A healthy and effective immune system is the only healthy protection we have against any viruses or microbes.
They are ancient friends
Your immune system is not an organ, like your heart or your liver, that you can point your finger at your body. However, I think you can actually locate it; Eighty percent of the immune system is located in your gut. That is exactly the reason why you have so much influence on this with your diet.
We see and we don’t hear them, so it’s easy to forget them. But since time immemorial, we have been sharing our planet with countless microbes such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites and more such organisms. They are invisible, but they are everywhere: on your skin, in your mouth, your nose and your lungs. And with your diet you probably get billions of them every day.
Most of the billions of microbes we encounter every day are benevolent or at least harmless.
Don’t be afraid of microbes, they belong to us
Do not be afraid of these countless microbes. Otherwise you will never dare to French kiss your partner again. 75 million microbes are exchanged during a French kiss! If you’re afraid of microbes, that means you can never kiss again. That would make life a lot less attractive, don’t you think?
Your intestines in particular are a true hotbed for these microbes. It is relatively safe there and nice and warm, so they like to stay there. Together they weigh about one and a half kilos and believe me or not, you wouldn’t survive a day if they weren’t there.
One and a half kilos of microbes in your gut live there for a reason. They need us and we need them.
Later I will tell you more about the fruitful cooperation between our body and those microbes. Let’s first see what happens if there is one that is not in our favor. A nasty bacteria or a dangerous virus. So bad people. We also call bad people pathogens or pathogens. At that moment when evil people invade, your immune system must spring into action.
Your immune system also protects you against toxic substances
A well-functioning immune system will leave ‘good people’ alone and keep pathogens at bay or make them harmless. Pathogens are not just microbes, by the way. For about 150 years, many toxic substances such as heavy metals and chemicals roam the world. These are usually much more harmful to our body than microbes from nature.
Your immune system also tries to protect you as much as possible against toxic substances.
What are your natural barriers to foreign microbes?
Let’s see where our bodies can come into contact with foreign microbes. The first barrier against germs consists of your skin, of course, but also think of the mucous membranes in your eyes, ears and nose, the saliva in your mouth and the acid in your stomach. Microbes can also enter your lungs. Making you sneeze, cough, and scratch are ways to get them out.
If one nevertheless slips through and a harmful virus or bacteria ends up in your blood, different types of white blood cells come into action. These are also part of your immune system. The most important weapon they have to neutralize germs is to initiate an inflammatory response . Just like when you leave a splinter in your finger.
Your immune system responds to a germ with an inflammatory response.
Your skin has an area of about two square meters . Your lungs, if you were to unfold them completely, would have an area of about 100 square meters . But there’s another place where microbes from the outside world try to enter your body, and that’s your gut.
When is food actually in your body?
I can well imagine that you think that if you eat a licorice and swallow it, it is in your body. But I have to wake you up. The absorption into your body of everything you eat actually only happens in your small intestine. If you accidentally ate a plastic cap, you would poop it out undamaged. It is not absorbed by your body because your body cannot digest it .
Think of the hollow tube from your mouth to your anus as a tube in which pieces of the outside world, food, travel past your inner world.
Digesting food begins in your mouth by chewing it and adding saliva. It is then further digested in your stomach by your stomach acid and even further in your small intestine by bile and enzymes. Ultimately, small food molecules such as fat and protein molecules are left, including vitamins, minerals and other valuable nutrients. All these molecules still have to enter your body from your small intestine.
You have about 200 square meters (!) of intestinal wall
The wall of your small intestine is an ingenious system. It is not flat like your skin but consists of a lot of folds and is wafer thin. If you were to unfold it, you would get a surface that is no less than 100 times larger than your skin. That’s about a tennis court!
If you were to completely unfold your intestinal wall, you would create a surface of no less than 200 square meters.
It’s not for nothing that your small intestinal wall is wafer thin, only 1 cell thick. This is the place where valuable nutrients can really enter your body. All those tiny food particles pass through the wafer-thin intestinal wall and are absorbed into your blood directly behind your intestinal wall. They first pass through your blood through your liver and are then spread over all the cells of your body. Here they are used as energy (fuel) or to keep your cells healthy (building material).
Food doesn’t enter your body through your mouth, it only enters your body through your gut.
Super important: keep your small intestinal wall healthy
Are you starting to understand why those intestines and your intestinal wall are so important? Your intestinal wall is a surface of no less than 200 square meters where food particles, which can be full of bacteria, fungi and nasty parasites, enter your body. This is the place where your immune system must function optimally to protect you.
Your small intestine is where your immune system needs to be super alert to unwanted invaders!
Directly behind that small intestinal wall is a large army of immune cells ready to see what is trying to enter your body through the intestinal wall. As soon as something comes through the intestinal wall that does not belong in your body, for example a large protein molecule or a disease-causing virus, your immune system reacts with its infamous weapon: an inflammatory response.
The immune system’s inflammatory response will render the invader harmless.
You really want to keep your intestinal wall healthy, otherwise your immune system has to be constantly in action. An overactive immune system eventually becomes a weakened immune system and that is the beginning of a lot of misery. An article will soon be published about how you can keep your intestinal wall healthy. The first recommendations can be found later in this article.
A healthy intestinal wall is an indispensable condition for a healthy immune system.
The large intestine: training ground for your immune system
After the small intestine, the food slurry, or what’s left of it, ends up in your large intestine. This is the place where moisture is extracted from the food slurry and goes back into your body.
The large intestine contains the vast majority of gut bacteria and other microbes. This set of trillions of microbes is also known as your gut flora or gut biome. I like to call it my gut flora. This gives me the idea, as with my houseplants, that if I take good care of them, they will flourish. And that is important, because healthy intestinal bacteria are indispensable for a well-functioning immune system.
The bacteria in your gut are an essential part of your immune system.
Symbiosis means taking good care of each other
We offer our gut bacteria a warm and relatively safe environment. In return, the friendly bacteria take very good care of us. We call this symbiosis. This goes a lot further than you might think.
Some important tasks of your gut bacteria are:
- The presence of friendly gut bacteria makes you less susceptible to pathogens such as salmonella.
- Healthy gut bacteria make important food acids, such as lactic acid and butyric acid. These acids prevent the growth of bad bacteria and fungi, keep the intestinal wall healthy and inflammation .
- Certain bacteria, the lactobacilli, promote healthy bowel movements. This prevents the build-up of toxic substances in your gut that can lead to an overly permeable gut.
- Still other bacteria, the bifidos, produce important amino acids and vitamins including B1, B6, B8, B12, K and folic acid.
- Hopefully a large part of your gut bacteria is from the bacteroides family. This group of bacteria plays an important role in keeping your immune system effective and reducing inflammation in your gut.
- The akkermansia bacteria also protect the intestinal wall, fight inflammation and promote a healthy weight.
Bacteria and immune system keep each other healthy
Most importantly, healthy gut bacteria play an essential role as part of your immune system. They even ensure the production of antibodies that protect you against germs.
Certain gut bacteria help produce antibodies against certain pathogens, making you immune to them.
But that’s not all. The world around us is constantly changing. So do the microbes around us. Our immune system must therefore be constantly trained in what is ‘good people’ and ‘bad people’. This training takes place through bacteria on and in your body. Your gut bacteria also play an important role in this.
Healthy (gut) bacteria continuously communicate with the cells of your immune system to teach them which are pathogenic and which are harmless organisms.
Your immune system is continuously trained by your gut bacteria
A wide variety of bacteria is needed to continuously train your immune system. This starts at birth. In a normal birth, you have received a wide range of bacteria from your mother during your journey through the birth canal. These bacteria formed the start of your intestinal flora and thus your immune system.
If you were born with a cesarean section, then you have fallen behind when it comes to a properly functioning immune system.
Research has shown that children born by Caesarean section, in a sterile, bacteria-free environment, are five times more likely to develop allergies by age 2, but are also more vulnerable to asthma, eczema, intestinal infections, obesity and cancer. (1.1, 1.2 ) All signals that the immune system is not working optimally. The sterile environment at birth has caused a much less varied composition of the intestinal flora.
If you become infected with a flu virus right after a course of antibiotics, you are more likely to get sick. Your immune system protects you less well because your intestinal flora has been damaged by the treatment.
Do you see how important a healthy intestinal flora is to keep your immune system healthy?
Too hygienic living is not healthy for us
Not just during birth, but throughout our lives, we must continue to train our immune system by bringing our bodies into contact with a wide variety of microbes in our environment.
Just like us, our immune system must constantly evolve if it is to survive in this world.
Research has shown that people with a large and diverse social network (family, friends, work, neighborhood) are more resistant to a deliberately spread cold virus than people with a smaller social network. A large and diverse social network ensures a more powerful immune system! A small social network was found to have a greater negative impact on the immune system than smoking, poor sleep, alcohol consumption and low vitamin C intake. ( 1.3 )
Our immune system needs constant contact with a wide range of microbes to properly distinguish between friend and foe and to constantly train itself to rule adequately. That is why living too hygienic is not healthy for us. The more hygienic we live, the worse our immune system can develop.
You want an effective immune system
A healthy collaboration between your intestinal flora, other bacteria and your immune system ensures an effective immune response. So not too much and not too little. That’s what we need to stay healthy.
- If your immune system is not active enough, you often get sick and you quickly and easily pick up a cold or flu.
- If your immune system has to be constantly active, it can become weakened, making it less effective and making you sicker from an infection than necessary.
- If your immune system often reacts overactively, it can make mistakes in the long run and you can suffer from allergies or autoimmune diseases.
Scientists are only at the beginning of unraveling the extent of this collaboration and the influence between our gut and our immune system. But it is clear that our gut has a huge impact on our immune system and therefore on our health. So there is every reason to ensure that your intestines – including your intestinal flora – remain as healthy as possible. And that’s the good news: you have a lot of influence on this yourself!
Nutrition plays an essential role in keeping your gut and intestinal flora healthy and thus also in keeping your immune system healthy.
Healthy gut flora, healthy immune system
Your immune system cannot be transplanted, cannot be operated on and cannot be replaced by a prosthesis, a vaccination or another clever piece of technology. We will have to take very good care of it ourselves.
Healthy gut bacteria will ensure a healthy gut wall, and a healthy gut wall prevents your immune system from becoming overactive and going wild. Gut bacteria are like ants. If you feed them, they multiply.
So, on the one hand, it’s about feeding good bacteria and keeping bad bacteria in check. They don’t all have to go away, those bad bacteria, because in your gut it is ultimately about balance, about a healthy balance. You just don’t want them to get the upper hand.
- Eat unprocessed food as much as possible.
- Eat a lot of vegetable products and supplement this with healthy fats and some proteins.
- Avoid sugars, dairy and gluten as these can damage your intestinal wall.
- Eat as much fresh and organic food as possible because processed food and non-organic food can contain chemicals and/or pesticides that also make your intestinal wall vulnerable.
- Eat a wide variety and do not eat too much and too often in one day.
Of course you can do even more. Exercising in the open air is essential nutrition. Get enough sleep, take time to relax, stay away from fear, open your heart to yourself and to others, stay lovingly connected.