Dr. Megan Rossi, The Gut Health Doctor, breaks down the gut-immune axis and what you can do to improve your gut health and boost your overall well-being.
Can you please explain the gut–immune axis to our readers?
We’re all more interested than ever before in bolstering our immunity. Whether it’s staving off the common cold and winter flu, protecting ourselves against the rising incidence of autoimmune conditions, or surviving a global pandemic, we want strong defenses. News headlines are forever proclaiming the next superfood or supplement that’s finally going to give us super-immunity.
However, what we don’t hear often enough is the fact that immunity is powered by the gut. An impressive 70% of our immune cells actually reside in the gut, alongside our gut microbiota (GM), and they are in constant communication. This is the gut-immune axis.
The GM takes on a bit of a parental role, training our immune cells from birth. The microbes teach our immune system what is worth reacting to (like disease-causing microbes) and what is safe (like proteins found in certain food). Without our GM, our immunity would be pretty inefficient.
Are there foods you can eat to boost your gut–immune axis?
One of the best ways we can support our gut-immune axis is by supporting our GM — keeping it healthy with a diverse and plant-based diet. The following foods are filled with key nutrients and phytochemicals to nourish your immune system: walnuts, garlic, sun-exposed mushrooms, firm tofu, carrots, oranges, wheat berries, chia seeds, turmeric, and broccoli.
Do you feel like there is a lot of misinformation regarding gut health in today’s society?
There is a propensity online to share information that is not evidence-backed. For example: ”leaky gut” is not a diagnosis. Everyone experiences temporary gut lining leakiness from time to time without any health consequences.
The other common misconception is that you need to eliminate foods to ”heal” your gut and have optimal health. For example, gluten is being demonized everywhere, but wholegrains are packed with fibre and studies show they may reduce the risk of several diseases, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and colon and breast cancer.
Restrictive diets can actually starve your body, and cutting out foods could be bad for your health. For good gut health, the goal is diversity, not restriction. Eating a diet rich in a variety of plant-based whole foods supports a more diverse and well-functioning GM to support our overall health.
How does taking care of your gut health improve your overall well-being?
Over the past decade, we have made huge leaps in our understanding of what the GM is and how crucial it is to our overall health. In short, the trillions of microbes that live in our gut are key to pretty much all of our body systems and responsible for everything from weight management to mood, skin hormones, immunity, and much more. To achieve those short and long-term benefits, we need to nourish our gut microbes, and what they love most of all is an abundant and diverse range of fiber, which you can find in plant-based foods.
There is a lot of talk on social media about IBS. Can you explain how gut symptoms are associated with IBS?
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a gut disorder that affects as many as 1 in 10 adults worldwide, and it can be extremely debilitating. It occurs when the communication between the gut and brain is disordered, and this manifests in an overly sensitive intestine. As a result, it is typical to have a collection of various gut symptoms with IBS, including stomach pain, diarrhea, constipation, and bloating.
What are treatment options for IBS?
Diet and lifestyle treatments for IBS are considered first line for symptom management, with treatment success in up to 80% of sufferers. In terms of diet, targeting specific components including caffeine, fat, spice, fiber, hydration, and alcohol can be sufficient for symptom management in 50% of those with IBS.
For those who need more intensive dietary motivation, the low FODMAP diet is widely recommended. Although effective, the diet does present a number of risks, which is why the diet should only be followed under the guidance of a FODMAP specialist dietitian. For those who don’t have access, in ”Eat Yourself Healthy,” I have developed a FODMAP-lite approach that people can implement on their own in a safe manner.
Given the underlying mechanisms of IBS being a dysfunction between the gut and brain, top-down treatments such as gut-directed hypnotherapy and cognitive behaviour therapy also have high success rates. Neuromodulator medications may also be prescribed to those who don’t respond to diet and lifestyle management.
What upcoming gut health trends are you expecting in 2023?
Postbiotics, the beneficial chemicals produced by microbes, is an exciting area of research. This concept could pave the way for optimizing our health by utilizing the pharmacy of chemicals produced by our gut bacteria. Our research at King’s College London is also looking to understand whether specific postbiotics may negatively impact people’s gut health.