When we think of different organ systems in the body in the context of western medicine, we often isolate these systems, considering them separate from each other. For example, the immune system is one network of organs; the digestive tract another. However, as we’ve observed from traditional medicine systems such as traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) or traditional medicines practises used by indigenous peoples for thousands of years, these organ systems are interconnected and work symbiotically.
The scientific community is beginning to catch up to this concept, and it is becoming abundantly clear that the gut plays an important role not just in digestive health, but for supporting our brain, emotional health, and immune system, amongst many other things.
Particularly interesting is the connection between the gut and the immune system. While we initially thought that white blood cells played the primary role in fighting pathogens and maintaining immunity, we now know that our first defence is the micro organisms that live on and within us. These micro organisms (often collectively referred to as the microbiome) include beneficial bacteria, fungus and even viruses that educate and regulate our immune systems and play a role in maintaining resilience against disease. These micro organisms are found on our skin, in our mouths, and throughout our digestive tract, particularly our oral cavity and intestines.
When we are in contact with a pathogen (potentially harmful bacteria or virus), our microbiome helps protect us from these organisms from proliferating and helps prevent infection. A new emerging area of research is on the gut-lung axis, where researchers have noted an interaction between gut health and lung health. It is therefore theorized that in addition to bolstering immune health, supporting our gut microbiome can be of benefit to protecting our lungs from infection.
There are a number of ways to support your microbiome, therefore increasing your immune health. Eating foods rich in naturally occurring bacteria, yeasts and fungus can help improve the diversity of our gut flora – these include fermented foods such as sauerkraut, traditionally made pickled vegetables, yogurt, and kombucha and kefir, as well as aged foods such as naturally cured meats and aged cheeses.
Another essential way to support the beneficial microbes in the body is by consuming foods high in prebiotic fibre. This is a specific variety of fibre that feeds the bacteria in our guts, helping them proliferate and encourages a robust microbiome. Prebiotic fibre – also called resistant starch – is found in plant based foods such as Jerusalem artichokes (sunchokes), asparagus, garlic, onions, leeks, dandelion greens, and interestingly enough, raw or leftover – but not freshly cooked – potatoes.
Supporting our gut health and microbiome has a number of benefits, one of the most essential being the maintenance of robust immune health and whole body resilience.
Kayla MacDonald, R.H.N.