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If you are using the principles of natural health to create a vibrant, thriving life for you and for your family, then you know that both gut health and a strong immune system are key. Once you understand the relationship between the two, then achieving perfect health and preventing disease can be easy!
Gut Health and the Immune System are Intricately Linked
It is safe to say that there is a real renaissance taking place in the scientific world when it comes to both the importance of the gut and a strong immune system. This is a very good thing. As you will see, you need both to prevent disease and live a vibrant, active life.
The immune system is a huge network of cells and organisms that spans throughout the body. It isn’t relegated to just one area of the body.
However, science now knows that roughly 80% of our body’s total immune system cells reside in the upper gastrointestinal tract.1 When you do good things for your gut, you are also helping your immune system in a big way.
Below are 20 modalities and substances designed to boost both your immunity and your gut health. Some of these suggestions focus on broad lifestyle changes while others narrow in on key substances.
This is by no means a complete list but it can definitely get you started on your way towards vibrant health!
The Top 20: Immune Boosters That Really Work
A diversity of gut bacteria is the key to a sound GI system and a robust immune system. A key part of that is to make sure you are getting enough beneficial bacteria in the form of probiotics. Stress, toxins in the air, water & soil, and poor dietary choices can create an environment where pathogenic microorganisms proliferate.
Inoculating your system with some form of probiotic in the form of fermented foods, whole foods, or supplements every day can turn this situation around.
There are dozens of probiotic types and each are helpful in their own unique way. Three kinds that are especially important are Saccharomyces boulardii, Lactobacillus acidophilus, and Lactobacillus plantarum. L. Plantarum is potent because it has a special casing around it which protects it from being neutralized in stomach acid. It is also more antibiotic resistant than other probiotics.2 Lactobacillus acidophilus is abundant in our bodies; it resides in the gut, in the mouth, and in a woman’s vagina.
It can crowd out pathogenic bacteria such as certain forms of E. Coli. According to a 2005 University of Western Sydney study, L. acidophilus also boosted immune function directly in a mouse model by increasing the number of certain pathogen-seeking cytokines.3
Finally, according to a meta-analysis conducted by Washington State University, Saccharomyces boulardii has an anti-inflammatory effect and can boost certain immune system mechanisms which help to fight pathogens.4
While your body absolutely needs probiotics for a healthy gut and immune system, the “good guys” in your digestive system need prebiotics to survive. Prebiotics are sources of soluble fiber that beneficial bacteria use as “food.” The two kinds of prebiotics, inulin and oligofructose, can be found in foods such as organic sweet potatoes, jicama, asparagus, garlic, leeks, onions, and whole grain wheat.5
#3. Vitamin C
Vitamin C is absolutely vital for our health in almost every way. Unlike many other vitamins, however, our body cannot make it. We must ingest whole foods or supplements that contain it. Vitamin C is essential for heart health and for the immune system.
It is a powerful antioxidant and is often referred to as the perfect “quick-change artist” of the immune system.
This is because when it discovers a pathogenic cell, it will turn itself into a benign substance called DHA, or dehydroascorbic acid. Once inside a pathogen, it turns itself back into ascorbic acid, causing the malignant cells to self-destruct in a process.
Vitamin C is also the key ingredient in the production of collagen, which – in large part – is what our muscles, joints, and stomach lining are made of. Researchers at the Linus Pauling Institute have been studying the benefits of vitamin C since the Nobel Prize-winning scientist began this research close to 75 years ago.
According to an Institute report,
[e]ven in small amounts, vitamin C can protect indispensable molecules in the body, such as proteins, lipids (fats), carbohydrates, and nucleic acids (DNA and RNA), from damage by free radicals and reactive oxygen species (ROS) that are generated during normal metabolism, by active immune cells, and through exposure to toxins and pollutants (e.g., certain chemotherapy drugs and cigarette smoke).”6
#4. Stay Hydrated
To demonstrate how important staying hydrated is for your body, consider this: A person can survive without water for only about 3 or 4 days.7 This is because your body is at least 60% fluid. The fluids that run through your system such as your blood and lymph are responsible for major functions like the absorption of nutrients, the circulation of blood, digestion, and detoxification. When you do not drink enough water throughout the day, these systems suffer and this puts great stress on the immune system.8 Be sure to use only fresh, filtered water for drinking.
