We're all washing our hands, trying to sleep a little more, and generally doing everything we can to support our immunity. While the whole body works together to keep us in tip-top shape, there's one unexpected part that plays a special role in immune function: the gut.
What is the gut-immune connection?
According to integrative medicine doctor and mbg Collective member Amy Shah, M.D., "The gut and the immune system are completely intertwined. [As much as] 70% of our immune system is there," she tells mbg.
That's right: Over half our immune system calls the digestive tract home, making maintaining gastrointestinal health a critical part of supporting immune function.
Here's how it works: "There's tissue in our gut called the GALT tissue, where all the immune cells reside," Shah explains. The bacteria in the GALT tissue (also known as gut-associated lymphoid tissue) are the "good" gut bacteria that help communicate to our immune system whether new things are foreign or welcome. In order for that process to occur optimally, our gut needs to be healthy. The GALT tissue also houses the plasma cells that help produce antibodies to bolster your body's natural defenses.
How can we support our gut health for immunity?
Supporting our gut starts with feeding it the right things and giving it the time and space it needs to do its job. Here are the three main things Shah recommends for keeping your gut strong, so it can keep you healthy:
1. Eat prebiotic foods.
Just like you're feeding yourself healthy food, you need to make sure your gut bacteria are also nourished, and that's what prebiotics do. "They're literally the food for the gut bacteria that help your immune system," Shah says.
Fibrous vegetables like "onions, garlic, asparagus, and broccoli" are good examples of prebiotic-rich foods you can focus on. It's their fibrous quality the bacteria like so much.
"They eat that fiber, and they produce short-chain fatty acids," Shah explains. These short-chain fatty acids are crucial to gastrointestinal health and the crosstalk between our gut and our immune system.
2. Load up on probiotics, too.
Regularly consuming and replenishing good gut bacteria is an important part of overall gut health. Supplementing with probiotics is key in supporting gut bacteria—and therefore your immunity.* "There's good evidence that adding good bacteria of all types in your system is beneficial,"* explains Shah.
In addition to a daily, gut-health targeted probiotic, you can also double down on including probiotic foods into all your meals.* Look for foods like fermented veggies and kimchi and drinks such as kombucha and kefir. For more, check out this comprehensive list of gut-friendly foods to bookmark for your next trip to the supermarket.
3. End your eating hour early.
There's a reason we hear so much about intermittent fasting and time-restricted eating. "Our gut cells, and really all cells in our body, need a break," Shah explains. "If you have constant visitors all the time, your body can never deep clean and organize everything."
All the hand-washing in the world may not be enough if you don't also give your gut a chance to clean up. So, when should you stop your dining? "Don't eat late into the evening, and end your meals three hours before bed," recommends Shah. Of course, this isn't a hard and fast rule: If you're feeling hungry before bed, try one of these healthy bedtime snacks. It's about being mindful of your intake and listening to your body.
On top of these three primary strategies, Shah also suggests "exercise, nature time, and managing your stress levels" as functional ways to support your gut health.
Our gut and immune health are hugely interlinked, and by taking good care of our digestive system through probiotics, prebiotic foods, intermittent fasting, and more, we'll give our immune system a leg up—something we're all looking for right now!