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Gut Health and Immunity

You’ve probably been hearing more lately about the connection between your gut and your immune system. In fact, 70% of your immune system lives in your gut, which is why what we put in it is so important. 

And if you’re part of the 77% of adults (according to KRC Research) looking for particular foods and products to support your immune system, we’re here to help. 

Let’s start with what is your gut and what does it consist of. It’s home to thousands of different species of microorganisms including bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microbes. We call this your gut microbiome. Some bacteria are beneficial and others are associated with poorer health outcomes.

When your gut microbiome is healthy it includes a wide range of different beneficial bacteria and helps regulate your immune system so it can respond to injury or infection, but doesn’t attack healthy body tissue.

The link between nutrition and immune system response was recently illustrated with a ZOE COVID Symptom Study that discovered that people who consumed a gut-friendly diet, including lots of plants, were 40% less likely to have severe symptoms or require hospital treatment. 

Besides your immune response, the health of your gut can also affect certain types of inflammation; acute inflammation – which is a healthy defense response, and chronic inflammation – an unhealthy attack on your body, which occurs over time and causes chronic diseases. 

A bruise or a cut after an injury with redness, swelling and heat are signs that cells in that area are sending signals to specialized immune cells to fight infection and repair damage. This is known as acute inflammation.

There’s also chronic inflammation which is caused by a number of factors including long-term stress, poor diet consisting of too many processed foods and refined sugars, and lack of exercise, among others. Improving gut health helps to decrease chronic inflammation. Left untreated, chronic inflammation can negatively impact your health including by increasing the risk of serious conditions like obesity, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes.

Based on research being done at MD Anderson, patients who harbor certain good gut bacteria have better responses to immunotherapy that’s used to treat cancer. In fact, scientists believe that giving patients a fiber-rich diet of fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and whole grains to nourish the microbiome might improve the odds that the cancer treatment is effective. In another study, patients were given daily meals that included as much as 50 grams of daily fiber, about twice the recommended amount, and findings showed that every five-gram increase was associated with a 30% lower risk of death or cancer progression.

So what foods should you eat? Start by increasing your fiber intake. Plants are a great source of prebiotics (plant fiber) that feed your beneficial gut bacteria. Fiber found in plants is insoluble, and adds bulk to the stool which can help food pass more quickly through the stomach and intestines.  Soluble fiber is found in oat bran, barley, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, peas, and some fruits and vegetables. It is also found in psyllium, a common fiber supplement. Soluble fiber attracts water and slows digestion, helping bacteria to ferment and make very important short-chain fatty acids that promote the growth of healthy bacteria. 

Increasing your fiber intake can alter and improve the type of microorganisms in your gut in just a few weeks. Some good high natural sources of fiber include: 

  • Asparagus
  • Beans 
  • Berries
  • Broccoli
  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Legumes (like peas, green beans, chickpeas, and lentils)
  • Whole grains

Probiotics (live bacteria and yeasts) are also beneficial and can be found in fermented foods including: 

  • Yogurt
  • Kefir
  • Kimchi
  • Fermented sauerkraut 
  • Cottage cheese with live cultures

With yogurt, it’s important to read the label as all probiotic touted foods are not created equal. Many yogurts have added sugar and additives which should be avoided. To make sure the product you pick is filled with gut-healing benefits, look for the words “live active cultures” and “lactobacillus” (a gut-healthy bacteria). Since it also produces the enzyme lactase, yogurts with this ingredient may be easier for people with dairy intolerance to digest. Studies suggest probiotics may also reduce irritable bowel syndrome symptoms, like pain and bloating, and reduce the itchiness and pain associated with eczema.

Here are some yogurt brands to consider:

  • Chobani (non fat plain)
  • Stonyfield Farm Organic (plain whole milk)
  • Fage Total (2% milkfat plain)
  • Brown Cow (whole milk plain)
  • Nancy’s Organic (low fat plain)
  • Maple Hill Creamery (whole milk plain)
  • Wallaby Organic (whole milk plain)