Stay well this Winter

It’s Fall – and here comes the cold and flu season

Could your gut microbiome be the key to staying well this year?

There are lots of recommendations of ways to avoid a winter cold or the dreaded flu, from hand-washing constantly, getting a good night’s sleep, staying hydrated, avoiding crowds, eating more fruits and vegetables, and even using elbow bumps instead of hand shaking.  But at the end of the day, what we need is a hardy immune system.

Our immune system has a critical mission: to defend us from outsiders that could be harmful. Although it may seem that our digestive tract, or gut, is inside our bodies, in reality, the inside of this tract is outside our bodies.  That makes the mucosal barrier at the inner lining of the gut an important barrier between our insides and the outside world. It should not be surprising then, that the gut is one of the most active areas of our immune system—70 to 80% of the body’s immune cell interactions are in the gut.

In a healthy gut, the trillions of bacteria that live there play an important role in immune function and thus in keeping us well and protected.

Prebiotics, gut bacteria, and the intestinal barrier

Gut bacteria that are healthy serve to protect the mucosal barrier and inform our immune system. And what’s most important for healthy gut bacteria—cdietary prebiotics. Prebiotics are food for the good bacteria. When the naturally-occurring, healthful bacteria are well fed, they flourish in both numbers and kind. Prebiotics bolster a wide range of good gut bacteria.  A diet that’s missing prebiotics (think fermentable fiber and polyphenols) can deplete your good gut bacteria. And in addition, those hungry bacteria can actually feed on the mucosal barrier, perhaps the most important line of defense for our bodies.

The resulting weak spots or leaks in the intestinal barrier allow bacteria and substances to enter our body.  Such a breach can lead to too many bacteria presented to the cells of the immune system—even allow the entry of these bacteria into the blood system.

When foreign substances enter the body, the immune system mounts an inflammatory response and immune cells flood into the area, leading to painful swelling. Think of what happens to your skin when you cut or scrape yourself—it becomes hot, red, swollen, and sensitive to touch.

In addition to a thick and protective barrier, a special type of antibody is secreted by immune cells into the gut, where they defend against toxins and pathogens.  These antibodies work to clear unwanted intruders, blocking their entrance to the body and helping to sweep them out of the gut. Certain dietary prebiotics increase the secretion of these antibodies, and thus readies or primes the immune system.

In summary, when we are exposed to potentially invading pathogens, healthy bacteria in a protected mucosal barrier represent the standard of defense to help us stay healthy.

And what about the over-use of some therapies and long-term fasting? Over-use of antibiotics and immune suppressors can cause problems for the healthy bacteria and immune system. However, consuming prebiotics such as fiber, beta-glucan and polyphenols, promotes good bacteria, bringing about a host of benefits, including protection of the mucosal barrier.  If you are fasting there is no need to put your microbiome on that same fast.  Prebiotics are increasingly recognized for their ability to bolster the immune system and maintain the integrity of your gut lining.  So get ready for winter and fight off colds and flu with prebiotics every day.


Published: October 12, 2018