Relation between gut and immune system

Remember that first time you saw the love of your life and how your stomach felt a little queasy?  Or the time you remembered you didn’t shut off the iron while you were sitting in a quarterly review meeting and thought “well, that house was past its prime anyway” all while your stomach did somersaults? Wait, was that just me?

No, I’m not alone. You see physiologically, this thing called the ‘vagus’ nerve is intimately connected with your brain and your gut (and many other organs!). It is named as such because the nerve controls such a broad range of target tissues and is partially responsible for your gut and brain acting together when things are a little unexpected (Fun fact: vagus in Latin literally means “wandering”).

So there is definitely  a connection between the gut and the brain – and that got me thinking – is there a connection between gut health and the immune system? If you’re paying attention to the title of this blog, I think you know the answer. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

First, let’s do a quick review of the immune system. Don’t worry – this will be painless.

Our immune system is the group of cells and other molecules that protect us from disease by constantly patrolling our body and attacking things it perceives as threats – especially infectious microbes. There – easy, right.

In coordination with that system, our gut has evolved in a way that both defends us against these pathogens, but also teaches the body to tolerate the good guys (healthy bacteria). The immune system and the gut microbiome developed a symbiotic relationship, signaling and regulating each other while cooperating to support each other. We know they are tightly linked as somewhere between 70-80% of the body’s immune cells are found in the gut.

The “health” of your gut partially determines what nutrients from your food and drinks are absorbed and what nasty microbes and toxins are kept out. Gut health is directly linked to the health of your whole body. How? Let’s dive in…

There are over 500 different types of bacteria in your gut – heck, they weigh almost 3 pounds – which comprise the complex chemical soup that breaks down what goes into your body into things you can use. But it’s more than just that – that factory also plays a role in hormone regulation, the elimination of toxins, and extraction of vitamins and minerals to keep you healthy.

And here’s the rub: you have both healthy bacteria and less-healthy compounds in your gut. It’s literally a toxic stew partially because of these bacteria and partially because we (knowingly or not) eat a lot of things we shouldn’t, including environmental toxins and foodborne chemicals. And what’s even crazier? That environment is walled off from the rest of your body by a wall that’s only one cell thick. Your gut breaks down everything you eat into its individual components, extracts the vitamins and minerals, and moves everything across this one cell-thick layer so the things that need to be in your bloodstream for, you know life, will end up there. You can see where this is going: if that lining is damaged (or put into a state that is inefficient or overwhelmed), the bad guys can leap outside your gut, which could cause your immune system to become overactive and start producing inflammation throughout your body. Ouch. And whole-body inflammation is rapidly becoming known as one of the lead causes for chronic disease – LiveScience has a great primer on this.

Your gut also serves as a very sophisticated trash collector, moving all the toxins and other waste byproducts that come from you digesting your food into bile via your liver. If your gut isn’t working properly and your system isn’t…moving… the ability for your body to remove these toxic substances will suffer – and so will you.

I also mentioned earlier that your brain and gut are connected via, among other things, the vagus nerve. But it’s more than that – quite literally there are more neurotransmitters in your gut than in your brain! Those two brains work together in mysterious ways but one thing we know for sure is if communications are disrupted, your mental health can suffer. And with mental health complications often come significant physical immunity challenges.

So to recap: if your gut is in bad shape, things that shouldn’t be outside the confines of your gut where they can be effectively dealt with will end up there, which will trigger your broader immune system to do what it does – swarm the baddies and cause inflammation – which will, in the end, make you sick.

Immunity, my friends, mostly starts with the gut

So what to do to make sure your gut is in tip-top shape?

  1. Eat a more plant-rich, less processed-food diet. Focus on fiber, veggies, nuts, and seeds. Go ahead and eat meat if you can’t live without it – just be cognizant that it’s not all ground beef.
  2. Repair a damaged gut: zinc (which was in Jetson’s winter formulation Immunity) and glutamine can help to repair lining that’s in rough shape. 
  3. Take a probiotic to ensure the ecosystem of bacteria is healthy and you aren’t letting the bad bugs take control.
  4. Try cutting out foods that could be causing low-grade allergic responses. For me, that was gluten and dairy, but for others it could be eggs, yeast, soy, corn, and some tree nuts. Try cutting these for a week and see if you feel better.
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