Here is a secret: if you make just this one lifestyle change, it can have a huge impact on your energy level in general.
#5. Lower Stress
A little stress is normal and healthy. That being said, countless studies have proven that chronic stress can lead to lower immune function indirectly through creating imbalances in the endocrine and nervous system.9 Stress also raises cortisol levels, which over time can lead to inflammation and changes at the genetic level. A 2003 report in the journal Trends in Immunology stated that “[t]here is now good evidence (in animal and human studies) that the magnitude of stress-associated immune dysregulation is large enough to have health implications.”10
There are many ways to lower stress, such as meditation, prayer, exercise, being in nature, and reducing caffeine consumption. Another way is through modalities that utilize the soothing power of heat. Hyperthermia raises body temperature temporarily and this can also boost the immune system too. The mechanism for how this work is seen through substances in the body called Heat Shock Proteins (HSPs). Healthy HSPs play a role in protecting cells from damage caused by stress.
A certain amount of stress on the body caused by exposing oneself to high heat temporarily increases the amount of healthy HSPs within cells. This can be a good thing immunity, according to a 2016 Italian study, among others.11 Forms of hyperthermia include dry sauna, infrared sauna, wet sauna, mineral springs, exercise, and utilizing certain technologies such as the Biomat.
Time and again over recent years, studies have confirmed that moving your body can have a profound effect on immune health in many ways. One way is through upping the amount of healthy HSPs within cells, as mentioned above. Exercise can also help with detoxification through circulating lymph fluid. What is even more amazing is that high-intensity cardiovascular activity can also help the gut.
According to a 2016 study conducted by the University of British Columbia in Canada, aerobic exercise can increase gut bacteria diversity by 20%.12 The biggest change that researchers conducting this study saw was a significant increase in butyrate levels shortly after aerobic exercise. Butyrate is a fatty acid that is linked to healthy bacteria such as Clostridiales and Roseburia.13 Exercise can also decrease “energy harvesting” bacteria associated with obesity and increase bacteria that encourage more efficient fat burning.
#8. Eat Green Vegetables
Bright green vegetables such as kale, broccoli, cabbage and Brussels Sprouts are all part of the Brassicaceae, or Cruciferae, family. These foods have pretty much all the nutrients you need for immune system health. They are packed with antioxidants and essential minerals such as calcium, magnesium and selenium. They also contain specific phytonutrients such as sulforaphane which boost enzymes that support the immune system.
A 2011 study conducted by the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, UK found that phytonutrients within green veggies provide chemical signaling for intraepithelial lymphocytes (IELs) in the gut and in the immune system. IELs help to ensure a fully-functioning immune system.
#9. Consume Less Sugar
Sugar in today’s world normally comes in the form of fructose, and largely synthetically-produced High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) in particular. Research conducted in 2010 at Oregon Health & Science University found that ingesting HFCS can lead to imbalances in the hypothalamus.14 The hypothalamus is the part of the brain which sets healthy appetite levels and also controls the production of hormones responsible for metabolism.
The other form that sugar typically comes in commercially is sucrose (table sugar). Sucrose is a mixture of fructose and glucose and is extremely hard for the body to break down and digest. Experts state that too much of any kind of sugar can compromise immune function significantly. Too much sugar can lead to obesity and diabetes and can also lower white blood cells’ effectiveness at destroying harmful bacteria in the gut and elsewhere.
If you are suffering from a major disease, think seriously about removing sugar from your diet completely, at least for a little while. Besides hydration, cutting back on all sources of refined sugars, including white breads and pasta, is probably one of the best things you can do for your immune system, hands down!
