The state of our gut health has a significant impact on various aspects of our health and wellbeing. Our immune system is no exception. The gastrointestinal tract not only works to breakdown foods and absorb nutrients, but it also provides a protective barrier to keep pathogens from making their way into our bodies where they don’t belong. In addition to the physical barrier, we also have a community of microbes (known as the microbiota) that cover our mucosal surfaces and play an important role as part of our immune defences.
Meet your Microbiota
Your microbiota is the population of different microbes that reside on the mucosal surfaces in your mouth, digestive tract, nose, sinus cavities and even in the lungs. Your microbiota is as unique as your fingerprint and is composed of different types of bacteria, the balance of which is determined by a number of factors such as diet, physical activity, alcohol intake and medication use.
The Microbiota’s immune defence tactics
Aside from forming a part of the physical barrier in conjunction with the mucosal surfaces throughout the body, the healthy bugs of the microbiota provide immune protection by secreting antimicrobial peptides and other chemical compounds. These compounds prevent pathogens from nesting, proliferating and invading the gut. However, the key to this process working effectively is that there is a wide variety of good bacteria and sufficient numbers of them to keep up with the demands of immune defence.
Microbial imbalances and poor immunity
Maintaining the diversity and balance of microbes that make up our microbiota is a tough gig. Every day, we are exposed to chemicals (pesticides, PCB’s, heavy metals, alcohol, medications, etc.) that threaten our good gut bug species. On top of that, our diets are generally not providing enough plant-based foods to feed our microbiota and support their growth. This leaves space for the not-so-good microbes to set up camp and muscle out the good gut bugs. What we are left with is a microbial imbalance (termed dysbiosis) that essentially reduces our immune defences, leading to poor immune function and increased susceptibility to infections.
Restoring the Microbiota
Fortunately, our microbiota is quite dynamic. Given a supportive environment and enough of the right foods, it can bounce back within a matter of months. A healthy microbiota needs a diet that provides plenty of colourful plant foods. The more variety, the better. Gut healing foods such as bone broths can provide further support in improving gut health and restoring microbial balance. You can read more on the health benefits of bone broth here. Restoring your microbiota balance may well be the key to better immune health, particularly in the midst of the cold and flu season.