The Connection Between Your Gut and Immune Health
The more we learn about gut health, the better we understand its connection to the rest of our body's systems—including our immunity. The gut itself is home to some 100 trillion microbes, including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microscopic organisms, which play an important role in health and disease, explains Elinor Zhou, MD, a gastroenterologist at Mercy Medical Center's Institute for Digestive Health & Liver Disease.
The gut microbiome and the immune system, the network of cells that ward off disease in the body, are strongly linked—so, if you are having issues with your gut, your immune system may also be affected. Dr. Zhou points out that the gut microbiome, in particular, plays a key role in the immune system, since healthy microorganisms help to maintain the barriers of the intestinal lining. "These microorganisms also help to activate certain immune cells that can target infectious bacteria and viruses," she says.
But how, exactly, do these two seemingly disconnected entities work together? "The immune system helps to decide the composition of the gut microbiome, creating an environment for the good microbes to thrive and for the bad microbes to be eliminated," continues Dr. Zhou. "The immune system can then sense the small molecules secreted by microbes, and discern whether the microbe is 'good' or 'bad,' and whether it needs to rev up its immune response to get rid of the bad microbe." These "good" gut microbes later activate certain immune cells, thus regulating the overarching immune system, shutting down auto-immune responses, and activating defenses against other microbes that can cause disease, he adds. This can directly impact a person's susceptibility to a host of infectious diseases, from auto-immune-related illnesses to cancer.
If you are concerned about your gut and immune health, know that there are ways to promote a "good" microbiome, including minimizing your intake of highly processed foods and unnecessary antibiotics, eating a high-fiber diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts, and taking probiotics, notes Dr. Zhou.
And while there's no single test that a person can take to check their gut and immunity status, you can use daily markers to gauge your health; track your bowel movements and note how your stomach feels, says Niket Sonpal, MD, a New York City-based internist, gastroenterologist, and assistant professor of medicine at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine. "Bowel movements should be soft and easy to pass and a person should not be suffering from excess gas, abdominal pain, or bloating," he says.
If you notice any gut abnormalities, make an appointment with your health care provider for a physical. Remember: A self-diagnosis you make after scrolling online can't replace a doctor's assessment, especially in the cases of food allergies or celiac disease, warns Andrew S. Boxer, MD, a gastroenterologist at Jersey City Medical Center-RWJBarnabas Health Medical Group. Instead, he recommends targeting your symptoms and bringing them up during your appointment. "It is also worth noting that colorectal cancer cases are on the rise in young people, so the American Cancer Society's guidelines have recently been revised. They now recommend that colonoscopy screenings begin at age 45 for all patients, men and women," he says.