March 22, 2020 at 09:38AM
We’re all washing our hands, trying to sleep a little more, and generally doing everything we can to support our immunity. While all the systems in our body work together to keep us well, there’s one that plays a special role: our gut.
The gut-immune connection.
Our stomach does more than just support our immune system: It gives it a home, too. According to Amy Shah, M.D., “The gut and the immune system are completely intertwined. [As much as] 70% of our immune system is there,” she told mindbodygreen.
That’s right: Over half our immune system calls our gut home, making maintaining its health a critical part of supporting immune function and keeping us healthy.
Here’s how it works: “There’s tissue in our gut called the GALT tissue, where all the immune cells reside,” explained Shah. The bacteria in the GALT tissue (also known as gut-associated lymphoid tissue) are the “good” gut bacteria that help communicate to our immune system whether new things are foreign or welcome. In order for that process to happen, our gut needs to be healthy. The GALT tissue also houses the plasma cells that help produce antibodies, which fight infection.
How can we support our gut health for immunity?
Supporting our gut starts with feeding it the right things and giving it the time and space it needs to do its job. Here are the three main things Shah recommends for keeping your gut strong, so it can keep you healthy:
1. Eat prebiotic foods.
Prebiotics aren’t bacteria themselves, but rather they’re “literally the food for the gut bacteria that help your immune system,” said Shah. Just like you’re feeding yourself healthy food, you need to make sure your gut bacteria have what they need to stay plentiful and communicative.
Fibrous vegetables like “onions, garlic, asparagus, and broccoli” are good examples of prebiotic-rich foods you can focus on. It’s their fibrous quality the bacteria like so much.
“They eat that fiber, and they produce short-chain fatty acids,” said Shah. These short-chain fatty acids are crucial to gastrointestinal health and the crosstalk between our gut and our immune system.
2. Load up on probiotics, too.
Replenishing good gut bacteria is an important part of overall gut health. Supplementing with probiotics is key in supporting gut bacteria—and therefore your immunity.* “There’s good evidence that adding good bacteria of all types in your system is beneficial,” explains Shah.*
In addition to a daily probiotic, you can also double down on including probiotic foods into all your meals. Look for foods like fermented veggies and kimchi and drinks such as kombucha and kefir.
3. End your eating hour early.
There’s a reason we hear so much about intermittent fasting and time-restricted eating. “Our gut cells, and really all cells in our body, need a break,” explained Shah. “If you have constant visitors all the time, your body can never deep clean and organize everything.”
All the hand-washing in the world may not be enough if you don’t also give your gut a chance to clean up (though it’s still super-important to be doing that right too). When should you stop your dining? “Don’t eat late into the evening, and end your meals three hours before bed,” recommends Shah.
On top of these three primary strategies, Shah also recommends “exercise, nature time, and managing your stress levels” as functional ways to support your gut health less directly.
Our gut and immune health are hugely interlinked, and by taking good care of our digestive system through probiotics, prebiotic foods, intermittent fasting, and managing stress, we’ll give our immune system a leg up—something we’re all looking for right now.