The immune system is your body’s protector against germs and viruses that can make you sick.
Immune system action involves lots of complicated pathways, but in general, it works through the production of antibodies. Antibodies are produced to “fight” and rid the body of foreign invaders.
But what happens when the immune system isn’t in tiptop shape?
For starters, you may be prone to more frequent illness, like the common cold or seasonal flu. But a chronically compromised immune system – when it’s too active or not active enough – can result in a whole host of health disorders called AUTOIMMUNE DISEASES.
A healthy immune system can recognize the difference between the body and foreign invaders.
But in the case of Autoimmune Diseases, the immune system starts mistaking normal, healthy cells as foreign and attacks parts of one’s own body.
Over 80 conditions have been recognized as Autoimmune Diseases.
Commonly recognized Autoimmune Diseases:
· Type 1 Diabetes
· Multiple Sclerosis
· Rheumatoid Arthritis
· Irritable Bowel Syndrome, including Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis
· Celiac Disease
· Hashimoto's Disease
· Thyroid Disease
Each one has its own unique symptoms, depending on the body parts that the immune system attacks.
Most Autoimmune Disease begin with the same early warning sign symptoms, such as:
Autoimmune Diseases can be difficult to diagnose, since these early symptoms are generalized. The severity of symptoms also varies and flare-ups and remissions are common (and commonly frustrating!) in people with an Autoimmune Disease.
Healthcare Professionals don’t know exactly what causes most Autoimmune Diseases either. Some have a genetic predisposition, meaning having a family history may increase your risk of getting that disease.
Research has identified several other few factors believed to contribute to the development of Autoimmune Diseases.
Contributing factors to Autoimmune Diseases include:→ Western Diet - A diet high in refined carbohydrates, sugar, saturated and trans fats is believed to promote inflammation, damage the lining of the small intestine, and weaken immune system function.
In contrast, a diet rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants from plant foods has the opposite effect on the body.
→ Compromised Gut Health (i.e. Leaky Gut Syndrome) - Diet, alcohol use, stress, and antibiotics all affect the microbiome - the bacteria that lives in your gut.
→ Exposure to Toxins - includes environmental pollutants, heavy metals, chemicals in personal care products, and residue on foods (pesticides and chemical fertilizers – eww!)
→ Bacterial/Viral Infections
→ Hormones - Women seem to develop more Autoimmune Diseases compared to men, especially during their reproductive years. This may be due to hormonal imbalances and/or an excess of estrogen, known as Estrogen Dominance.
Treatments for Autoimmune Diseases are not curative, but focus is on minimizing uncomfortable symptoms and decreasing the frequency of severe flare-ups.
A combination of treatments may help Autoimmune Diseases:Medication - targeted at managing pain, reducing inflammation, and suppressing immune system activity.
Alternative therapies - acupuncture, chiropractic, and natural remedies may be used to manage symptoms.
Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) – A diet that focuses on fruits, vegetables, and meat to reduce inflammation. It’s thought to be similar to the Paleo Diet, but more strict.
Autoimmune Diseases, 2014: Autoimmunity and the Gut
Healthline: Autoimmune Diseases: Types, Symptoms, Causes and More
Office On Women’s Health, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: Autoimmune Diseases
Hippocrates said, “All disease begins in the gut.”
And while this may not be 100% true for every disease in every person, more and more research shows that our gut (digestive system) has a bigger role in many diseases than we used to think. And we're not just talking about heartburn, constipation, diarrhea, IBS, IBD, etc. We're talking about all kinds of issues like allergies, pain, mood disorders, and nutrient deficiencies.
There are a lot of reasons for this. Our gut is the portal to the outside world. It's here where we take in disease-causing bacteria, viruses, and parasites. We also take in nutrients (and toxins) through our gut. The nutrients we ingest and absorb are the building blocks of every single part of our body. We're just learning the connections between our gut and other areas of our body, like our brain (have you heard of "the gut-brain axis"). Not just our gut per se; but, its friendly resident microbes too. These guys also have newly discovered roles in our gut health and overall health.
So, let's talk about the roles that our gut and our gut microbes play in our overall health. Then I'll give you tips to improve your gut health naturally.
Our gut’s role in our overall health
Our gut’s main role is as a barrier. To let things in that should get in, and to keep things out that should stay out. Think of “absorption” of nutrients as things we want to let in; and “elimination” of waste as things we want to pass right through and out.
This seemingly simple role is super-complex! And it can break down in so many places.
For one thing, our guts can "leak." Yes, like a long tube with holes in it, it can allow things to get into our bloodstream/bodies that can wreak havoc (bacteria, undigested food, and toxins). You name it, whatever you put into your mouth can be absorbed by your gut and get into your bloodstream, even if it's not supposed to. And when your gut wall gets irritated, it can "leak." When this happens, you get inflammation, which is a starting point for many diseases that don't seem linked to the gut but have a sneaky connection there.
FUN FACT: About 70% of our immune system lives in and around our gut.
A healthy gut is not a leaky gut. It maintains its barrier and shuttles things through to be eliminated. Maintaining a healthy gut barrier is the first pillar of gut health.
The second main part of your gut are the billions of friendly health-promoting microbes. Gut microbes help us digest and absorb nutrients. They fight off disease-causing microbes, make some vitamins for us, and have all kinds of other health benefits, like mental health benefits, reducing inflammation, and stabilizing blood sugar.
So, keeping your gut microbes happy is the second pillar of gut health!
How to improve gut health
There are a lot of natural ways to improve gut health. Let’s start with what to stop. It’s always best to eliminate the cause, so let’s stop giving our guts junk to deal with. How about eliminating added sugars, processed foods, and alcohol? Try that for a few weeks, and you may be amazed at how much better your body (and gut) feels.
