As the autumn draws closer, there are a number of herbal allies I turn to to boost immunity and prevent infection in both myself and my patients.
Next month I’ll be writing about some of these wonderful anti-infectious herbs, along with simple instructions about how to prepare them at home. For now, I want to talk about how you can start strengthening your immune system right away using food, a bit of detective work and a little common sense.
Prevention vs. treatment
Taking into consideration the ‘band-aid’ approaches to infection control that modern medicine offers - namely the largely ineffective flu shot and the problematic antibiotic - turning to natural means of prevention is undoubtedly our best option for long term health and wellbeing.
I’m all for antibiotics when they are absolutely necessary - say, for example, in kidney infections, acute Lyme disease or bacterial meningitis.
But apart from a select few cases, antibiotics should be avoided at all costs - not just because the over-prescription of these medications is contributing to the dangerous phenomenon of antibiotic resistance, but also because of the long-term effects these drugs have on our health and on our immune system.
I’m all for antibiotics when they are absolutely necessary... but apart from a select few cases, they should be avoided at all costs.
The microbiome and immunity
The problem, as I'm sure you've heard before, is that when we take antibiotics to cure a bacterial infection, they not only wipe out the bugs that are causing the infection, but lots of other ones too.
It is this ‘broad-spectrum’ activity that causes problems, as the bacteria in our gut, skin, genitals, hair – known collectively as the ‘human microbiome’ – exists for very important reasons that we are slowly beginning to understand.
The bacteria in our gut, which form part of the gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT) - home to 70% of the body’s immune system - is particularly vulnerable to antibiotics and it can take years for populations to recover following exposure to these drugs.
Which means? You guessed it… lowered immunity.
A word on mitochondria
And it’s not just the bugs in our gut that we need to preserve and be grateful for - these microbes are present inside each and every one of our cells in the form of mitochondria.
Mitochondria are tiny powerhouses responsible for producing the energy needed to drive all cellular functions. Basically, they provide our entire bodies with energy - and they evolved from bacteria!
And now here’s the really interesting part: scientists have discovered that the bacteria in our digestive system is somehow reflected in the mitochondrial or bacterial DNA in our cells and therefore directly affects our energy supply.
This suggests that without a healthy bacterial community in the gut, our cells are less able to produce the energy needed for efficient function – and we are more likely to contract disease.
Scientists have discovered that the bacteria in our digestive system is somehow reflected in the mitochondrial DNA in our cells and therefore directly affects our energy supply.
Looking after our bugs
So how should we go about caring for our ancestral microbes as we approach the winter months?
It’s really as simple as Michael Pollan says it is - “Eat (real) food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Gut bacteria feed on fibre, breaking it down to initiate an array of positive physiological effects. Raw or cooked, whole or smoothie-d – the health benefits of fruit and vegetables go far beyond their vitamin and mineral content. Some veggies also contain prebiotic fibre – such as garlic, onion, leek, asparagus, artichokes, chicory and banana – which provide even more specialised food for the gut and help maintain stable populations of beneficial bacteria.
Slippery elm bark and marshmallow leaf & root both contain prebiotics and are wonderful gut-healing herbs which I often use with my patients, provided no gut infections such as SIBO or Citrobacter freundii are present.
If you’re unsure about the health of your gut, a comprehensive digestive stool analysis (CDSA) will help your natural health practitioner diagnose you and suggest a proper treatment plan. I highly recommend this test as a starting point to better immunity if you have any long-standing digestive problems.
Probiotics: to take or not to take?
Probiotics are strains of “good” gut bacteria that come generally in a refrigerated, capsuled form to take once or twice a day. The idea is that you are injecting beneficial bacteria straight into your system.
Despite recent bad press about probiotics, I frequently recommend both encapsulated probiotics (BioKult or Optibac) and fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir and kimchi to my patients, especially after antibiotic use.
Gut bacteria feed on fibre, breaking it down to initiate an array of positive physiological effects
Each person is different and will respond differently to shop-bought vs. food-based probiotics - the best thing is to try each kind and see what works for you.
A holistic view of infection
As well as knowing how to look after our gut health, it’s important to keep ourselves happy, fulfilled and relaxed. Stress suppresses the immune system by increasing cortisol levels, and practices like mindfulness meditation can literally boost immunity.
What’s more - if you become ill, make sure you take the time to rest, eat well and sleep, giving your marvellous mitochondria a chance to really recover.
Next month I’ll be talking about a few simple herbs you can use at home to prevent and fight infection, naturally and safely.
Note: Due to the imminent arrival of my first child, I am not accepting new patients until January 2019. If you have a burning question about a specific issue, drop me an email and I will try to be as helpful as possible. In the meantime, I will keep posting monthly articles and news, so stay in touch by joining the mailing list at the bottom of the page. Have a wonderful autumn and Christmas!