As I read the most recent issue of Macon Sense, I found myself nodding approval to the “Health” article about the homemade remedy for fire cider as part of boosting your immune system naturally. I, too, have a quart jar sitting on my counter, silently creating its magical properties that will help me get through the cold and flu season.
What else can we do to keep ourselves healthy, preventing a trip to the doctors’ office? How about a hard look at what we eat? There is new evidence that 70-80% of our immune system is in our gut. And, this is the time of year that we found ourselves sliding from one holiday into the next, all with food as a central focus. It goes without saying that many of us have overindulged in rich, processed foods more often than we want to admit, adding stress to our digestive system. Altered sleep patterns and decreased physical activity contribute to a weakened immune system, and illness can quickly follow.
The human body is born with natural flora, trillions of mostly bacteria, some viruses, and protozoa. Not all are bad. It is the balance of these microorganisms that create the immune system in the gut, thereby hosting many different species of bacteria and a relative abundance of each. When there is high diversity of bacteria, our gut is strong and healthy. Diet is thought to be responsible for around 57% of the varying bacteria in our gut, compared with only 12% from genetics.
Altering your daily food intake to include both pre- and probiotic foods can show marked improvement in the gut immune system within three weeks, as well as have long lasting results to include heart health, body weight, and reduced risk of allergies and auto-immune disorders. Gut health has also been linked with lower rates of anxiety and depression.
So, what will you eat? It is not necessary to purchase expensive supplements; we must simply focus on choosing to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables as well as whole grains. We increase the diversity of gut bacteria by feeding it well with fibrous prebiotics; we can also add helpful bacteria to our gut with probiotics.
Again, this doesn’t require supplements. Probiotics are found in fermented plant-foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickles, and fermented drinks such as kombucha and kefir. When reading labels, look for bifidobacterium and lactobacillus – gut bacteria that provide anti-pathogenic and anti-inflammatory effects. Limit products with added sugars or artificial sweeteners. Like fire cider, making your own fermented foods is not difficult.
Alter your selection of foods slowly by introducing one new vegetable or fruit at a time, moving into a more gut-friendly diet. These foods will be digested using the nutrients to regulate the immune system, telling the body when and how to fight any harmful pathogen it encounters.
This approach is only part of a bigger picture. Over the years, individuals have been ingrained with other layers of prevention. Never miss any opportunity to wash your hands. Cover your sneeze, ideally with a tissue, and then throw it away. If coughing, use the bend of your elbow. Respect personal decisions to wear or not to wear a mask. You do not know their story and kindness matters. Drink, preferably water, to keep mucous membranes moist and doing their part in the immune system. Pull yourself away from technology a minimum of one hour before a routine bedtime; sleep is an important component in which the body resets itself. A brisk, daily 10-minute walk is enough to circulate the white blood cells that patrol your body looking for foreign bacteria.
And of course, if you feel unwell, stay home. As Benjamin Franklin so aptly stated, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”