We all know a strong immune system is crucial when it comes to staying well – and according to experts, it’s out digestive health that’s key to its strength
Spending more time indoors during the colder months increases our susceptibility to bugs and viruses. Our immune system, the body’s natural defence, also weakens as we get older, leaving us even more vulnerable, as GP Dr Rupert Critchley explains: “With age, our metabolism decreases and everything generally slows down, including our immune system. Being more aware of the various ways we can improve things is crucial in later life.”
How do you keep your immune system performing at its peak? Well, we’re told to ‘go with our gut’ in many life situations and it seems that when it comes to better immunity, the same is true. Inside our gut there is a delicate balance of bacteria, which need to play nicely together to enable it, and our immune system, to function properly.
“Our gut and the bacteria it contains communicate directly with our central nervous system and work together as a second brain, managing our immune system,” explains nutritionist Fran McElwaine of Prüv Wellness. Yet there are plenty of things that can show up to spoil the party, such as stress, junk food and certain medications. Fran continues, “when an imbalance occurs, our immune system becomes overtaxed, which triggers a cascade of symptoms that often seem totally unrelated to gut heath, such as joint pain, depression, weight gain or even dementia.”
So when it comes to better immunity, it seems a healthy tummy is a good place to start. Here’s how to keep yours fighting fit...
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GET YOUR PROBIOTIC FIX
Probiotics are one way to maintain good gut health, especially after you’ve taken a course of medication. “Frequently taking antibiotics, steroids and anti-inflammatories can kill all the bacteria in your gut, including the good kind – which has a knock on effect on your immune system,” notes health and wellness expert Chris James. “Probiotics colonise the gut with healthy microflora so that ‘bad bacteria’ can’t take hold and interfere with our natural processes. Bio-Kult, £8.99, is a popular high street supplement.
Another way to get probiotics is to eat fermented foods. “The process of fermentation enriches the food with probiotics,” says Nicola Peters, found of fermented food company The Cultured Collective. You can easily add fermented foods to your diet by using sauerkraut or pickles to perk up a ham sandwich, or by swapping your usual soup for a warming bowl of miso.
Kimchi a spicy Korean condiment traditionally made with cabbage, garlic and ginger, is another popular choice. Other great sources of probiotics include live-cultured yoghurt, as well as chesses such as mozzarella and gouda.
REST YOUR DIGESTION
In 2014, scientists at the University of Southern California discovered that short periods of fasting helped protect and regenerate the immune system. 2When you starve, the system tries to save energy, and [will] recycle a lot of the immune cells that are not damaged,” says Valter Longo, Professor of Gerontology and Biological Sciences at the University of Southern California. However, Dr Critchley advises against taking an extreme approach. “Eating light for a couple of days is a safer alternative – and your immune system will still reap the benefits.”
If you constantly find yourself in stressful situations, your immunity could suffer. In a recent interview, Dr Emeran Mayer, author of The Mind-Gut Connection commented, “When we experience [certain] emotions – especially stress and anxiety – there is also a release of stress hormones, they circulate in the blood and make your heart beat faster. We are learning now that they also influence the behaviour of the microbes in your gut because they have receptors for these chemicals.”
So for the sake of your immune system, its best to politely decline some of the favours being asked of you when you’re feeling overwhelmed. The power of “no” might just be what the doctor ordered
LIMIT JUNK FOOD
Eating takeaways too often won’t just affect your waistline – it’ll also prevent your body from fighting infection, according to Time Spector, Professor of Genetics at Kings College London and author of The Diet Myth. “I learnt that [junk food] rapidly reduces the range of microbes in the gut,” he says. “This is due to a lack of fibre, which microbes need to survive, and the artificial emulsifiers and sweeteners in junk food, which reduce and harm our beneficial microbes. The effect of this is to mess up our immune system, which is controlled by these microbes, leading to more allergies and immune diseases.” Home cooking using fresh ingredients and fewer additives is a far healthier alternative – and your tummy will thank you for it.