Gut Impact on the Immune System: 7 Ways to Restore Gut Health

The digestive system does more than break down food to extract nutrients which are later circulated through the bloodstream. Also known as the “gut”, the digestive system is home to almost 70% of the cells that make up the immune system. Maintaining good gut health is crucial to a healthy immune system. This article discusses what causes gut imbalances and provides 7 ways to to restore gut health.

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Issues like acid reflux, constipation and diarrhea upset the gentle balance of our microbiome, the trillions of bacteria living in our gut that  aid with digestion and help regulate our immune system. 

What is the gut

The human gut refers to all of the organs that make up the digestive system including the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, colon, rectum, anus, spleen and pancreas. With 70% of the cells that make up the immune system living in the gut, good gut health is not something to overlook as we often do. Most of us don’t even give gastrointestinal (GI) disturbances a second thought.  Instead we just reach for the nearest bottle of over-the-counter medicine to make our symptoms go away.

In recent years researchers have come to understand the significance of the gut’s microbiome, the trillions of bacteria, fungi and viruses that aid with digestion and help regulate our immune system. Not only have they linked autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s disease, which impacts the GI tract, with imbalances in the microbiome. But other non-intestinal autoimmune diseases like Graves’ disease, psoriasis and lupus have also been shown to be directly influenced, along with the severity of symptoms in some cases.  

Why you shouldn’t ignore GI symptoms

I was the poster child for poor gut health.  As a scrawny girl with highwater pants and pigtails my stomach seemed disproportionate for my size. But it was the only thing holding my pants up so who was I to complain? I sometimes suffered from gas, bloating and diarrhea. The culprit: dairy products, soda, green grass, air, hell…I had no idea what caused my symptoms back then. It would be many years before I realized that I had a gluten sensitivity and multiple food allergies

My symptoms worsened in my twenties. My thirties saw a flip-flopping between constipation and diarrhea. Years later I was barely going to the bathroom at all.  Through it all there was the distended stomach, heartburn and what sometimes felt like a wall of food rising in my chest. 

In hindsight, I wish I would have pushed to get answers a lot earlier. I gave up in frustration after being waived off by many doctors. The most I received in my 20’s was over-the-counter remedies which provided no relief. I often wondered whether I had leaky gut syndrome…years before developing an autoimmune disease.

In her book, “The Autoimmune Solution”, Amy Myers provides an in depth explanation of the connection between leaky gut syndrome and autoimmune disease.

While diarrhea can throw your microbiome out of balance it can also signal an imbalance. It’s one of those “chicken or egg” connections that makes you ponder what came first…did the diarrhea lead to the imbalance or did the imbalance cause the diarrhea? Other symptoms like bloating, acid reflux and constipation may also signal an imbalance in the gut. 

What causes an imbalance in the gut

One likely culprit of the imbalance also known as dysbiosis is our lifestyles with it’s unlimited supply of stress, non-nutritional fatty foods, lack of exercise and lack of sleep. Stress and diet, particularly the overconsumption of animal proteins, fat, sugar and additives such as nitrates and preservatives has the potential to alter the GI environment, creating conditions that encourage the growth of more harmful bacteria. Poor dental hygiene can also lead to dysbiosis as bacteria migrate down the intestinal tract into the gut. Leaky gut syndrome, a condition where the tight junctions of the intestines become loose, causing food proteins, toxins and bacteria to leak into the bloodstream is also a possibility.

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7 ways to restore gut health and maintain a healthy balance

So, what does a healthy microbiome look like?  According to experts on gut health, your poop is a major indicator of how your gut is doing. Ideally, well formed bowels that aren’t soft and mushy or hard like pellets is what you should strive for. If you’re having difficulty in this department, no need to worry. Here are a few ways you can restore balance.

  1. Eating a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and grains is one way to cultivate a diverse population of microbiota. 
  2. Prebiotics and probiotics have proven to be beneficial for a healthy microbiome. Probiotics, also known as “good bacteria”, can be found in foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi and kefir.   Prebiotics are a food source for the “good bacteria” living in our guts and are found in foods containing fiber like vegetables, beans, oats, flaxseed, nuts and grains. 
  3. Restoring balance may be difficult to achieve if you have multiple dietary restrictions due to allergies or other health conditions. But it’s not impossible. You just have to be a little more resourceful. For individuals on a gluten-free diet,  grains like oats, amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, millet, sorghum, teff, brown rice and wild rice are healthy, high-fiber alternatives to wheat.
  4. If you’re unable for some reason to tolerate any of the foods containing probiotics, there’s always supplements. Start out slowly with probiotics as taking too much too soon can lead to gas or stomach upset.
  5. Chronic stress can have a negative effect on gut health. While we can’t always control the stress in our lives, stress management techniques can help to counteract the effects of stress.
  6. Staying hydrated helps fiber to move through the digestive tract, allowing for smooth digestion and regular elimination. In addition, water helps keep the mucosal layer moist, which acts as a barrier against harmful substances.
  7. Bone broth helps prevent against leaky gut syndrome by maintaining the integrity of the gut lining. Rich in collagen and amino acids, bone broth helps to repair the gut lining.

Today I can honestly say that I finally have my symptoms under control, thanks to the right combination of diet, exercise and a change in potty habits.

Gut health is crucial to a healthy immune system. Keeping “bad” bacteria at bay by minimizing stress, working to resolve issues like constipation, diarrhea and acid reflux, and supplying the “good bacteria” with an adequate supply of food can go a long way in helping you to manage your autoimmune disease and feel your best.