Gut health and your immune system. When you read that phrase, does it make you think ‘how are those two related?’ Over the past decade, researchers have been finding more and more links between the bacteria that live in your gut (your gut microbiome) and areas of health such as immunity.
As cold and flu season rapidly approaches, it’s important to understand how you can contribute to maintaining the gut bacteria associated with better health outcomes and also support your immune system through diet.
Why is your gut microbiome important?
The human gut microbiome is home to trillions of different bacteria. This community of bacteria live mostly in the large intestine and are fuelled by the food you consume. Keeping a healthy balance of bacteria is connected to many areas of health including your immune system, your brain and mental health, your cardiovascular system and heart health, as well as functions such as appetite and regulation of blood glucose levels.
Your immune system protects you!
Your immune system is your body’s defence mechanism against many invading illnesses and it’s important that you keep your immune system functioning at its best, particularly ahead of the cold-and-flu season. Your immune system works through the cells and organs involved ‘taking action’ when they detect a pathogen or disease-producing microbe.
You’re often not aware of your immune system working away, however, a well-functioning immune system will protect you when exposed to disease-causing bacteria or viruses making you less likely to get sick.
The microbiome and immune system are closely intertwined. The gut microbiome plays an important role in training the immune system and must learn in early life how to distinguish between the beneficial bacteria within your microbiome and potentially disease-causing microorganisms. On the other hand, a healthy microbiome plays an important role in protecting the body from disease. It does this in many complex ways but also just by ‘filling the niche’.
The microbiome is an ecosystem of microorganisms much like the plants and animals within a rainforest. The bacteria work together but also competes for space and nutrients making it harder for intruding pathogens to take up residence. This is known as colonisation resistance. In addition, friendly gut bugs can turn the fibre we eat into beneficial substances that protect your gut lining and optimize immune functioning.
Boost your immunity through your diet
It’s widely known that good nutrition is essential for immunity with nutrients such as vitamin C, vitamin D, zinc, iron and protein being particularly important for supporting immune cell function. The recent spotlight on gut health is helping highlight that looking after your microbiome is just as important for good immunity.
The best foods for your gut microbiome are called prebiotics and are found in most whole grains, fruits and vegetables. These prebiotics fuel your gut bacteria and promote the growth of beneficial species.
Ideally, you can focus on eating more plant-based foods and eating the rainbow with lots of variety. Put simply, if you supply your gut microbiome with a selection of prebiotics across the spectrum of resistant starch, fibre and phytochemicals, you will be supporting the beneficial bacteria. This will result in the production of helpful substances (SCFAs) to support good health and immunity.
Think about mixing up your grains, trying different vegetables and eating in-season fruits to ensure you’re consuming them when their nutrient levels are highest!
Top tips for a balanced microbiome and immune system
Looking to boost your gut microbiome and your immunity this winter season? Here are some top tips to help your bacteria produce substances to assist your immune system!
Mix up your vegetable intake!
Variety is key when it comes to feeding your gut microbiome and there are vegetables readily available in all colours of the rainbow! Consider trying a new vegetable when you go food shopping or different ways of eating vegetables.
Winter can be a great time for warming soups, slow cooker stews or oven-roasted vegetables. Root vegetables work particularly well with these cooking styles with commonly consumed options including carrots, sweet potato and beetroot. If you are looking for a new root vegetable to try you might not have considered parsnip, celeriac, swede or Jerusalem artichoke.
Try different whole grains
Australians tend to get most of their wholegrains from wheat-based foods such as bread, breakfast cereals or pasta. Although wheat contains fibre there are many different grains you can eat to provide your microbiome with a diversity of prebiotic fibres.
Winter is the ideal time for porridge breakfasts which can be made with the traditional beta-glucan rich oats but also quinoa, millet, rice, sorghum or polenta.
About the author
Clinical Application Specialist, nutritionist, registered nurse
Christine Stewart is a nutritionist and registered nurse with experience across the medical (hospital), nutrition and public health industries. She brings more than 15 years of experience working with patients to her role as a Clinical Application Specialist with Insight™. Christine has a Master’s Degree in Human Nutrition from Deakin University and a Bachelor of Nursing from Griffith University. She has a passion for educating and supporting microbiome restoration through the adoption of positive eating behaviours and works closely with healthcare professionals to implement gut microbiome analysis in practice within Australia.