One thing that has become increasingly clear about well-being? No part of it exists in isolation.June 01, 2020 7:20 pm
That is to say, you can’t talk about exercise or immunity or mental health or almost anything else related to wellness on its own. All in our bodies and in those mysterious but real entities called our souls touches onto everything else. You could say, though, that it’s helpful to learn about these connections. Only then can we begin to try and understand cause, effect, and root issues.
All of this said, let’s look at the gut health and immunity. Scientists have called the gut “the last undiscovered human organ”. Fascinating that it has taken modern medicine this long to understand that – but also exciting! It means that there are still huge new frontiers to map out, holding fresh possibilities and solutions. Leading on from this, we are starting to comprehend more about gut health. In other words, we now see more clearly that we need to nourish the multitude of minute bacteria that live in our gut microbiome. This means that our digestive systems stay alive and efficient. Not only will we get more from our food, but many other physical processes are influenced – including immunity.
We all know the ‘alphabet-letter vitamins’ – you’ve got your basic (but incredible!) Vitamin C, your basic (but wonderful!) Vitamin D, and so on… But there are many, many, many types and sub-types of vitamins. All vitamins play a powerful part in immunity. The raw material of food, such as fibre, nourishes us and our immunity. Vitamins then enhance us and our immunity. Vitamins plug the gaps that we cannot fill ourselves and enable us to face down illnesses with as much of a solid, complete shield as possible. Some you can acquire through food. Other vitamins, you can make on your own once you acquire the necessary ingredients through food and/or environment.
For instance, scientists now know that the gut microbiome plays a large part in synthesis of essential Vitamin B12. In other words, bacteria – as opposed to both animals and plants – have the necessary enzymes to make this vitamin.(1) Further, scientists now think that up to half of our daily requirement of Vitamin K may be fulfilled by our gut bacteria. Moreover, the water-soluble vitamins thiamine, folate, and riboflavin are among the other vitamins that research suggests are made by gut bacteria, although they can also be obtained through food. This research is not yet conclusive, but what it tells us is nourishing our gut bacteria may go a very long way towards helping us be as self-sufficient as possible – and ward off disease better.
'When the gut is not working quite right, we become much more vulnerable to infections of all sort.'
Does immunity live in the gut?
Of course, immunity lives all through our body. Every cell plays a part in immunity. However, there are some sites where immunity is concentrated. It looks like the gut may be one of the most important ones. Sometimes it’s easier to see what certain organs in the body – especially the last undiscovered human organ – do when we see what goes wrong at times that dysfunction befalls the organ. That is to say, scientists have suggested that when the gut is not working quite right, we become much more vulnerable to infections of all sort. We also have more hypersensitive responses. What are these? Allergies are probably the most familiar hypersensitive reactions. They happen when the immune system misinterprets stimuli as being harmful to our bodies.(2)
Other ways that the immune system goes out of whack when the gut is not well balanced include higher susceptibility to cancer; increased autoimmune responses, which is a type of hypersensitive reaction which causes the body to mistakenly attack itself. Further, chronic inflammation goes up. A simple way to understand inflammation is to think about how your body normally reacts to a paper cut. The skin around the cut puckers, swells, becomes hot, and goes a bit red. This is a natural and healing reaction to the body being invaded – but when inflammation is out of proportion, then it becomes a serious threat to health. So-called bad inflammation is cited in a long list of disorders, from diabetes to asthma and arthritis. Scientists now see links between inflammation and mental illness.(3) See what we mean about nothing existing in isolation?
Fill the gut with good, fill the soul with good
A group of researchers finish a lengthy paper on the emerging but strong links between the gut health and immunity with an eye firmly to the future. Scientists work to pinpoint the exact ways we can use gut health to find new solutions to disease. There are exciting possibilities. For example, we might be able to see which types of gut microbiomes lead to which types of diseases. Think of it as like a weather map. A cloud of a specific type of bacteria against a cold front of another type of bacteria in the gut could be a comfortable habitat for specific diseases. Another kind of gut makeup could be too welcoming to another disease. From here, we could then see which gut bacteria could fight specific diseases and bring them in.
However, amidst these sophisticated and complex observations, these researchers include a reassuringly home-grown (or rather, organic-farm-grown!) insight. There is one thing that we can definitely do for our gut health and its links to immunity. That is nourishing ourselves and our guts with whole foods. In other words, we can eat a balanced and varied plant-based diet. This means that our gut microbiome fills with balanced and varied bacteria. By eating well, we provide ourselves with fertile soil for gut bacteria to feed on. And eating well then seeds this soil with gut bacteria. From these things, real grace – grounded health and the whole wisdom that comes from it – can grow.
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(1) Morowitz et al, "Contributions of Intestinal Bacteria to Nutrition and Metabolism in the Critically Ill", Surgical Clinics of North America, 2012
(2) Lazar et al, "Aspects of Gut Microbiota and Immune System Interactions in Infectious Diseases, Immunopathology, and Cancer", Front Immunology, 2018
(3) Firth et al, "What Is the Role of Dietary Inflammation in Severe Mental Illness? A Review of Observational and Experimental Findings", Front Psychiatry, 2019