Digestion – the source of immunity and healthy brain function

Did you know that up to 80% of your immune cells are located in your gastro-intestinal (GI) tract? These cells need to be nourished by certain key nutrients and substances found in your diet in order to provide you with optimum immunity. Their immune protection can also be “switched-off” by ingesting certain substances that aren’t naturally occurring in the diet.  By tuning in to your gut and keeping it in prime shape by making wise and delicious food choices, you are insuring that you get the most out of your immune system.  Recent findings in medical journals around the world are confirming what Naturopathic and Classical Chinese Medicine (CCM) doctors have sagaciously advised their patients for years: your vitality, wellness and mind all depend on a healthy digestive system.

Your gut is home not only to immune cells, it is also a thriving environment that contains trillions of beneficial bacteria, collectively referred to as “pro-biotics.” In a healthy GI system, probiotics comprise the majority of your “gut flora,” while the disease-causing bacteria are the minority. As long as this majority balance is in your favor, you’re healthy.  The purpose of the probiotic bacteria presence in your digestive tract is to digest fiber – the energy source for the immune cells in your GI tract. These fibers, especially water-soluble fibers, essentially keep your team well-fed, happy, and able to maintain your gut immunity.

Sometimes, however, the balance or ratio of beneficial to harmful bacteria becomes disturbed.  This can lead to symptoms such as poor digestion, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, poor concentration, fatigue and chronic inflammation of the bowels, skin, and sometimes the gums. When this unhealthy balance extends for a period of months or years, additional symptoms and diseases such as heartburn, arthritis, yeast infections, food allergies, reduced immunity, respiratory allergies, asthma and chronic respiratory infections can result.

Restoring the balance of power in your GI tract can improve your digestion and your overall immunity.  According to CCM, spring is the season for eating foods that are sweet and aromatic.  These fruits and fresh herbs and will cool your palette in the warmer temperatures, as well as spice up your menu! Here are a few pointers that may act as an easy-to-follow guide for making wise food choices this spring season:

Pro-biotics – Probiotics are the beneficial bacteria that maintain the integrity of your immune system, that is, they defend your skin, nasal passages, mouth, throat and digestive tract from invasion by harmful bacteria, or keep their numbers low enough that they are rendered harmless.  Pro-biotic bacteria are found in fermented and cultured foods, including lacto-fermented foods.  Lacto-fermented foods are made by fermentation with Lactobacillus bacteria already present in the food. Sauerkraut, miso, tamari, and Bragg’s amino acids and tempeh are non-dairy sources of pro-biotics.

Pre-biotics – Are the nutrition for these “good guys.”  The main source of food to “feed the troops” is found in soluble plant fibers, found in most fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes.  Many “pre-biotic” supplements are available, however if you know which fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fresh herbs are a rich source of pre-biotics, you can boost your immunity naturally by wisely choosing to eat these foods.  Rich food sources that top the charts for soluble, pre-biotic fiber from all of the natural food groups include:

–    Cilantro and parsley
–    Whole wheat and oats
–    Oat bran
–    Carrots, broccoli, tomato paste and artichokes
–    Pinto, kidney soy beans, and lentils
–    Figs, prunes, dark raisins
–    Flax and sunflower seeds

Digestive-friendly amino-acids – L-Glutamine is a “non-essential” amino acid, that under conditions such as chronic pain, inflammation or infection becomes “essential,’ that is, more is needed than the body can manufacture.  L-Glutamine “energizes” immune cells once they are activated by infection or inflammation, and thus helps the immune system to be stronger, better, and faster.  L-Glutamine is found in all protein-rich foods; however, supplementation may be recommended when there is weakness and poor absorption in the GI tract.

Polyphenols – “Free-radicals,” cellular damage, and cellular loss are often by-products of infections, allergies, and inflammation, such as chronic or acute pain.  Polyphenols are natural anti-oxidants that help to neutralize this damage and promote faster healing during and after illness or injury.  They also aid in preventing injury.  Most foods that are rich sources of Polyphenols are also rich sources of pre-biotic, water-soluble fiber.  Polyphenols are found in fruits and some leaves such as tea.

Digestive enzymes – These are naturally occurring in foods, but these food-sourced enzymes require additional enzymes from the body in order to become bio-available.  When immunity in the gut is weak, enzyme and healthy stomach acid production decline, leaving food in an incompletely digested state.  This incomplete digestion feeds harmful bacteria and further weakens the gut.  Adding digestive enzyme supplements when symptoms of inflammation, allergies, acute or chronic pain are present will reduce the molecular size of the food, help feed the healthy bacteria, and starve the “bad guys.”

Fruits that boost immunity and brain function

Brain function depends on many factors.  One factor that can inhibit a variety of brain functions including memory, concentration, learning and recall is the presence of certain inflammatory chemicals that are neutralized or eliminated by enhancing the immune system with polyphenolic compounds found in fruits and properly prepared tea.  Fruits and fruit-based foods that are rich in these inflammatory-reducing polyphenols and other plant-based nutrients include:

–    Figs – 5 dried
–    Pomegranates – ½ medium
–    Raspberries – ½ cup
–    Black grapes – ½ cup
–    Blackberries – ½ cup
–    Black currants – ¼ cup
–    Blueberries-  ½ cup
–    Prunes – 3 large
–    Dark raisins – ¼ cup

Interestingly enough, all of the above foods are also rich in the pre-biotic, soluble-fibers that nourish your immune system, making them an excellent addition to your daily diet.  Most of these fruits are also low-on the glycemic index, and will help keep blood sugar levels stable for a longer time.  Further, foods rich in soluble fiber help the “good guys” digest fat into a form that lowers trigycerides and raises HDL while reducing LDL cholesterol.   Eat 1-2 servings of each daily, and you have the beginnings of a recipe for immune success!

The brain depends on a diet and digestion to function optimally

When gut immunity is reduced, the resulting inflammation and elevated levels of bacteria and fungus such as candida albicans can reduce the signaling between neurons in the brain, resulting in poor memory, low mood, slower learning, poor concentration, and “brain fog.”  It is important to maintain GI tract immunity by making wise food choices to keep your brain healthy, smart, and agile.

An integrative solution to optimal immunity and brain function and memory

If you are experiencing symptoms of poor digestion, chronic pain, arthritis, tiredness, skin problems, rashes or allergies, your immune system and cognitive functions may need a “tune-up” or a “spring-cleaning.”

Dr. Lisanti at Integrative Med Solutions in Westchester, New York uses acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine and naturopathic medicine modalities including nutrition to meet the health care needs of his patients with problems associated with the immune system. If you are afflicted by any conditions associated with any acute or chronic immune impairment, please contact with Dr. Lisanti at Integrative Med Solutions to schedule an appointment

Leave a Reply