Your gut microbiota or 'gut flora' - the name given to the tens of trillions of microorganisms living in your gastrointestinal tract, provides many essential health benefits, including regulating immune homeostasis, or in layman’s terms, supporting your immune system. On the flipside, an unhealthy gut microbial community can lead to immune dysregulation.
How does your gut affect your immune system?
Essentially, our intestines contain more immune cells than the rest of our body (in its entirety), and as such, meaning the gut plays a huge role in immune function – in fact, the combined number of genes in the microbiota genome is 150 times larger than the person in which they reside.
An emerging theory of disease, according to Dr Natalia Shulzhenko from Oregon State University, suggests immune dysfunction and autoimmune diseases may be the result of a disruption in the "crosstalk" between the microbes in the human gut and other cells involved in the immune system and metabolic processes.
She says in a healthy person, these microbes in the gut stimulate the immune system as needed, and it in turn talks back. Unfortunately, modern lifestyle, diet, overuse of some medications and other issues can alter this communication.
Maintaining a healthy gut microbiome requires consuming a healthy diet, with a wide variety of whole foods is key; as is reducing stressors, taking time to chill out, consuming alcohol within healthy guidelines and only using antibiotics or other medications as prescribed by your healthcare professional.
How probiotics may help
Of course, the reality is there are times when our diet is just not up to scratch, stress runs high, we drink more alcohol than usual, or we fall ill and need to take medication, which may or may not include antibiotics. Our gut health and therefore immune system is also affected by ageing – a factor we have no control over!
If food sources of probiotics (think yoghurt, kimchi, miso or kombucha) don’t appeal, taking a quality probiotic may be useful in supporting your gut health, providing a daily dose of probiotics and to help support your immune system function. If in doubt, talk to your GP or pharmacist.