Gut Flora – Support for the Immune System
Improving and balancing your gut flora is one of the most powerful nutritional interventions you can give your immune system. Did you know that the human gastro-intestinal tract houses about 70% of the human immune system? And foreign gut flora actually aids our innate immune system by improving the function of our mucosal membranes and providing a physical barrier to invading bacteria. 90% of cells in the human body are microbial while a mere 10% are human. We couldn't function without our gut flora.
The Human Immune System
- Skin is the first line of defense along with mucus membranes and other physical responses like sweat, tears, and salivation, against the intrusion of foreign bodies and antigens
- The innate immune system is the broad, generic response to bacteria and viruses that have made it past the above anatomical barriers. It can be seen in the inflammation response to an open wound
- The adaptive immune system can learn and improve its response to specific microbes over time and with repeated exposure
Compromised gut flora populations can allow harmful yeasts and bacteria to flourish. Healthy gut flora populations protect against invading microbes by simply taking up space and being more proficient at obtaining nutrients. Good bacteria can communicate with the lymph nodes telling the immune system not to attack them. This conserves resources and improves the immune response by making it more efficient. Clearly, the best path for proper immunity is the early establishment of a healthy population of gut flora. However it is up to us to ensure we receive the proper exposure to beneficial bacteria over a lifetime.
Best Sources of Friendly Bacteria
Ideally it is best to use fermented foods to help repopulate the good bacteria into your bowel. And there are many reasons, health-wise, to give fermented foods a try. They are rich in vitamins A and C, for instance. But what makes fermented foods unique is the fermentation process, which leads to the production of beneficial lactobacilli bacteria:
- Kimchi is a traditional Korean dish made from fermented vegetables and a spicy blend of chili peppers, garlic, scallions and other spices. It is common to find kimchi at almost every Korean meal, where it is served alone as a side dish, mixed with rice or noodles, or used as an ingredient in soups or stews
- Kefir is another all-star. Kefir grains resemble cauliflower florets but when milk is added and the grains are left to sit for a day or two it becomes a tasty yogurt. Kefir is a living culture, a complex symbiosis of more than thirty microflora. As the culture ferments the milk, these structures grow, creating new grains in the process. Real kefir from live culture is an endlessly self-propagating process
- Natto Even soy becomes somewhat tolerable with proper fermentation. Natto, a Japanese form of fermented soybeans, is high in Vitamin K2, which is vital for bone, cardiovascular, and dental health
- Every nation has it own type of fermented food – cucumber pickles, fish, olives, sauerkraut, grape vinegar, wine – to name a few
- If you do not wish to make your own, or you are unable to find quality fermented foods, then supplementing with a high-quality probiotic product will also serve the function of multiplying the good bacteria found in your digestive tract
Friendly Bacteria Naturally Break Down Pesticides
Beneficial bacteria from fermented foods are commonly associated with digestive support, and this they do well. However, the lactic acid bacteria formed during the fermentation process may also help your body break down pesticides. Considering that pesticides are a pervasive pollutant found in your food and drinking water, natural methods that may assist your body in their detoxification are important. Including fermented foods in your diet may also be a wise strategy to help detox the pesticides that do enter your body.
Benefits of Fermented Foods
Your body receives help breaking down foods into their component parts from the organisms that live in your gut (intestinal flora). These bacteria, yeasts and fungi can produce beneficial waste products as they feast on your digesting food, such as B and K vitamins that your body needs. They also function to break down some foods that your body cannot absorb by itself by changing carbs into simple sugars and proteins into amino acids. In fact, without good gut bacteria, your body cannot absorb certain undigested starches, fiber, and sugars.
The list of conditions and diseases thought to be directly or indirectly related to a shortage of friendly gut bacteria is long:
- Infectious diarrhea
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease (ulcerative colitis and Crohn's Disease)
- Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) bacterial infection, which causes ulcers and chronic stomach inflammation
- Leaky gut (a compromised intestinal wall that allows undigested foods and toxins to pass into the bloodstream, triggering an inappropriate immune system response)
- Lactose intolerance
- Post-surgical infections
- Urinary and female genital tract infections
- Atopic dermatitis (eczema) and acne
You Can Make Fermented Foods at Home
It is important to note that traditionally fermented foods are not the equivalent of commercially processed foods. The best way to ensure you are consuming the real thing is to prepare your own fermented foods at home. Homemade fermented foods such as kimchi are actually easy to make by putting veggies and spices into a jar or crock with salt then pounding to release the juices and letting them sit for a few days. Sally Fallon's Nourishing Traditions cookbook has a variety of simple recipes for fermented foods that you can make at home.