This week our guest is gastroenterologist Robynne Chutkan. She explains how keeping our digestive microbiota in good health can help our immune systems fight off pathogens from the inside out.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we could all see big differences in who got sick and who seemed more resilient. Our immune systems are critical in determining just how susceptible we may be to infectious viruses like SARS-CoV-2. But what shapes our immune response?
What we need is an immune system that reacts just the right amount. This Goldilocks immune system meets both internal and external threats without becoming overly exuberant. If the immune system fails to react adequately to external threats, like germs, we come down with an infection. Conversely, if it overreacts, we end up with allergies, sometimes very severe allergic reactions. In the case of internal threats, an overreaction leads to autoimmune conditions like Crohn’s disease. Lax response to an internal threat could allow a tumor to get out of hand.
A hefty proportion of the immune system is localized in the vicinity of the digestive tract. As it turns out, the balance of microbes inside the gut has a significant impact on how the immune cells just outside the gut behave. Keeping the microbes balanced can help the immune system control pathogens from the inside out.
Even before the pandemic, lots of people wanted to know how to optimize their immune systems. That desire is only stronger now. Surprisingly, we can make a lot of progress with some very simple steps.
To start with, we should all be considering the medications we take. Quite a few common medicines can disrupt the gut microbiota. Proton pump inhibitors like omeprazole (Prilosec) or esomeprazole (Nexium) are not kind to digestive microbes. Neither are pain relievers like ibuprofen or naproxen. Besides disrupting the microbes, NSAIDs like these can irritate the lining of the gastrointestinal tract. Sometimes they are necessary. When they are not, they should be avoided. We could say the same for antibiotics.
Feeding our microbes what they need is crucial to keeping them healthy so that they can signal our immune systems properly. What microbes like is fiber, so a diet that leans heavily on plants is best. They also like variety. According to Dr. Chutkan, one study found that people who consume foods containing at least 30 different types of plants each week have the healthiest balance of microbes. She gives an example of oatmeal (one plant) with apples and walnuts (two more plants), served with soy milk (one more plant) and cinnamon (another plant). That brings the total up to five types of plants in one bowl.
There are some other practices that are crucial for keeping our immune systems in tune so they can manage pathogens from the inside out. Getting enough sleep helps reboot the immune system. So does physical activity, especially when it takes you into nature. Exposure to dirt sounds counterintuitive, but it can really help your immune system hum. Moreover, being outside is often a good way to address your stress. Dr. Chutkan cited the Japanese practice of forest bathing as a good way of de-stressing and helping the immune system.
Finally, Dr. Chutkan shares some of her favorite recipes with us. There are lots more in her wonderful book, The Antiviral Gut, with its detailed plan for improving our microbial balance and immune response.
Robynne Chutkan, MD, a board-certified gastroenterologist, is a faculty member at Georgetown University Hospital and is the founder of the Digestive Center for Wellness, an integrative gastroenterology practice located in Washington DC. Dr. Chutkan is the author of the digestive health books Gutbliss, The Microbiome Solution, The Bloat Cure and The Anti-Viral Gut: Tackling Pathogens from the Inside Out.[caption id="attachment_125637" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Robynne Chutkan, MD, author of The Anti-Viral Gut: Tackling Pathogens from the Inside Out[/caption]
An avid squash player, runner and yogi, Dr. Chutkan is passionate about introducing more dirt, sweat and vegetables into people’s lives.
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