It’s been said that 70% of your immune system is located in the gut. A) Kinda a crazy stat and B) What does that actually mean?
Along with maintaining our intestinal mucosa and facilitating digestion, your gut microbiota (a community of microorganisms including bacteria, viruses, yeasts, protozoans, and fungi) plays a role in mood regulation, hormone metabolism, vitamin production, skin health, weight management, blood sugar regulation—and yes, immunity.
That’s a lot of responsibility for a small part of your body. So what can you do to support it to optimize your immune function?
What Your Gut Bacteria Should Look Like
Ideally, what we want to see in your gut is perfectly balanced bacteria without an overgrowth of bad bacteria, yeast, or parasites. Too much or too little of a good thing can cause problems. When out of balance, there are certain good bacteria that are related to inflammation, autoimmunity, and decreased immune function.
Basically, all of the bacteria in our gut play a vital role—and we want the gut to be like a pristine jungle. All the animals and plants are in perfect harmony and there are no poachers.
Because so many different functions attributed to the microbiome arise from specific strains of microbes in our individual “community,” diversity is key. And diversity comes from what we eat, our levels of stress, our environment, and more.
On top of diversity in the gut, it’s also important to explore the balance between what are known as “commensal” and “pathological” organisms. Commensal bacteria are ones that work in harmony with our system, contributing to healthy and smooth digestive function. Pathological organisms are what you might have heard referred to as “bad” bacteria.
How Your Gut Health Impacts Your Immunity
The gut microbiota that resides in the gastrointestinal tract provides essential health benefits to its host (you), particularly by regulating immune homeostasis. Newer studies have demonstrated that it’s become obvious that alterations of gut microbial communities can cause immune dysregulation, leading to autoimmune disorders.
The connection between your gut health and your immunity is still being closely studied, and the why of how the two are connected is complicated. But, suffice it to say that the cells in your gut play a significant role in developing and supporting other types of cells that are crucial to optimal immune homeostasis and health.
And that means that how you support our gut can also support your immunity. And as always, we like to start with the power of food.
How Herbs and Nutrients Can Support Immunity + Gut Health
There are a couple different ways that your immune system can be supported with herbs and nutrients:
- Immune system activating or boosting. These have been shown to increase the activity of the immune system and all its key component players.
- Immune system modulating. These don’t drastically upregulate the immune system, but they support immune system cells without “calling the calvary” (aka, making your system freak out).
Herbs + Vitamins We Know Support Immunity Without Overstimulating
Supplemental use of herbs and vitamins can be a beneficial way to boost your immune system. Here are a few we recommend.
We know that vitamin D3 can be helpful in modulating the immune system by providing the immune system cells the nutrients that they need to be created. Vitamin D3 also increases a peptide (or protein chain) called defensins, which is known to be antiviral, and can help disrupt the viral replication process. Vitamin D3 is safely tolerated even in individuals with autoimmune diseases.
Astragalus membranaceus root
Known mostly for its adaptogenic properties (it’s adrenal supportive), astragalus root is also known for its antiviral actions and effects on the immune system cells. There are also some very new studies that show constituents of astragalus may protect the lungs from inflammation due to active infection. What is particularly important for us to know about astragalus is that it can support our immune system without over stimulating it.
Considered a very safe and gentle herb, Ligustrum can help to modulate the immune system without sending it into hyperdrive.
This mushroom has the ability to stimulate the immune response without triggering an over-production of inflammatory molecules (cytokines).
Not only can vitamin C be used to increase protective mechanisms that can prevent you from getting sick, it can also help boost immune system cells that fight off active infection from viruses and bacteria. You hear vitamin C touted as “immune boosting,” but the intricacies for how it does this without worsening autoimmunity are not well known. What we are learning is that high-dose vitamin C IVs can actually be used to treat autoimmune disease.
Head here if you’re looking for more recommendations on immune-boosting herbs, how to find the right gut health test for you, or what a stool test is for.
Dr. Cassie Wilder is a registered Naturopathic Medical Doctor (NMD) and founder of MIMC. Her passion is empowering her patients through education, understanding, and support through their healing journey. After graduating from Iowa State University with a Bachelors of Science in Kinesiology and Health, Dr. Wilder earned her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine & Health Sciences, a fully accredited and nationally recognized institution in Phoenix, AZ. During her clinical training, she received extensive hands-on training with many leading experts in the field of functional medicine and developed a passion for treating hormonal imbalances, thyroid disorders, cardiovascular concerns, and adrenal fatigue.