The digestive tract has two primary functions- to break food into smaller digestible molecules and to absorb nutrients from those molecules. Your gastrointestinal tract or your ‘gut’ is the largest immune organ in the body. The majority of the body’s immune system lives in the gut. When the gut is healthy, the cells in the small and large intestine are ‘tight’ and form a barrier. When the cell junctions are tight, they keep substances from getting in that shouldn’t and vice versa.
Your microbiome resides in your gut is and is comprised of your gut bacteria. Your microbiome is involved in many other important processes besides digestion and absorption, including your body weight, metabolism and immune regulation, as well as your brain functions and mood. Your ‘gut microbiome’ is made up of the trillions of microorganisms and their genetic material that live in your intestinal tract. The key to a healthy microbiome is lots of bacterial diversity. Dysbiosis is an imbalance in the microbiome. Dysbiosis can lead to inflammation or it can lead to intestinal permeability, or ‘leaky gut’.
When there is dysbosis, or an unhealthy microbiome, the protective barrier is breached and and things can leak in that shouldn’t leak in, whether it’s toxins or immune reactive particles. When particles get through that gut lining, they will be exposed to the immune system, and you can have an interaction with the immune system. If we have inflammation in the gut, that will lead to inflammation throughout the body.
At a very simple level, the immune system does two things. It recognizes essentially self from non-self. If it recognizes something as not self, for instance microbes or foods that are partially digested, and maybe molecules that get through the intestinal barrier, that leaky gut, then it attacks that. The immune system can get confused and not recognize something that is self, ie: tissue that makes up cartilage, and starts to attack itself. That's the very definition of an autoimmune disease.
So what is a happy and healthy gut?
A happy and healthy gut provides the necessary ingredients to maintain a healthy microbiome. We have to have the right bacteria, we have to be able to absorb the nutrients that we need, and then we have to signal the immune system and the nervous system in a healthy way.
Factors that contribute to the health of your gut
Diet - a poor diet filled with processed foods, trans fats, unhealthy white flour and white sugar, can lead to the wrong bacteria. The healthy bacteria in your gut don't eat this food, so you are populating your intestine with unhealthy bacteria. In addition you are not taking in a lot of the nutrients that lead to a healthy microbiome. Food intolerances and food sensitivities can also lead to inflammation and leaky gut. Many people who experience adverse reactions to food don’t realize that a specific food is causing symptoms. Food reactions are often overlooked as a contributor to chronic health issues. Adverse reactions to food can be broken down into three categories: allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities.
Stress - your gut and your mood are interrelated, in fact some call the gut your ‘second brain’. Millions of serotonin receptors reside here regulating our mood, stress, depression, anxiety, and lead to gut changes. Gut changes can lead you to have depressed mood or anxiety. It is a two-way street.
Hydration- a healthy gut is well hydrated. Among other things, if don't drink enough water, we can end up being constipated and constipation can lead to nutritional imbalance, dysbiosis and further inflammation.
Gut Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic
It is very important to take care of your gut, since it is one of the primary ways that your body creates inflammation, which leads to chronic disease. Here are some practical ways to help you take care of your gut:
- Determine what foods may be triggering to you. This isn’t always easy to do on your own, and working with a functional medicine practitioner (remotely at the moment) or with a health coach who can help you navigate this can be very helpful. Don't have a health coach? We are offering complimentary 30 minute coaching calls during the month of April for anyone struggling with their autoimmune disease during the pandemic.
- Include lots of colors on your plate at every meal. Shoot for six colors a day and try different types of color than you usually do. Variety is important too. Fruits and veggies (as well as whole grains, legumes, herbs, spices, nuts, seeds, and some teas) are rich in phytonutrients which are nature's first line of defense. Phytonutrients stimulate enzymes that help the body get rid of toxins, boost the immune system and improve cardiovascular health.
- Stay well hydrated. Find a large reusable water bottle that you can keep track of your daily intake with. We often drink much less than we think we do, and we often need much more that we get. Also watch watch you drink. Sugary options are actually counter productive. Sugar actually lowers your immune system. One nice alternative to plain water is to add a splash of your favorite fresh juice or add fresh cut fruit to your bubbly water
- Find ways to destress in these very stressful times. There are many ways to stimulate the relaxation response. Find what works for you. Try a free online yoga class, start a gratitude journal or incorporate five minutes of deep belly breathing (diaphragmatic breathing) in the morning and before bed. Once you find what works for you, make it part of your daily routine
Your health, wellness and safety are important to us! You are not alone on your health journey, and we are here to help. At Mymee we are rethinking autoimmunity. We believe that we are all unique specimens, and our bodies run differently. We believe in the patient. We trust their body. And we customize our program to adapt to your specific environments, habits, and preferences. Our approach results in a personalized diagnostic system highly tuned to each individual—their unique patterns, their personal goals. We’ll search for clues in your daily life to identify the dietary, environmental, and lifestyle factors that trigger your symptoms. Sign up here to learn more about how Mymee might work for you.
This is part 3 in our COVID-19 and Autoimmune Disease series. Continue reading part 4 now: