– Sonya Nobbe, ND
Most of us know that a healthy immune system helps us fight off seasonal colds and reduces the number of sick days we take at work. However, a balanced immune system also minimizes inflammation in our body, which potentially reduces the pain of arthritis and lowers one’s risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. Your digestive tract hosts millions of these immune cells and is the largest barrier between you and the outside world. Ensuring its health is crucial to obtaining a balanced immune system.
A properly functioning digestive system produces just the right amount of stomach acid to absorb a variety of nutrients from our food, including those required for a balanced immune system. Zinc for example, is a powerful immune stimulant and requires an acidic environment for optimal absorption. People with a zinc deficiency may experience frequent colds and infections, blood sugar imbalances, and facial acne.
Signs and symptoms of inadequate stomach acid production include bloating after eating, heartburn, unexplained hair loss, and anemia. Medications that intentionally block stomach acid production such as Zantac, Nexium, and Rolaids, may cause these symptoms as unintended side-effects when taken for long periods of time. People taking these acid-blocking drugs who have concerns about the health of their immune system should speak to a healthcare professional about alternative treatments. Otherwise, if you suspect that you have low levels of stomach acid, a little bit of apple cider vinegar in water (about 1 tsp in 4oz of water) about 10 minutes before your meal is enough for many people to improve digestion and nutrient absorption. A more formal assessment of your stomach acid production may be conducted by a healthcare professional.
Protein maldigestion is a common result of poor digestive health and is associated with abnormal immune function. Any discomfort following a high protein meal, including bloating or gas (particularly if a “rotten egg” smell lingers) may indicate poor protein assimilation. In susceptible individuals, improperly digested protein remnants cross the intestinal barrier into the bloodstream and form immune complexes that deposit in tissues and generate inflammation. Some theories suggest that this scenario forms the basis of food intolerances, which may manifest in many ways including headaches, joint pain, difficulty focusing, and mood disorders.
If you suspect that food intolerances contribute to your health concern, a carefully planned elimination diet in which you stop eating common food sensitivities and then gradually re-introduce them into your diet, may help you determine offending foods. A Naturopathic Doctor may also order blood tests to examine whether you have immune cells that react against particular foods.
A well functioning digestive system also houses more bacterial cells than there are cells in your entire body, and these bacteria play an important role in immune system regulation. Studies show that a variety of lactobacillus and bifidobacteria species create a barrier against invasion by disease-causing bacteria including some strains of E. coli and Salmonella. These good bacteria also directly stimulate immune system activity against invaders and help to reduce overactive immune responses associated with allergies and eczema. A probiotic supplement from a reputable company taken daily with meals is a safe way for most people to maintain proper levels of these good bacteria.
Naturopathic medicine views the body as a whole, integrated system. In this way, balancing the immune system doesn’t necessarily mean treating the immune system directly; it may mean supporting the function of digestive organs, endocrine glands, or the nervous system, for example. If you have a serious health concern in any system of your body, a Naturopathic Doctor may help you put the pieces together to determine which systems are out of balance so that you can treat the root cause of the problem and achieve lasting results.
You may find this and more of my articles published in Within Kingston Magazine.