#10. Stay Away from Trans Fats
Another substance to stay away from for immune health is trans fats. While many naturally-produced fats are essential for immune system health (we will get to those next), trans fats are synthetically produced and can actually turn off certain functions in the body vital to healthy immunity and cardiovascular functioning. When trans fats are heated, this creates extreme oxidation in the body.
In addition, according to University of Illinois biochemist and best-selling author Dr. Fred, man-made trans fats can turn off the synthesis of a substance called prostacyclin.15 Prostacyclin is needed to keep blood circulating and to prevent clotting. Trans fats are also linked to neurological disorders such as depression.16
#11. Consume Healthy Fats
On the flip side, there are some fats that you want to keep on your plate. The job of Omega 3 fatty acids is to maintain the vitality and integrity of cells, including immune system cells.17 In fact, they make up part of the cell membrane and play a role in cellular genetic integrity as well. Omega 3 fats cannot be made by the body. They must be received by consuming whole foods or as a supplement. The three types of Omega 3s are EPA and DHA, which come from cold-water fish, and ALA, which comes from nuts and seeds, leafy greens, and some animal fat.
#12. Bone Broth
Bone broth is made from long-term heavy boiling of the bones of animals, typically organic and hormone-free beef, chicken, or fish. The boiling process extracts nutrients and other healing materials from the marrow inside the bones to create an elixir of goodness for your immune system and your gut. Bone broth is super high in vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and lipids, all of which are essential for immunity.
It also includes amino acids glutamine, glycine, and arginine which help to regulate the immune system, support the liver, and ensure quality sleep.18 Bone broth also contains substances known as Glycosaminoglycans (or GAGS) which help seal the gut lining.
#13. Eat Less
Then there is the conventional wisdom of simply eating less in general. Individuals have been restricting calories for health for centuries. Even animals stop eating when they are ill and need to rest and restore. Many studies indicate that calorie restriction is linked to less free radical damage, the regulation of inflammatory mechanisms, and the prevention of disease.
A recent report published in the journal Cell Stem Cell found that a 3-day fast helped regenerate the immune system as well as protect it from damage, even at the genetic level.19 A study conducted on those who practice intermittent fasting during Ramadan found that the practice regulated the number of pro-inflammation cytokines produced by the immune system.20
Intermittent fasting is when a person goes from between 14 to 20 hours without eating, usually from the evening before to the next morning or early afternoon.
#14. Get Quality Sleep
The majority of Americans are sleep deprived. Insufficient sleep has been associated in countless studies with a compromised immune system as well as accelerated aging, DNA damage, and cell damage. In addition, research conducted at Uppsala University in Sweden suggests that alterations in sleep can affect the abundance of beneficial bacteria in the gut and lower gut microbiota overall.21
This is because it is while you slumber when major organs such as the digestive system and the liver have a chance to rest and repair. It is also the time when repairing hormones such as melatonin are released. The bottom line is that in order to have a healthy immune system and a healthy digestive system, you need quality sleep!
#15. Essential Minerals
Everyone needs essential minerals for health. They are often called the “spark plugs” of life since they are elemental for so many functions in the body, including in the immune system and gut. Humans require certain “essential” minerals to survive. Our entire body system is composed of about 4% of minerals.
We cannot produce them ourselves, however. We must get them from whole foods or supplements. Some minerals, such as potassium, cesium, magnesium, and calcium affect pH, while others are vital for the functioning of enzymes. Still others help with the transfer of nutrients through cell membranes.
