Want to Avoid Seasonal Sickness? Trust Your Gut

Want to Avoid Seasonal Sickness? Trust Your Gut

By Stephen Brenna, Pn1, Pn2, PPSC

Want to Avoid Seasonal Sickness? Trust Your Gut

Look around at this time of year (mid-January at the time of this writing), and you'll see family, friends, and colleagues canceling engagements and dropping off the map for days at a time. When they inevitably emerge from quarantine, they'll often still not feel like themselves for another several days.

It's somewhat troubling to think that after all the events of the past 3+ years, it seems we still suck at avoiding seasonal illnesses. Our understanding of our immune system and how it functions is greater than ever before, and we shouldn't have to resign ourselves to being sick all winter long.

Much of the research on immune system function has centered around our "gut"; the name that collectively refers to not only the GI tract itself but often to the extremely complex community of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that make up our microbiome. 70-80% of our immune cells live in our gut, and it is our primary line of defense against harmful pathogens and toxins.

If you want to increase your resistance to seasonal sickness, gut health needs to be addressed. Simple as that. At the same time, the microbiome and GI tract is a vastly intricate system with countless components, and healing it can often be a process of trial and error.

So where does one begin? First, let's look at the Reader's Digest version of how your gut guards you from microscopic menaces.

Pathogens v. Your Gut

In the broadest sense, a pathogen refers to any organism or agent that can produce disease. A pathogen could look like many things, but we're most accustomed to pathogens in the form of bacteria and viruses.

Generally speaking, pathogens seek to colonize, grow, and persist within the body. They want to show up, set up shop, multiply, and hang out. In order to do so, they must clear three hurdles located in the gut: the intestinal microbiota, intestinal epithelial layer, and mucosal immune system. 

As mentioned above, the microbiome is a massive community of microorganisms that dwell within our GI tract. One of the primary ways they protect us against pathogens is simply by taking up space and resources, leaving pathogens unable to colonize. If the community is fully booked with good guys, the bad guys have no place to stay and end up going on their way.

The intestinal epithelial layer is a type of tissue that serves as a physical barrier to prevent harmful bacteria in the gut from reaching other tissues. The mucosal immune system exists in several parts of the body in addition to the GI tract, and it plays a key role in immune response and directly guards against pathogenic entry.

While we're only scratching the surface of the complexity of the systems referred to above, the key takeaway is these are critical defense mechanisms against contagious illnesses. When they become damaged, we're immediately less resilient and more susceptible to getting sick.

Unfortunately, our modern lifestyles are great for wreaking havoc on our guts. Especially here in the west our diets, environmental toxins, stress levels, and rampant overuse of antibiotics have left many people's guts severely compromised.

The good news is, you can start taking action to support healthy gut function at virtually any time. Below are a few impactful ways to begin.

Three Tips to Fortify and Heal Your Gut:

Personal nutrition is the most critical factor influencing gut health, and the area we typically have the most direct control over (versus environmental pollution, for example). That said, our first two tips directly relate to what goes into our mouths.

  • Increase consumption of prebiotics/other forms of dietary fiber

Prebiotics are naturally occurring, non-digestible food ingredients that stimulate the  growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut. The more we foster the growth and colonization of helpful bacterial strains, the less room and resources available for harmful strains to take hold. Prebiotics are just one category of soluble dietary fiber, the form that ferments in the intestines (as opposed to insoluble, which passes through intact). It acts as a substrate for a fermentation process that produces short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which are also highly beneficial for immune function.

  • Consider gut healing dietary supplements and foods

There are several dietary supplements backed by significant research that may benefit gut health, beyond the obvious probiotic supplements. Collagen peptides, colostrum, and L-glutamine have all been examined for their potential to limit intestinal permeability, commonly known as "leaky gut". This term refers to a dysfunction of the epithelial layer, which allows harmful pathogens to reach underlying tissues outside the gut. Beyond foods high in fiber, consider digestive soothers like bone broth, fennel, and licorice root, along with fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut.

  • Sleep, stress management, and exercise

You're probably sick of hearing that getting adequate quality sleep, managing stress, and moving your body is good for basically everything. So why aren't you regularly doing all of the above? It shouldn't come as a shock that prioritizing these lifestyle factors will make you less susceptible to getting sick and staying sick for an extended period of time (you shouldn't have a cold for a week). Prioritize making time to tend to these factors now, and save yourself time spent feeling miserable later.

There's still much to learn when it comes to the intricacies of our microbiota, but it's difficult to argue there is any more critical component to the function of our immune systems. This not only applies to seasonal colds and flus, but to the chronic (and sometimes debilitating) autoimmune conditions that plague millions of individuals.

Trusting what your gut tells you really is a thing. Now the only issue will be finding new reasons to cancel the Friday night plans you didn't want to do in the first place.