With the current global health crisis, it’s understandable that many of us are considering what we can do as individuals to support our own health and immunity and that of our loved ones. And as Australia heads into the cooler months, too, it's an important time to bolster and support our immune health. While for most healthy individuals, our immune system does a good job in helping to defend us from the bacteria and viruses that can make us sick, there are a number of ways we can help to support this complex network of protection—and it all begins with our diet and the gut.
What’s important to note is that our gut is essentially the gatekeeper to our immune health and overall wellbeing, housing at least 70% of our immune system. Like our skin—which is in constant contact with our external environment—the gut microbiome has to face numerous challenges on a daily basis.
While this mini-ecosystem exists to help us digest food and assimilate nutrients—among a myriad of other responsibilities—it is also accountable for producing many of the compounds that help to support our immune health. And its ability to do this effectively all rests on the diversity of bacteria that live within our gut.
The concept of microbial diversity is very important, especially in terms of our immunity as we must foster the species and strains of bacteria that promote a healthy immune system and keep our microbiome in balance—or eubiosis. It is when there is an imbalance and an increase in ‘bad’ or pathogenic bacteria that dysbiosis occurs and our immune system and overall wellbeing can suffer as a result.
As our gut microbes get most of the nutrients they need from our diet, it makes sense then that how we choose to nourish ourselves can make an immense difference to our microbial composition and subsequently, our immune health. But the good news is, we can actually help to positively affect the balance of bacteria in our gut in as little as a day. Here’s how…
One of the simplest ways to promote microbial diversity and bolster our immune health is by including more fermented foods in our diet as they are naturally rich in probiotic bacteria. Lacto-fermented foods, in particular, are great for gut health as Lactobacillus—the beneficial species of bacteria used in this method of fermentation—provides the gut with a healthy dose of probiotic bacteria and can help to improve the bioavailability of nutrients, meaning that we are better able to absorb and assimilate all the goodness from our food. But, it’s not just the probiotic bacteria in fermented foods which are of benefit—postbiotics produced as a by-product of the fermentation process may also help to fight inflammation and pathogenic bacteria while modulating our immune systems. Sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, kefir and tempeh are all delicious examples of fermented foods which are easy to integrate into our diet.
Herbs And Spices
You don’t need a pantry full of expensive ingredients to help support your immune health—simply turn to your spice rack and herb garden for inspiration. Alliums such as onions, leeks and garlic contain quercetin, an antioxidant which is antiviral, anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory, while garlic, ginger and curcumin in turmeric also contain other compounds which help to increase natural killer (NK) cell activity, supporting immunity.
There’s no doubt that when it comes to gut health, fibre has the most profound effect on our microbial composition and overall health. While dietary fibre found in fruits and vegetables—particularly dark leafy greens—as well as legumes, nuts and seeds, helps to boost the levels of beneficial bacteria in our gut while also reducing levels of harmful bacteria, it is actually the by-products produced by fibre fermenting in the large intestine which can have the most impact on our immune health. These by-products are known as short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) and these anti-inflammatory compounds help to promote the proliferation of good bacteria in the gut, fight inflammation and regulate the immune system while also protecting the integrity of the gut wall itself. A diverse, wholefoods-based diet will ensure adequate fibre intake, but inulin (found in vegetables such as asparagus, leeks and artichokes) and pectin (found in apples, pears and carrots) are both types of fibre that are particularly good at helping to promote the production of these SCFAs.
Colourful Fruit And Vegetables
Aside from the fact that fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of fibre, colourful varieties also boast other benefits. Colourful fruits and vegetables—such as carrots, sweet potato, spinach and dark leafy greens, rosemary, berries and pomegranate—are rich in polyphenols, compounds which help to inhibit inflammation in the body and regulate immune function, as well as antioxidant nutrients like vitamin A, vitamin E, selenium, iron and zinc. These antioxidants are incredibly protective, helping to boost our resistance to pathogenic bacteria while also regulating our susceptibility to these pathogens.
While making a few adjustments to the way we eat can have a profound impact on our immune health, it’s also important to remember that even simple acts like getting enough sleep and managing our stress levels can also positively affect our immunity.
Every little bit helps so we hope that by following some of these nutritional tips, you can help support your gut health, immune system and your overall wellbeing.
Wishing you health and happiness.
Best, Carla xx