#16. Vitamin D
Vitamin D is really not a “vitamin,” per se. It actually acts more like a powerful steroid hormone. Did you know that vitamin D affects more than 100 different gene blueprints in your body? Yet a 2009 U.S. Centers for Disease Control survey found that roughly three-quarters of all the teens and adults in the U.S. are vitamin D deficient.22
Like C and the Bs, the body cannot make vitamin D. The best way to get enough of it is through direct exposure of skin to the sun, or through supplementation. The non-profit Vitamin D Council states that vitamin D supplementation may be beneficial on a variety of preventative fronts, including helping with autoimmune disease and cardiovascular issues.23
If you are supplementing with vitamin D to up your levels, be sure to get a product that contains both D3 and K2. Both are needed to work together for cellular communication.
#17. B Vitamins
Like vitamin D and C, B vitamins are pretty much essential for all healthy functioning in the body. This includes B1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 9 and 12, with added emphasis on vitamins B6 and B12 where immune system health is concerned. B6 is found mostly in animal products and dairy. It is essential for a process called methylation.24 This is the mechanism through which DNA gets expressed and is vital for detoxification through the liver. Methylation is also a key factor in the production of the super-antioxidant glutathione. Not too long ago, it was normal for individuals to get B12 shots from their primary doctor when they were feeling under the weather. There was a reason why…
Vitamin B12 is a major player for red blood cell formation and for the nervous system. Babies born with B12 deficiency run the risk of impaired growth and lower brain development.25 Sadly, a recent survey conducted as part of the Framington Heart Health Study found that one in every four Americans is B12 deficient.26
#18. Medicinal Mushrooms
Adding medicinal mushrooms to your daily routine is a great way to boost immune function directly. Some mushrooms that have been scientifically verified to do this are Lion’s Mane, Turkey Tail, and Reishi. A study conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that Lion’s Mane mushroom can be both neuroprotective and anti-aging.27 Several studies connect Reishi in particular to improved immunity. It has been used for thousands of years in Asia for this capacity. A report in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology linked Ganoderma lucidum (Reishi) to anti-herpetic activity.28 It inhibited the mechanisms by which the virus maintains itself and flourishes in the body.
#19. Green Tea
Green tea contains a substance called Epigallocatechin gallate, or EGCG. EGCG can help the immune system by protecting cells from oxidation since it is a powerful antioxidant.29 The amino acid L-theanine in green tea also provides support to the germ-fighting T-cells of the immune system. There is laboratory evidence to suggest that EGCG in green tea may also repair damaged DNA.30 The fermentation process that a typical black tea goes through destroys most of the EGCG in tea leaves. Green tea does not go through fermentation, thus the EGCG is not destroyed.
Curcumin is a key phytonutrient found in the bright yellow Indian root spice turmeric. To date, thousands of studies have been conducted on curcumin and many more on this substance together with its partner substance, piperine. Piperine is a phytonutrient found in black pepper. The two together pack quite a punch for disease prevention. They are powerful anti-inflammatory agents that can help the body as a whole, especially the immune system and the body’s detoxification.
A 2007 report published in the Journal of Clinical Immunology found that curcumin can modulate the expression of many immune system substances, including T cells, natural killer cells, and macrophages. The authors state that “curcumin’s reported beneficial effects in arthritis, allergy, asthma, atherosclerosis, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and cancer might be due in part to its ability to modulate the immune system.”31
You CAN Boost Your Immune System and Heal Your Gut Now
If you are feeling like you need an “immune boost,” you lack energy, or are having digestive challenges, adding one of the substances or lifestyle tweaks mentioned above to your daily routine can have a huge impact on your general well-being in both body and mind over time.
They are all part of living a life based on prevention rather than reaction and work best when you stick to them over the long haul. The main thing to remember is that both of these systems – the digestive system and the immune system – are intricately connected. The good news is that when you work on strengthening one, you will inherently strengthen the other.
This list is by no means complete! You can use it as a “quick reference” when you need a reminder to stay on track or when you feel that your immune system needs some support.
You CAN heal your gut and boost immunity at the same time! Take it slow, stick to it, and experience the difference adding these substances and making these lifestyle changes can have on your life on every level!
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in May 2022 and has been updated in November 2022.
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