Boost Your Gut Health to Boost Your Immune System
Written by Invictus Athlete & Nutritionist Jenn Ryan
With the cold and flu seasons upon us, it’s time to put some focus on our gut health. Wait, what? That’s right, boosting the health of our gut can boost our overall health as well! Research has uncovered an intricate web connecting our gut flora to virtually every process in our body. As such, imbalances in our microbial communities have been implicated in countless health issues, including immune health, psychological well-being, and some of the deepest chronic health issues of our times.
How Your Gut Regulates Your Immune System
The gut is exposed to the outside environment, which makes it highly vulnerable to attack by outside invaders. Our gut could be an entryway for many pathogens into the bloodstream and from there to other organs. Our body uses this vulnerability and continual exposure to the environment to its advantage though! Our gut microbes are constantly in communication with the part of the immune system located in the intestine, discriminating between the harmless and harmful foreign bodies. This immune system is highly mobile. Some of our immune cells living in the intestine can be exposed to a pathogen, and will spread throughout the body to inform other tissues of that pathogen. Essentially, they coordinate a response from the gut to the rest of the body if there is a harmful ‘invader.’
The word microbiome is defined as the collection of microbes or microorganisms that inhabit an environment, creating a sort of “mini-ecosystem”. Our human microbiome is made up of communities of symbiotic, commensal and pathogenic bacteria (along with fungi and viruses) all of which call our bodies home. The communities in our microbiome carry out a variety of functions which are vital to not only our health and well-being but our very survival.
When talking about our immune system, our microbiome establishes the parameters in which our bodies judge whether or not something is friend or foe. It maintains harmony, balance, and order amongst its own communities, ensuring that opportunistic pathogens are kept to a minimum, while also keeping the host system from attacking itself.
Someone can become exposed to a virus such as the common cold or flu by touching a surface contaminated with their germs and then touching their nose or mouth. Another form of exposure is via droplets in the air from a cough or sneeze. This virus attaches to the mucosa and tissues of the body, namely the nose and throat. The immune system then sends out white blood cells to attack, and inflammation occurs, resulting in various symptoms such as runny nose, sore throat, cough, fevers, etc. These immune cells that aid in fighting off the virus are Natural Killer cells and T-lymphocytes (T-cells), which are produced and live in the gut.
The Collagen Connection to Gut Health
Collagen, a protein found in the gut’s connective tissue, can help support and strengthen the protective, semipermeable lining of your intestinal tract. This essentially forms a sealant in the gut wall so that food particles, pathogens, and bacteria are unable to permeate the lining and pass into the bloodstream, yet allows for the healthy nutrients our body needs to pass through. Collagen makes up 25 to 35 percent of our body’s natural protein content. Although our bodies do naturally produce collagen, that production peaks in our early twenties, then slowly declines. So, we can support this through the diet with various sources described later.
How to Incorporate Gut Boosting Food into Your Diet
Eat fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, Greek yogurt, and fermented coconut yogurt, or a collagen protein supplement. Bone broth (recipe here) contains collagen, so this is one way to incorporate it into your daily intake. Other natural food sources of collagen include: spinach, kale, tomatoes, beets, and fish, amongst many others.
When beginning to incorporate these foods into the diet, it’s good practice to start small and gradually build. Incorporating ‘prebiotic’ foods – good foods for the bacteria in your gut- is beneficial as well. These would include onions, sweet potatoes, and other fibrous foods.
Fermented foods tend to be an acquired taste, so starting out with small amounts and finding foods you enjoy the combination of flavor with can take some experimentation. For instance, some people like kimchi with their eggs or with red meat. Sauerkraut is often enjoyed on bratwurst or sausage. Collagen supplements can be found in various forms. Marine collagen is absorbed faster than other forms, and hydrolyzed collagen peptides are smaller in structure and more easily absorbed into the bloodstream than other forms.
Eat Your Way to Better Gut Health with this 2-Week Plan
Getting started with something new can be confusing and overwhelming. Many already struggle with meal prep. This doesn’t have to be difficult – you might already be doing some of these things. Below is a plan to help you get started. Even if you only get half the foods in for Week 1 – that’s a pretty good start! Just stick with the Week 1 plan until you are able to complete all the tasks then move on to Week 2. If you’re interested in learning more this topic or would like a plan specific to you, email Jenn Ryan.
Monday: 1-2 cups bone broth. (Drink alone or cook your rice in it)! + 2-3 cups leafy green veggie.
Wednesday: 1-2 cups bone broth (serve as desired). + 2-3 cups leafy green veggie. Sauerkraut or kimchi (as desired).
Friday: 5 ounces Greek yogurt or fermented coconut yogurt.
Saturday: 1-2 cups bone broth (serve as desired). + 2-3 cups leafy green veggies. + Sauerkraut or kimchi (as desired).
Monday: Collagen supplement (have in a shake or coffee). 2-3 cups leafy green veggies.
Tuesday: 5 ounces Greek yogurt or fermented Coconut yogurt + Collagen supplement + 2-3 cups leafy green veggies.
Wednesday: Collagen supplement + Sauerkraut or kimchi (as desired).
Friday: Collagen supplement + Sauerkraut or kimchi.
Saturday: Collagen supplement.