Did you know?
There are more than 40 trillion bacteria in your body, most of which reside in your intestines and are known as your gut microbiota or gut flora. There are hundreds of species of bacteria in your intestines. Each type has its own role in your health and requires different nutrients for growth.
A healthy balance of gut bacteria helps to provide us with a supply of essential nutrients, synthesis of vitamins and minerals and protection against harmful toxins and pathogens.
How can gut bacteria influence the immune system?
Research shows that the nature and composition of our gut microflora can influence our immune system. A disrupted microbiota is associated with a number of chronic diseases.
Inflammation is the response of the immune system against foreign invaders, toxins or cell damage. Some inflammation (particularly short-term) is good and the body’s defence mechanism towards pathogens like bacteria and viruses that could otherwise be potentially fatal.
Nevertheless, inflammation that is inappropriately deployed against the body cells can be harmful. This type of inflammation referred to as chronic inflammation is often active all the time and present throughout the body.
It is now thought that chronic inflammation could be associated with many diseases including obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease and depression. This is an incredibly complex area and it is not known exactly what triggers chronic inflammation in the first place.
However, the gut is thought to play a role in immune responses. A disruption to gut flora can result in an increased gut permeability often termed ‘leaky gut’. Leaky gut occurs when lipopolysaccharides (LPS) or endotoxins present in the cell walls of some gut bacteria leak into the body and trigger an inflammatory response.
How can we improve our balance of gut flora?
Eating a healthy balanced diet can improve our gut flora and help to prevent related inflammation. Variation in our diet is important for our gut bacteria and consume of different foods can result in a more diverse microbiota. A diverse microbiota is an advantage because the more species of bacteria you have the greater the number of health benefits they may be able to contribute to.
It has been proven that an adequate consumption of fruit and vegetables can provide a great source of nutrients for gut bacteria. The high fibre content present in many fruits and vegetables, as well as beans and legumes, can stimulate the growth of good bacteria. There is evidence to suggest a diet high in fruits and vegetables can prevent the development of some disease-causing bacteria.
Wholegrain foods are also high in fibre and non-digestible carbs, such as beta-glucan. This can promote the growth of beneficial bacteria Bifidobacteria, Lactobacilli and Bacteroidetes. An increase in good bacteria may improve certain aspects of metabolic health.
Consumption of fermented foods like plain natural yoghurt can enhance the function of microbiota and help reduce the amount of disease-causing bacteria present. This is thought to be due to many fermented foods being rich in the beneficial bacteria lactobacilli.
Overall, the most effective way to maintain a healthy gut flora is to consume a diet is high in fruits, veggies, beans and whole grains.