The Connection Between the Immune System and the Gut

Just how crucial our immune system is can be lost on us at times.  First it’s important to know the basics of what it is and what it does.  But we also need to know what it needs and how to keep it strong!  We can’t abuse it and take it for granted.  Unless it’s actively maintained, it won’t function well and is sure to breakdown.  Unlike a car, where someone else can do all the tune-ups and repairs, we are the only ones who can get under the hood and do the work.  We need to actually to get our hands dirty by making an effort ourselves!

How do Germs Enter the Body?

The eyes, nose, and mouth are common entry points into the body for pathogens like bacteria and viruses.  However, mucosal tissues are other prime areas for pathogens to enter.   These tissues are naturally thin and permeable in order to perform their core functions.  However, that also makes them vulnerable areas because because germs can easily slip through them.

Mucosal tissues include:

  • the lungs
  • the areas of sensory activities (eyes, nose, mouth and throat)
  • reproductive areas (uterus and vagina)
  • the gut (small & large intestine, colon)

In particular, the gut is responsible for the largest range of foreign substances entering into the body, in the form of food.

The immune system has a fine tuned mechanism in place to distinguish between good and bad substances entering the body.  This is especially important in the gut as immune responses to food are avoided, while immune cells attack any harmful pathogens.  The largest amount of immune cells in the body reside in the mucosal tissue of the gut.  These immune cells bundle up and work together to form what is called ‘Peyer’s Patches’ and protect the small intestine.  They release specific T-cells and B-cells to defend the inside of the digestive tract and the intestinal walls.  This is a major function as up to 80% of the immune system is found here in the gut. 

Healthy Bacteria

Protecting the gut is a clear priority for the body.  This is not only because it handles the digestion for the body, but also because of the huge role the gut plays in our overall immune function.  Believe it or not, there is actually such a thing as healthy bacteria, which is also referred to as healthy gut flora or microbiota.

We have about 400 species of healthy bacteria which can weigh up to 1 kg in total, all residing in the gut alone.  The total amount of both good and bad bacteria is over 100 TRILLION!  Healthy bacteria enhance digestion and compete with the harmful bacteria for space and nutrition, preventing pathogens from settling throughout the gut.

The good bacteria also stimulate the immune system and enhance the effectiveness of immune cells in preventing pathogens from being absorbed.  There is a crucial communication that takes place between the healthy gut flora and the cells involved in the immune system.  There is also a strong link to the brain and many other organs and important functions.  Without a healthy balance of good bacteria, the communication breaks down and the defense process and body suffers.

Without a strong defense in place for the gut, pathogens and even foods can actually slip through the intestinal walls causing all kinds of stress on the immune system.  This is known as leaky gut and leads to increased immune responses and even malfunction of the immune system.  Chronic inflammation is a common result and provides an environment for diseases to thrive.  Numerous modern diseases are linked to leaky gut and this breakdown of the immune response.

The main takeaway here is that a lack of gut flora sets off a chain reaction of bad events.   Good bacteria are essential to our health!  Poor foods, antibiotic medications, and stressful lifestyles have a negative effect on gut health.  Our responsibility is to make sure we give the immune system what it needs to do it’s job.  Make it a priority to understand and know how understand to protect your gut flora!


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