While the actual start date may remain a mystery for years to come, in North America, we’re coming up on the unofficial first anniversary of ‘life in COVID times.’ That’s also when people around the world suddenly became a lot more interested in learning how to cultivate, support and strengthen their immunity.

Even with vaccines starting to roll out, everyone still needs to keep focused on what they can do for their own immunity. With more easily spread mutations unloosed and clusters and spikes still to be battled through, it will be months before the world can truly breathe a sigh of relief, if we’re lucky.

Until then, your best immunity defense – whether you’ve had the shots or not – is to keep your gut in tip-top shape: to feed it, care for it and tend it like your life depends on it because it does. Here’s a topline on that all-important gut-immunity connection, why it matters so much, and how to care for yours so it’s ready to take on just about anything that comes your way:

Roughly 70% of your immune system lives in your gut.

The microbiome is the community of billions of bacteria that lives inside the gut which also just happens to be home to roughly 70% of your immune system. Those bacteria work in tandem with your human immune cells to recognize and resist any toxic invaders that come down the intestinal pike. The microbiome is also essential for digesting your food, metabolizing nutrients, making vitamins and protecting your gut lining by nourishing the cell wall. There’s a lot going on in that gut of yours, so much so, it’s often referred to as ‘the second brain.’

To fight off pathogens, it takes a healthy, leak-free gut.

When your bacterial community is in balance, your gut wall is intact, strong and all systems go. Since your gut wall is the primary barrier between your body and the outside world (where food, bugs and other assorted toxins can be threats), protecting it is essential.  When it’s out of balance, that’s when the trouble starts. The fragile, one-cell-thick gut wall loosens, and ‘leaky gut’ develops. Harmful bacteria, toxins (think pesticides and artificial ingredients in the food you eat), and pieces of partially digested food can slip through tiny spaces in the wall and leak straight into the bloodstream. Those leaks, unfortunately, wind up promoting inflammation throughout the body, causing symptoms like joint pain, skin rashes, moodiness, anxiety, depression, brain fog, and hormonal issues. As if navigating the pandemic wasn’t already challenging enough!

Your ‘second brain’ steers your immunity, mental health and healthy-aging ship.

It’s known as “the second brain” because, woven into the gut, is the enteric nervous system – two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells that line the walls of your gastrointestinal tract. This “brain in your gut” helps manage your digestion, mood, health and even the way you think. And the microbiome serves as its feel-good factory. For instance, most of the brain chemical serotonin— which promotes emotional well-being, self-confidence, and good sleep—is made in the gut, and most of that is made by your gut bacteria. So, when your microbiome is in good shape, chances are, your gut, and the rest of you, is too. As a result, you are more likely to feel calm, balanced and well-rested – and look it too. Know a guy who looks (and probably feels) twice their age, and is perhaps a bit moody or depressive to boot? A poorly tended to bacterial community may be largely to blame. Don’t be that guy (or gal)

An off-kilter gut screws up your belly, brain, behavior and beyond.

When your microbiome is balanced, the rest of your body usually works well too. But, when you throw it out of balance, a lot of bodily systems and functions start to go off the rails, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. For example:

  • Mental – anxiety, depression, brain fog, sleep issues, memory problems
  • Digestive – gas, bloating, indigestion, constipation, loose stools, heartburn
  • Hormonal – menstrual and premenstrual issues; symptoms of perimenopause and menopause (like hot flashes, skin problems, sleep difficulties, mood swings)
  • Immunity – frequent colds and flu; difficulty recovering from illness; allergies
  • Skin – acne; rosacea; eczema; psoriasis
  • Overall function: fatigue, muscle pain, joint pain, weight gain

What’s more, an imbalanced microbiome is also more likely to cause the gut immune system to overreact to various foods, like gluten, and in the process trigger or worsen inflammation. And a not-up-to-snuff microbiome may be an important reason for an inflammation response that goes into dangerous overdrive, for instance, in the case of autoimmune diseases. Here, the immune system goes so haywire, it attacks the body’s own organs. So, do not underestimate the power of a healthy gut, or the devastation an imbalanced one can cause.

Poor habits trip up microbial balance – and your immunity.

