About 70% of a person’s immune system machinery is associated with their gut. The microbiome plays an integral role in how well the immune system functions. Keeping the gut healthy will help the body protect itself from disease.
Why is so much of our Immune System in the Gut?
Our gut is the part of our body that interacts with the environment most. Both positive interactions (absorbing food) and negative interactions (fighting pathogens) occur in the gut far more often than anywhere else. For example, each day eating your food will expose you to at least ten times the bacteria than in all the air you breathe. Other than vitamin D, oxygen, and a handful of other molecules all our biochemistry starts with the foods we eat.
It makes sense then that 70% of the machinery that the body uses to keep us healthy is part of our digestion.
What role does the microbiome play?
The intestinal microbiome plays three important roles in our immune system:
- Reduce the likelihood of disease. A healthy diverse microbiome reduces the possibility of disease. Very few specific bacteria have been identified that prevent disease in our microbiomes, but in almost all cases a diverse microbiome results in a healthier outcome.
- Provide the body with essential nutrients. Many gut microbes produce molecules that we need for our immune system. Good microbes in the gut enhances the ability to absorb essential vitamins and minerals from the foods we eat.
- Regulate the inflammatory response. Good microbes in the gut stimulate or suppress the immune system and the inflammatory response, protecting us from chronic inflammation.
We do not want to “boost” our immune system.
There are hundreds of questionable products that claim to “Boost your Immune system”. Unfortunately, the concept of continuously boosting your immune system itself is flawed.
Fighting disease is a tricky business because our immune system does not just kill unwanted viruses and bacteria, it can also damage the cells of our healthy tissue. The immune system is a complex array of cells and proteins. “Boosting” your immune system is not as easy as the marketing material would lead you to believe. In fact, a healthy immune system requires tight controls. Specifically, a healthy immune system activates to kill viruses but then deactivates before destroying too much healthy tissue.
The signals that control when the immune response should activate or deactivate are “cytokines”. Autoimmune diseases, systemic inflammation, and “cytokine storms” (the inflammation of the lungs and other organs caused by diseases) are all examples of when an immune system is boosted to the point of causing damage. These are examples of a “runaway” immune system.
“A properly regulated immune systems creates good health.”
The immune system is a finite resource.
The immune system is like a road network. Various parts of the body need different signals at the same time. For example, a patient with a throat infection, requires the immune response to only activate in the patient’s throat, not other parts of the body. Activating the immune response in the patient’s legs (for example) will not help the patient’s sore throat. There are two important parts to this equation:
- Correct Signals – It is important that the signals that activate and deactivate the immune response exist in the correct location in the body.
- Correct Resources – It is equally important that the resources to fight the disease exist in these same locations in the body.
Chronic inflammation negatively affects both requirements. Inflammation throughout the body causes diseases that negatively impact health, damaging otherwise healthy tissue. Chronic inflammation also reduces the resources that are available to fight disease. The most direct way we can improve our ability to fight disease is to reduce chronic inflammation. A healthy microbiome and a good diet has been conclusively proven to achieve this.
These are the key things that a good prebiotic can help with.
- Protection from pathogens – A good immune system will naturally kill pathogens.
- Runaway immune systems – Chronic or excessive inflammation can hurt otherwise healthy tissue.
- Nutrient dense foods – A healthy microbiome improves the absorbance of nutrients from good foods.
- Balance is the key – A healthy and diverse microbiome improves overall immune response.
For these reasons, the choice of a high quality, complex, broad spectrum prebiotic is a vital part of a healthy gut.