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The Gut-Immune System Connection

With the current pandemic, people are seeking natural ways to enhance their immune system. A lot has been written on the significance of a healthy diet, adequate sleep, routine exercise, stress reduction methods, and immune-enhancing supplements. All of these categories are important; however, there is another entire area of health that makes up the biggest portion of the immune system-- that is, the gut.

The small intestine is where about 70% of your immune system originates in tissues called the Gut-Associated-Lymphoid-Tissue (GALT). The GALT is lymphoid tissue that contains different immune cells that defend the body from foreign invaders. Therefore, if you have a healthy small intestine, you will have a healthier immune system!

Foods such as carbs, proteins, and fats need to be broken down properly before they can be properly absorbed by the small intestine. This includes salivary enzymes during chewing, hydrochloric acid and pepsin by the stomach, bile from the liver and gallbladder, and digestive enzymes from the pancreas. The small intestine also absorbs water and nutrients. In contrast, the large intestine can absorb water but not many nutrients.

A lot of people with chronic digestive problems, food sensitivities, those with acute and chronic health issues, and people under chronic high stress commonly do not digest food properly before having the possibility for small intestine absorption. Improperly digested foods create issues with small intestine absorption and cause irritation and inflammation of the small intestine lining.

The small intestine mucosal lining is composed of special folds and projections known as villi. The combination of these folds increases the absorbent area by about 1000 fold. This makes the small intestine's entire space equivalent to the surface area of a tennis court! The thin surface of cells that line the villi allows the absorption of nutrients into a network of capillaries and lymphatic vessels to be dispersed throughout the body. In addition, there is a regulated system of absorption between small intestine cells. There is a physical barrier between the cells of the small intestine, which includes tight junctions. These tight junctions also work to control what goes through and manage the permeability of what is referred to as paracellular pathways.

There has been a large amount of research on the modification of small intestinal permeability in people with celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome diarrhea type (D-IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), autoimmune disease, obesity, Type 1 diabetes, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Essentially, researchers have found that unhealthy inflammatory changes in the lining of the small intestine lead to the absorption of contents into the bloodstream that would not normally be absorbed. This causes the activation of the immune system and increased inflammation of the small intestine lining. Keep in mind that unhealthy changes in the small intestine typically take place in people without celiac disease and irritable bowel syndrome.

You might have heard of the term "leaky gut syndrome." This is a slang term that refers to increased intestinal permeability. The natural barrier of the small intestine is designed to stop bacteria, yeast, and other microbes, as well as undigested food particles, from getting in the bloodstream. When these foreign particles come into contact with the small intestine, and even more so upon getting in the bloodstream, the immune system responds to attack the intruders. As a result of the immune response, there is increased inflammation that can result in many systemic symptoms and immune dysregulation.

Common Causes of Leaky Gut

  • Pain medications
  • Antibiotic use
  • Standard American Diet
  • High-stress environment
  • Undiagnosed intestinal infections
  • Gluten allergy
  • Food sensitivities
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Chronic illnesses

I commonly find patients with chronic gut and immune system issues to have an undiagnosed infection in their digestive tract. These infections might include yeast overgrowth (like Candida), parasites, or various bacteria. A newer generation stool test can help identify these infections so that they can be treated and cleared.

The following are seven steps to a healthy gut that most individuals can follow to improve their small intestine health.

7 Steps to a Healthy Gut

  1. Consume a diet low in common food sensitivities such as gluten and dairy. It is also helpful to complete food sensitivity testing with a holistic doctor. We often use this kind of testing with individuals to help speed up the discovery of problematic foods.
  2. Consume an anti-inflammatory diet, like a modified Mediterranean Diet (less grains).
  3. Eat foods shown to benefit the health of the tight junctions between intestinal cells. There has been specific research showing benefits for intestinal cell health with quercetin abundant foods. Examples include apples, grapes, onions, broccoli, citrus fruits, green tea, kale, and blueberries. Quercetin supplements are also available. In addition, curcumin, as found in the spice turmeric, has also been found in research to promote healthy intestinal permeability.
  4. Eat cultured and fermented foods rich in probiotics, which include helpful bacteria for intestinal health. Examples include yogurt (non-dairy forms are available), sauerkraut, kombucha (low sugar versions), kefir, tempeh, miso, and kimchi.
  5. Supplement with a probiotic that has human-studied strains.
  6. Supplement digestive enzymes with meals for two months to optimize digestive function and allow intestinal healing.
  7. Supplement with food-grade aloe liquid or powder together with deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) twice daily for two months for intestinal healing.

While many Americans have increased intestinal permeability, the bright side is that it can be treated. You actually have stem cells in the small intestine lining that work to develop new healthy cells. However, you must provide the environment for healthy cell turnover to occur and preserve its new health status. The recommendations in this article will go a long way in improving your absorption status as well as immune system function.