As the COVID-19 pandemic wears on, two of the most important health factors to regulate right now are your immune system and mental health. You may be surprised to find out that both your immunity and your psyche are intrinsically linked to your gut health, and gut-supportive practices can have positive effects on both these health factors.
The Gut & Immunity
The colony of bacteria inhabiting your gastrointestinal tract regulates immune homeostasis. This means that your immune system is in balance – neither overactive, as it is in the case of allergies, or underactive, as it is in the case of immunodeficiency – to ensure the activity of your immune functions is context-specific. Many medical professionals assert that roughly 70% of your immune system cells reside on your gut walls. Studies have found that more diversity in gut bacteria can mean a greater chance of survival following stem cell transplant and that low bacteria diversity can heighten the chance of a potentially fatal phenomenon where donor immune cells attack the recipient’s tissues. With these facts in mind, to bolster your immune system, you must pay attention to your gut.
The Gut & The Mind
According to a July 2020 poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 53% of Americans report poorer mental health as a direct result of the virus, a notably higher figure than 32% from March 2020. Symptoms include trouble falling or staying asleep, sudden increase or decrease in quantity or quality of diet, increase in alcohol and drug consumption and worsening of chronic health issues.
If you’ve ever had a gut instinct about something or felt mental anxiety manifest as a “gut-wrenching” feeling, you’ve experienced the gut and brain’s innate connection. According to Harvard Health, your gut is sensitive to emotions, registering feelings like excitement, anxiety and sadness. Researchers are finding that gut issues like inflammation and dysbiosis can contribute to mental illnesses like anxiety and depression. The potential for gut-supportive probiotics to improve mental health is the subject of ongoing research. It makes sense that gut-supportive practices can also be mind-supportive as well as immune-supportive.
Related: Eating for Immunity
To keep ahead of the coronavirus and place protections for your immunity and mind, begin with the gut. We all know by now the gut-healing magic of fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi and kefir. Now, read on to check out 5 more practices to improve the gut, and consequently boost both mental health and immunity.
1. Eat avocados
An avocado a day may keep gut issues at bay, according to recent research by the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. A study conducted on adults who were either overweight or obese but had no other health issues found that people who eat an avocado a day had a greater abundance of microbes in the gut responsible for breaking down fiber. The human body can’t effectively break down dietary fiber, so we rely on certain gut microbes. The study’s subjects who ate an avocado a day also experienced greater gut flora diversity — a desirable outcome.
2. Reduce stress levels
Not only can the gut affect the mind, but we’re now finding the mind can also affect the gut! According to a consortium of French scientists from world-renowned biological research institutions like the Institut Pasteur, CNRS and Inserm, changes to gut microbiota can be induced by chronic stress. The change triggers a reduction in lipid metabolites that are vital for communication with the brain, leading to depressive symptoms. Naturally, this means we must reduce stress in order to reduce the implications of stress on the gut. Of course, we can’t always control the stressors in our lives, but what we can control is how we react to them. Practice stress-reduction techniques that have been proven have positive effects, such as mindfulness meditations, self-care and exercise — especially outdoor exercise.
Related: Fix Your Gut 7-Day Meal Plan
3. Eat less processed sugars
When every healthful diet and lifestyle breakdown includes reducing the amount of processed sugar consumption, it is probably not shocking to learn that this is an integral part of maintaining a healthy gut, too. The gut and processed sugar have a vicious cyclical relationship: the sugar has an inflammatory effect on the gut and can reduce good gut bacteria, leading to a bacterial imbalance that causes excess sugar cravings, which are then met by more consumption, which ultimately destroys the gut further. It’s also well known that a diet high in processed sugar can lead to weight gain. Research links dietary-induced excessive weight gain to microbial changes in the gut. To protect yourself from gastrointestinal inflammation and imbalances, reduce your sugar intake overall. The little sugar you do consume, try to consume in the form of fresh produce.
4. Avoid antibiotics
If you’ve ever had a serious infection for which you had to take antibiotics, you may have discovered that a common side effect of this medication is diarrhea. While antibiotics are a miracle of modern medicine, they can indiscriminately affect all internal bacteria including good gut bacteria. A study conducted on three healthy individuals showed that treatment with ciprofloxacin, an antibiotic usually used for bone and joint infections, altered the richness, diversity and evenness of the bacterial community seen in stool samples taken from the test subjects. According to the Center for Disease Control, antibiotics are vastly overprescribed in America, with roughly 1 in 3 prescriptions deemed unnecessary. To protect against antibiotic overuse, know that antibiotics should be reserved for cases of serious infection or risk of serious infection, such as sepsis and pneumonia. Antibiotics do not protect against viruses or colds and the side effects, including diarrhea, dizziness, rashes and more, can do more harm than good. Only take antibiotics when prescribed by a trusted physician and don’t be shy about asking them why and how these will help you. For more information, visit the CDC’s page on antibiotic overprescription.
5. Eat probiotic-fortified foods and drinks
With groundbreaking innovations in the food and beverage industry, in conjunction with a greater appreciation and understanding of the gut, we’re seeing many probiotic-fortified consumables emerging in the market, making it easier than ever to feed your gut and fuel bacterial diversity. One of our favorites include Four Sigmatic’s Ground Mushroom Coffee with Probiotics, featuring 1 billion CFU shelf-stable, heat resistant probiotics, as well as prebiotics. Another promising venture currently being perfected by the National University of Singapore Faculty of Science and not yet available on the market are new pre-made coffee and tea drinks packed with over 1 billion units of probiotics that can be stored chilled or at room temperature for more than 14 weeks. To incorporate more pre and probiotics into your diet easily, keep an eye out for innovative fortified consumables breaking into the market.