You may also want to eliminate other gut irritants. Dairy and grains contain common compounds known to irritate some people’s guts. Sometimes you only need to eliminate them for a few weeks to see if it makes a difference for your health.
By eating nutrient-dense foods, we allow ample macro- and micro-nutrients into our gut to maximize the chance for absorption. These nutrients help our bodies build and repair our gut, and every other body part as well. Some of the most nutrient-dense foods include dark leafy greens, colourful fruits and veggies, liver, and fish.
The second pillar of gut health is our microbes. By ingesting probiotic-rich foods and drinks, we can help to replenish our gut microbes. These are found in fermented foods like kombucha, kefir, miso, sauerkraut, and kimchi. Make these a part of your daily diet.
Whole foods are full of gut-friendly fiber. Not eating enough fiber increases the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity. Fiber plays lots of roles in our gut, including whisking away some of those pesky bad bacteria and toxins so they can be eliminated. Fiber also helps to feed our friendly resident microbes that help us absorb and digest our food better. What foods have a lot of fiber? Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and even cacao.
And don’t forget the uber-important lifestyle factors like getting enough sleep, stressing less, and getting the right amount (and intensity) of exercise for you. It’s easy to forget some of the simple, but key links there are between what we do with our bodies and how well they function.
The function of your gut is key to your overall health. There are two pillars of gut health: maintaining a good barrier and maintaining healthy gut microbes.
The main ways to improve both of these naturally is by eating nutrient-dense whole foods. Foods filled with nutrition, probiotics, and fiber. And eliminating common gut irritants like added sugar, processed foods, and alcohol.
Recipe (Probiotic-rich): Fermented Carrots
1 L warm water
4 tsp salt
4 carrots, medium, peeled, sliced
1 clove garlic, smashed (optional)
Make a brine by dissolving the salt in water.
Place carrots into a clean canning jar, packing them in tight. Make sure to leave about 1 inch of head space at the top.
Fill the jar with brine, making sure to cover the carrots completely. Weigh the carrots down to make sure they don't float (you can use a "fermenting weight").
Close the jar and let it sit at room temperature for 1-4 days. The longer it sits, the more the flavor will develop. Feel free to open and taste.
Serve & enjoy!
Tip: Use this as a side dish, or even a snack.
I know! Meditation is the secret sauce to take your wellness up to the status of the elite gurus. It’s the “be all, end all” for the health of your entire mind-body-spirit. It’s the absolute must-do that is the only path to beating the infamous health-buster called “stress.”
Don't get me wrong; practicing meditation is an excellent approach to optimizing your health and overall well-being. Meditation is great for relieving and dealing with stress, and all of the issues that come along with it. But it's not the only way to get there.
The whole purpose of meditating is to calm the mind and emotions and relax our physical body too. And there is always more than one way to get there.
Let’s talk about some of the other things to try if meditation is not exactly your thing.
Spending some time every day writing out your thoughts can help to relieve stress. You can use journaling to list the things you're grateful for, this is known as gratitude journaling. You can use it as a "brain dump" to get all of your thoughts and ideas out of your head to soothe your mind. You can use "ever since" journaling to describe your life after you reach your goals.
It’s one thing to read to learn something that you have to learn, or to advance your knowledge. And, you can also read for pure pleasure. To get caught up in a story and just relax.
Adult coloring books are all the rage! Not *that* kind of adult, but coloring pages with lots of detail and tiny areas to color in. Something that can take you hours. You can always opt for something simple, like kids coloring pages too. The idea is the same. Repeated movements and focusing on the art you’re creating can help to clear your mind.
Knitting or crocheting (or other crafts)
Knitting, crocheting or other yarn activities are a great way to de-stress; this is a skill that comes in all levels from beginner to advanced. You can choose a quick little rectangular scarf to make, or a detailed sweater. You can choose the pattern, size, and yarn. Once you get into the flow of these skills, they're great to do when you're feeling stressed. Not only can they relax your mind to focus on your work, but you can end up warming yourself or others with the products you create.
Gently moving your body is another great way to de-stress. Activities that are slower and less intensive are ideal. Things like walking, yoga, stretching, or tai chi can all be great ways to relax your mind and improve your strength and balance at the same time.
Sleep in or take a nap
A common cause of increased stress hormones is lack of sleep. Too little sleep and too much stress go hand-in-hand. So, getting enough good quality sleep is important to help you break free from stress without having to meditate.
Maybe you love getting massages or mani/pedi's? Maybe you love a long bath or lighting candles? Perhaps you can add your favorite relaxing music to the mix for a pampering evening? Spending some time to pamper yourself regularly is great for your mind, body, and spirit.
Spend time in nature
You don’t have to head away for vacation to relax in nature. While a calm beautiful beach or cabin in the woods may be amazing, you don’t have to go that far. Even spending time on the grass at your local park or playground, or walking on a wooded trail in your neighborhood can do the trick.
Make time for people and pets you love
It's so important to spend time with family, friends, and pets whom you love. New research is coming out about the health issues related to loneliness. Reach out and plan to hang out with your besties, or even offer to take your neighbor’s dog for a walk in the park.
Stress reduction is the goal. How you do it, be it meditation or otherwise, is not that important. What’s important is that you find what works for you.
Try journaling, reading, coloring, knitting/crocheting, gentle exercise, sleep, pampering yourself, spending time in nature, and making time for people and pets you love.
Have other great ideas? Let me know what helps you de-stress in the comments below.