How to understand your immune system
As we move towards the end of the year, we’re beginning to see the usual messages about strengthening our immune systems for the winter. Nutritional Therapist, Nicola Moore, shares why - and how - to focus on immune health all year around.
Our immune systems are marvellous things. In fact, they are stunning. The number of immune related messages being passed around our bodies every minute of every day is mind-boggling. Our immune systems – in their beautiful entirety – are immense.
I think of the immune system as being similar to that of a business. For example, the trillions of bacteria in our guts are signed-up as workers, and our white blood cells, which are like department managers, liaise with the gut department, to produce teams that travel about testing, then accepting (or flagging-up and removing) suspicious looking packages. Our blood and lymph vessels offer infrastructure to the organisation, shipping immune system workers to where they need to go. Finally, organs including our liver, thymus and spleen are like national branches of the company.
The intricate working of the immune system is clearly very complicated, but there is one simple concept that I really like my clients to understand as a basis for understanding the nuts and bolts of immunity. It’s this: For our immune systems to be well run and have happy workers, they need to be able to manage inflammation. An immune system that’s able to do this effectively will be a well-run business, and one that’s less likely to run into trouble or suffer a hostile takeover!
As I’ve already alluded to, the gut is intrinsically linked to our immune system, so for me it makes perfect sense to look after the amazing ecosystem that is our gut microbiome if we want to prevent illness and infection, or simply recover quickly and fully if we do get unwell. There are many ways in which our microbiomes interact with the immune system, and even more that we simply don’t know about yet. But for today, I’d like to share with you a little information that has to do with the gut and inflammation.
There is a link between inflammation and our gut microbes that scientists are currently unpicking that’s really interesting, and likely to be very important for our health and immune systems. It is now well understood that certain species of bacteria, classed as gram-negative, contain little flags on their outer cell wall called lipopolysaccharides (LPS for short). The problem with these LPS flags is that they can trigger our immune systems to create an inflammatory response, which becomes problematic if levels get too intense. In addition, too much LPS activity appears to be linked to increased permeability of the gut lining, which in turn may allow inflammation to move beyond the gut, and into the wider circulation of the body.
The reason why this is important to understand, is that LPS is now considered a player in chronic inflammatory states, and when there is chronic inflammation, the immune system mechanisms become compromised meaning we’re more susceptible to illness, and less resilient at fighting infection.
What can you do to help keep the different colonies of gram-negative bacteria in check, and how do you look after the lining of your gut to stop it from becoming too permeable?
Do your best to manage stress levels.
Eat plant chemicals called polyphenols, and the compound quercetin.
Eat a diet rich in colourful vegetables.
Avoid too much saturated fat - which, when not balanced out with vegetables - and overdoing alcohol consumption appears to increase LPS and gut permeability, so as always, it’s about having a happy balance of a little bit of lots of different foods.
Finally, consider using a probiotic as a bit of an insurance policy! Certain strains of Bifido, Lactobacillus and Lactococcus bacteria have been shown to be supportive for breaking down LPS and improving the barrier function of the gut, so it seems sensible to consider this as part of your health-supporting tool kit.
Taking these measures should subtly and quietly help your immune system this winter, and beyond!
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Nicola Moore, Nutritionist
Nicola Moore spent the last 20+ years in the sector of nutrition and lifestyle medicine as a forward-thinking nutritionist and held the role of a senior academic at the Institute for Optimum Nutrition (ION) for over 12 years, and overall Head of Clinics for 4 years.