Gut Health & The Immune System
Unless you're suffering from gastrointestinal issues such as heartburn, abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation, chances are you don't give much thought to how healthy your gut is. A healthy gut affects so much more than your ability to eat and excrete. Yes, it ensures that you can digest the food you eat and absorb all the nutrients into your body, however, the science is coming in hot on topics such as how gut health impacts your overall physical health and your mental health.
What does having a "healthy gut" mean?
The inner workings of your GI tract are also known as the gut microbiome. There is an entire ecosystem of microbiota (bacteria, fungi, microorganisms, and viruses) that have set up shop in your GI tract. It is estimated that at any given time your gut plays host to 100 trillion microbial cells. Some are good, some are bad, but as long as they stay balanced you shouldn't have any problems. When the microbiota in your gut becomes unbalanced it leads to "dysbiosis" which can result in a host of health issues, whether gastrointestinal or extragastrointestinal.
A healthy gut impacts you physically and mentally
The physical manifestations of an unhealthy gut are generally easy to pick up on. However, some manifestations that are extragastrointestinal are not quite so obvious. The state of your gut health directly impacts your immune system. And here's something not many people know: your gastrointestinal system and your central nervous system (CNS) are connected. This connection, also known as the "gut-brain axis", directly links gut health to conditions such as migraines and anxiety and depression.
Nutrition and its role in inflammation
Inflammation is the result of your immune system responding to either trauma (think cuts and burns) or foreign radicals (think microbes and toxins). When triggered, your immune system dispatches white blood cells to the scene to fight off the foreign invaders and begin the healing process. Inflammation that is left untreated can cause serious damage to tissue in your body which can result in serious conditions such as diabetes, heart attacks, and strokes.
Nutrition plays a big role in keeping inflammation in check. There are foods that are known to reduce inflammation, and there are those that are known to cause it. If you stick to good nutrition you will be doing your gut health a favor. A healthy gut means less inflammation and therefore a stronger immune system that is reserving its ammunition for a real threat as opposed to wasting its resources on fighting foreign invaders from the chicken nuggets you just ate.
Tom Brady's TB12 Diet
We know that certain foods reduce inflammation and boost your immune system, but your diet can also make a great difference in your performance while you're on your fitness journey. With seven Super Bowl wins to his name, NFL player Tom Brady has shared with the world his TB12 diet which he swears by. Apart from including foods that keep inflammation in check and boost your immune system, this diet takes the importance of gut health into consideration as well.
Tom Brady's diet consists of 80% plant-based foods and 20% lean protein. If you're a vegetarian the TB team suggests substituting those with whole grains, legumes, and other plant-based proteins. When it comes to picking ingredients, he always goes for organic, free-range, non-GMO, grass-fed, hormone-free, and all those other keywords that describe the safest and highest quality foods.
The TB12 diet emphasizes that everything you eat should form part of a well-balanced diet. Everything in moderation.
How does poor nutrition influence your immune system?
Foods that cause inflammation, such as fried foods, processed meats, refined sugar, and refined carbs, all contain compounds your body reads as "foreign invaders". These foreign invaders put unnecessary stress on your immune system and are completely avoidable. When you're putting unhealthy foods or drinks into your body, you disrupt the microbiome. The good microbiota start fighting the harmful ones which then leads to dysbiosis. And as we've mentioned, dysbiosis, in turn, leads to a host of health issues.
Here are some foods and drinks to avoid if you want to keep your gut healthy:
- Fatty and fried foods
- Refined carbs
- Refined sugar
What types of probiotics or other supplements can aid in gut health and a healthy immune system?
What you want in your gut is for the microbiome to be in a state of symbiosis. There needs to be a balance between all of the microbiota so it's important you're getting enough of the "good" microbiota into your system. Two very important components of a healthy gut are probiotics and prebiotics.
Types of probiotics that aid in gut health
In a nutshell, probiotics are good bacteria that fight bad bacteria. There are many foods and drinks that naturally contain probiotics, which you should consider adding to your diet. Here are a few:
- Certain soft cheeses
Maintaining a healthy amount of probiotics in your GI tract is important, so you might want to consider adding a supplement to your diet to ensure that you are getting all the probiotics you need.
Why prebiotics are important
Prebiotics are what probiotics feed on, so it's important to make sure you're getting enough of those too. The keyword to which foods contain prebiotics is fiber. Here are some foods rich in the fiber probiotics like to feast on:
- Chicory root
Finding a supplement that is high in fiber is easy. But finding one that contains a combination of prebiotics and probiotics is even better if you are working on getting your gut health in shape.
Nina Kulenkampff is a freelance copywriter and editor based in South Africa. She is passionate about the written word and loves diving deep into research on any given topic. When not at her desk you will find her deeply absorbed in a book or out on a hike in the great outdoors.