by Glen Depke, Traditional Naturopath

One of the biggest challenges for most of us over the holidays is actually attempting to keep the dreaded cold and/or flu at bay. Think about it, how many of you have gotten sick during the holiday seasons in the past? Most likely quite a few of you reading this today.

The one key focus to put yourself in the best possible position to skate through the holidays happy and healthy is to focus on your immune system function. Now I would love to tell you that I have the “magic pill” to make that happen but honestly, this does not exist. So instead of the magic pill, I’m going to discuss the most significant challenging factor that leaves our immune system out to dry throughout the holidays.

That factor is your gut. Yes, you heard me correctly, your gut. Most people are surprised when I share this but did you know that about 70 to 80% of your immune system function is actually gut derived? The gut/immune connection is such a significant key for all of us.

Let’s first look at some simply stats tied into illness. Did you know that you may spend more time each year nursing a sore throat, fever, and runny nose than you do on vacation. Do the math, adults get about three colds a year on average, each lasting a week or two. On top of that, 5 to 20% of us will also get the flu, which can linger even longer. That’s a month, or even more! To add to this, the holiday season is one of the prime times of the year for our bodies to give into illness.

Stress and your gut/immune connection

Uggg, stress, I get it. We all have it and on some level this is affecting all of us. When we are looking at stress, there are three main factors this is affecting your immune system based on your gut, adrenal function and brain function. Since chronic stress will affect your adrenal function and this essentially will create issues for immunity on three significant levels, looking at adrenal function is a high priority for most. Stress also has an accumulative affect on brain function and your brain and immune function have a very intimate connection. Lastly your gut, which is where 70 to 80% of your immune system function will originate.  When you are under stress, whether this be mental/emotional, inflammatory, chemical, environmental, infection or injury, this stress will initiate a sympathetic nervous system response. When your body is living in this response, your flow of blood is redirected from your internal organs (and gut) to be shifted toward your muscular/skeletal system to aid in a “fight or flee” response. When this fight or flee is engaged, substantial blood flow to your gut is lost and you will be left with digestive deficiencies, thus immune deficiencies.

Probiotics and your gut/immune connection

I always recommend taking probiotics as foods or supplements containing bacteria that are good for your health, which include Lactobacillus, because it can reduce the risk of both respiratory and gastrointestinal infections. If you are using food for probiotics, this must be a raw food. Often people are consuming yogurt with the thought of consuming beneficial bacteria, yet the yogurt is pasteurized, which is a heating process that destroys the bacteria. Remember that your bacteria has to be live bacteria.  I would also recommend forms of Bifidobacterium and prebiotics in your probiotic formula for optimal benefits. Also understand that people taking probiotics were 42% less likely to get a cold than those on a placebo, according to a 2011 meta-analysis of 10 studies.

Digestive enzymes and your gut/immune connection

With the thought of maintaining a healthy gut/immune connection we have to look at one of the most sizable missing links in gut health these days which is enzyme activity. First we can look at the fact that every natural food has within it the enzyme activity that is necessary to properly breakdown, absorb and assimilate that particular food. This food enzyme activity would assist breaking down this food early in the process within the first third of your stomach. This “predigestion” of your food is key to assisting the rest of your digestive system, making the job easier for your stomach acid, pancreas, small intestines and colon. The problem is similar to as mentioned with the bacteria above, once you heat the food, you destroy the enzyme activity. For this reason, if you eat cooked food, and most of do, I always recommend taking a full spectrum digestive enzyme with the full compliment of enzymes and cofactors needed. Use and enzyme that contains both plant based and animal based enzymes and even a small amount of betaine HCL and pepsin would also be a bonus for most.

Stomach acid and your gut/immune connection

Stomach acid or as known in supplement form as betaine HCL, is an essential ingredient for proper digestion of proteins, minerals and the production, absorption and assimilation of B vitamins. While many will understand this already there is another advantage of stomach acid as it pertains to your immune system. Since all of us are potentially exposed to pathogens (parasites, protozoa, detrimental bacteria, ect.) on a regular basis, you want to make sure you maintain a healthy production of stomach acid. This is because these pathogens will have a tough time surviving a healthy colonization of stomach acid, thus significantly assisting your immune system. Stress, poor diet and brain degeneration are the key culprits with low stomach acid. If you feel that you do not break down flesh protein well or if your meal seems to hand out in your stomach for some time for processing, you may find a betaine HCL supplement to be of benefit to you. I typically recommend 700mgs of betaine HCL with some pepsin but you will want to find the levels that are right for you.