But what are the factors involved in creating an unbalanced microbiome? If you’re dealing with any or some combination of the symptoms I’ve already mentioned, that’s a clear sign it’s time to turn your microbial ship around. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the key inflammatory culprits you need to send packing are things that many of us expose ourselves to every day. Topping the list are such offenders as:

  • Lack of sleep, movement and/or unrelieved stress
  • Toxins – think daily chemical exposure, for instance, to pesticides – with weed-killer glyphosate being among the worst and most prevalent – as well as household cleaning products and personal care products
  • Antibiotics – which wipe out not only the bad bacteria that can make you ill, but also the good ones that keep you well
  • Many common medications – including antidepressants, anti-anxiety meds, antacids, proton pump inhibitors, and pain meds
  • Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – found in such GM crops as corn, soy, papaya, sugar beets, and many of the plants used to make industrial oils (i.e., canola oil). Most if not all of GM crops are sprayed with the highly toxic pesticide Round-Up, (whose active ingredient is glyphosate, which also happens to be a registered antibiotic). Trouble is, not only does the stuff promote potentially cancerous mutations at the cellular level, but glyphosate’s antibiotic properties mess with your bacterial balance when you eat GMO crops, or the animals that eat them.
  • Glyphosate sprayed crops – even with non-GM crops, it’s still used on many different food crops to speed up the drying process in preparation for harvest. Among the most commonly ‘speed-dried’ crops: corn, peas, soybeans, flax, rye, lentils, triticale, buckwheat, canola, millet, potatoes, sugar beets, soybeans and other edible legumes

Protect your gut to support optimal immunity.

Having a balanced microbiome is the best way to prevent a leaky gut and keep immunity strong. It’s also your best weapon against inflammation—and all the health-sapping symptoms that inflammation can trigger. So, to reverse any gut dysfunction that you may be suffering from, start by upgrading your diet, and adding some of these positive lifestyle behaviors that heal, seal, support and protect:

Dietary must-avoids:

  • Avoid GMOs and glyphosate whenever possible— beyond the cancer link, the deleterious bacteria-bashing antibiotic effects of glyphosate damage to our guts, the smart money is to stay far away from GM foods and foods raised or treated with glyphosate
  • Avoid sweet and starchy foods – which feed the overgrowth of bad bacteria in your gut and can lead to leaky gut
  • Avoid unhealthy fats – like trans fats and industrial oils, which trigger inflammation
  • Avoid junk food and processed food, almost all of which contains trans fats, GMO corn, GMO soy or industrial seed oils
  • Avoid gluten – this protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and some other grains, as well as in soy sauce, seitan, beer, and many packaged and processed foods, can irritate the gut, even if you don’t have a severe allergy per se.
  • Avoid preservatives and artificial ingredients – which disrupt your microbiome.
  • Avoid artificial sweeteners – as they disrupt your microbiome with highly questionable chemicals that no body ‘needs’
  • Avoid conventionally farmed meat – these poultry, beef, dairy products, and eggs likely contain antibiotics and hormones, and have likely been fed on genetically modified corn or soy

Dietary upgrades and healing additions:

  • Eat fermented foods —sauerkraut, kefir (fermented milk), kimchee (Korean fermented vegetables), or fermented vegetables.  Fermented foods contain natural bacteria that also protect your microbiome.
  • Incorporate prebiotics into your diet – foods that contain the fiber on which friendly bacteria feed.  Key prebiotics include tomatoes, garlic, onions, radishes, leeks, asparagus, and Jerusalem artichokes.  Always remember to eat the stalks and stems as that’s where a lot of the fiber is.
  • Incorporate fiber in general and, in particular, resistant starch, for instance the starches in nuts, seeds, and legumes that “resist” being broken down to glucose and instead feed the bacteria in your gut.
  • Buy clean produce and animals – as in avoid conventionally-grown, to sidestep dangerous pesticides and antibiotics. Instead, always go for organic and/or farmers market products, which tend to be raised with more small-batch TLC (though they may use some natural pesticides) – and without the antibiotic pesticide Round-up
  • Drink bone broth – to heal and soothe the gut and seal the leaks.

Lifestyle upgrades:

  • Whenever possible, avoid antibiotics – or use herbal antibiotics, which are better at killing the unfriendly bacteria while leaving the friendly microbes alone
  • Avoid PPI’s which wreak havoc on your gut bacteria
  • Take a daily probiotic – capsule or powder, containing friendly bacteria to help replenish your own microbiome.  Taking a probiotic is especially important if you are taking antibiotics.
  • Add intermittent fasting – early research indicates that intermittent fasting may help restore microbe diversity in the gut, increase tolerance against “bad” gut microbes, and restore the integrity of the intestinal wall.
  • Make sleep a priority – and get enough of it, as in 7 – 8 hours a night.
  • Move your body – throughout the day
  • Find effective ways to unwind and cope with stress – meditation, spending time in nature, hot baths or saunas – if it feels good and is good for you, do it!

10 Daily Habits to Live to 100

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