might be wondering what went wrong.
While those classic tips are impactful, when it comes to supporting your immune system, there's one organ in your body that actually plays a big role in your digestion, energy, and even your mood: the gut. And recent research suggests the gut also plays a big role in the health of your immune system as well. But why? And how...
Your gut has a huge impact on your overall health. In fact, it influences many functions in your body– including the immune system! And supporting your gut health is one of the easiest things you can do to fight against the common cold.
What are some signs that your gut and your immune system may not be in sync?
First of all, let's look at what happens when the gut is unwell and out of balance. Some of these symptoms are so subtle that you may think they’re completely normal.
You feel tired after eating
Sure, you're not supposed to do a high-intensity workout right after a meal. Your body (and gut) needs time to digest food and distribute nutrients. However, if you need to take a deep nap straight after eating, it might be a sign from your body that your gut is imbalanced.
Bloating after a medium-sized meal: of course, your stomach will bloat a little if you've just eaten a meal: it's full, after all. However, excessive bloating and feelings of pressure could be a sign that something is not quite right with your gut.
If you have to drink 3 cups of coffee every day to get things moving, you may be dealing with bigger gut health issues.
Headache and irritability
Almost everyone feels ‘hangry’ (hungry + angry) from time to time. This is due to low blood sugar, which you can manage by eating the right foods and balanced meals. But, if you are feeling especially irritable after a meal, it may be because your stomach is tight, you feel tired, or bloated. These are clear signs you need to support your gut.
How are the intestines and the immune system linked together?
Most of our immune cells are located along the mucosa lining the intestinal wall. They regulate which food components are allowed to enter our bloodstream, which are then transported to the cells, muscles and organs.
If the intestinal wall is damaged and the intestinal bacteria cannot do their job optimally, substances that do not belong there enter the bloodstream and trigger an immune response. This protective response (inflammation) ensures that these unwanted substances are destroyed, dissolved, and excreted. However, if the body is constantly busy reacting to foreign substances, the intestine has less energy to repair itself and preventively fight off unwanted substances.
70% of all immune cells are located in the small and large intestine; almost 80% of all defence reactions take place here, which is why the intestine plays a huge part in our immune system.
To support a healthy gut, you need to support your gut microbiome. Your microbiome is the TRILLIONS (yes, trillions!) of bacteria that call your body home (sounds gross, but it's true!). And scientists are now learning just how important these bacteria are, affecting everything from your metabolism to your mood. When it comes to supporting your microbiome, most people will tell you to take a probiotic, but the BEST food for your good gut bacteria is a special type of fibre called a "prebiotic."
What are the best foods to feed your gut bacteria (and thus support your immune system)?
So how can you feed and support your gut? Once again, the answer comes from Mother Nature!
Some foods, such as Jerusalem artichoke, celery, lemon balm, lemon, ginger and apple (with peel), contain substances that increase the release of digestive enzymes. This means that important nutrients can be broken as you chew and the dietary fibres enter the intestines as healthy bacterial food.
Generally speaking, fruits and vegetables that are naturally bright, colourful and seasonal help strengthen the gut.
Foods rich in prebiotic fibres, such as whole grains (cooked, sprouted, rolled and soaked), bananas, potatoes, figs and Jerusalem artichokes are also popular gut foods. Think of prebiotic fibre like food for your beneficial gut bacteria.
In addition, spices that are naturally antimicrobial and contain essential oils, such as ginger, chilli, turmeric and pepper, aid digestion and keep the bowels moving.
Fermented foods such as miso, yogurt, and pickled vegetables have a probiotic effect, directly supplying 'good' gut bacteria.
5 tips to strengthen your gut
1. Take a break
Try to leave at least 3 hours between your meals and snacks. This gives the intestines time to digest in peace, empty the stomach and prepare the digestive system for the next meal.
2. Chew thoroughly
It's best to incorporate foods into your meals that you have to consciously and thoroughly chew. This strengthens the connection between your gut and brain and helps keep your body in balance. Sam recommends fresh fruit and seeds for breakfast, leafy greens, nuts and lentils for lunch, chunky vegetables and whole grains for dinner.
3. Flavour, flavour, flavour
Spice up your dishes with seasonings! Ginger, parsley, citrus fruits, mint, pineapple, green apples, radishes and spicy sprouts and rocket are some of the best spices to pepper into your preparations. These ingredients activate the sense of smell and support the feedback and communication between the gut, the immune system and the circulatory system.
4. Lots of sleep
Our gut loves sleep. Just two consecutive nights of insufficient sleep can cause hormonal changes that affect appetite, mood and the connecting link between brain and gut. Struggling with restless sleep? Don’t worry, we've got you covered with some tips for better sleep.
5. On the move
No need to be an athlete, a simple walk around the park or in your favourite neighbourhood is already doing a lot of good to your body! Moving activates the immune, lymphatic and hormonal systems and promotes communication between all of them.
The immune system depends on many organs in the body that interact and influence each other holistically. Improving the health of your gut is not a race! Be sure to give yourself time to implement changes and try to stay focused on the big picture. The best place to start is with what you eat, as this is the nutrient base for all the energy needed for immune defense, digestion, and more.