Exercise and your gut/immune connection

People who exercise five or more days a week spend 43% fewer days with upper-respiratory infections, according to an Appalachian State University study. Personally, I do not exercise 5 days per week and not many people have the luxury of this time frame but I do not know anyone that cannot find at least 20 minutes, three times per week to move their body. One big factor of exercise and how this ties into you gut/immune connection is directly focused on increased bowel movements. Achieving two health bowels movements per day is a minimum goal to work toward if you are looking to reach the goal of an optimal gut/immune connection. Exercise may also help by flushing bacteria out from the lungs (thus decreasing the chance of a cold, flu, or other airborne illness) by increasing output of wastes, such as urine and sweat. Exercise sends antibodies and white blood cells (the body’s defense cells) through the body at a quicker rate. And as these antibodies or white blood cells circulate more rapidly, they could detect illnesses earlier than they might normally. The increased rate of circulating blood may also trigger the release of hormones that “warn” immune cells of intruding bacteria or viruses. The temporary rise in body temperature may prevent bacterial growth, allowing the body to fight the infection more effectively. (This is similar to what happens when the body has a fever.) Exercise slows down the release of stress-related hormones. Stress increases the chance of illness.

Contamination and your gut/immune connection

We are exposed to pathogens with regularity. Some are air born, many are food born and also many are due to cross contamination via touch. Cleaning your hands frequently, especially after touching anyone or anything that may be contaminated is key to defending yourself against cold and flu viruses. But drying hands thoroughly is just as important, because germs cling to your skin more easily when it’s wet. Be sure to replace damp towels with dry ones often. More than 8% of people without symptoms during cold-and-flu season are harboring cold viruses, according to a recent study from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. So basically when you’re around others, wash your hands often. As far as the food born pathogens are concerned, I would refer to the topics of pre/probiotics, enzymes and stomach acid as well as the other subjects discussed within this article.

Sleep and your gut/immune connection

Your immune system requires proper sleep to maintain optimal health. In one study done at Carnegie Mellon University, even if people said they felt well rested if they’d averaged fewer than 7 hours of sleep per night, they were almost three times as likely to get a cold as those who got eight hours or more of sack time. Proper sleep is essential for adrenal, gut and immune function. During this time of the year we tend to have great time demands and for many of us, our sleep is the first to suffer. Not just the time demands but the stress and anxiety during this busy time of the year can keep your mind chatter in high focus and also lead to sleep deprivation.

One of the most significant insomnia triggers that I see in my office is due to gut challenges. This may be tied into stress related gut issues, food sensitivities, the standard American diet (SAD) or gut infections. Regardless of the gut trigger, this leads to poor digestion, eventually depleting your ability to break down you essential amino acids with the end result of low melatonin. Low melatonin equals poor sleep. Please recognize the low melatonin is not typically a melatonin issue, it is generally a digestive issue, thus leading to an immune system dysregulation.

Nutrition and your gut/immune connection

After people in a study at Loma Linda University consumed six tablespoons of sugar (whether in orange juice, honey, or sugary drinks), their infection-fighting white blood cells lost the ability to fend off bacteria and viruses. Your immune system stays depressed for several hours after you eat or drink sugar, so if you down a soda every few hours (three servings could put you over the six-tablespoon mark), your resistance will be lowered for much of the day. Based on the standard American diet (SAD) which is high in processed food and sugar, poor immunity would be a norm and it is. Add onto this the high presence of food sensitivity in our culture and you’ve got the one/two punch that will take out your immunity. Doing your best to eliminate as much sugar and processed foods is a great start for dealing with nutritional related immune system deficiencies, but you will also want to create a priority to check for food sensitivities that may be challenging to you. Understand that 86% of the people living with food sensitivity are actually asymptomatic, so it is not as if you eat the food and feel poorly. This is more of a long term inflammatory and immune dysregulation issue that shows up as a chronic illness or symptom later in life.

If you are going to indulge in any sweets and sugary foods or drinks during the holiday season, please be sure to drink or eat these with added fat. The increased fat will slow the release of glucose and insulin and help you survive the holiday season.

Alcohol and your gut/immune connection

Unfortunately many of us will over consume alcohol during the holiday season. Alcohol has a major impact on your gut health, brain health and immunity. Try to have at least 3 days in between drinking to assist your body in overcoming the affects of alcohol and follow some simple tips.

  • Never drink on an empty stomach. Most of your alcohol is absorbed through the stomach lining with a seemingly direct track to the cerebellum, which is a part of your brain. Consume alcohol only after a meal.
  • Always eat fat when consuming alcohol, such as fatty nuts, guacamole or olives. The fat will slow the release of glucose from the liquid sugar you are ingesting and assist in normalizing blood sugar.
  • Always have at least a 16 ounce glass of water between any alcoholic beverage you may enjoy. This will assist in maintaining proper hydration and most often lead you to drink less.

Water and your gut/immune connection

If you come down with a virus, your doctor may tell you to drink plenty of fluids to reduce your symptoms. But Jamey Wallace, MD, chief medical officer at Bastyr Center for Natural Health in Seattle, says staying hydrated may stave off infections. “Your mucous membranes and the immune cells in their secretions defend against cold viruses, and they can’t work as well if you’re dehydrated,” Dr. Wallace says. My general recommendation for water consumption is one quart for every 50 pounds of body weight you are currently carrying.

Recognize again that one of the biggest challenges for most of us over the holidays is actually attempting to stay well. Following the tips above and focusing on what maintains a health gut throughout this time of the year should go a long way in increasing your immune response and keeping the dreaded cold and flu at bay.

Happy and healthy holidays to you all!