Lesson 2: Immune Function and Gut Health
Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could just give our children an immunity pin like in Masterchef? Sure would. It of course doesn’t exist, but with a little work and letting kids in on the conversation, resilient bodies can be built whether you are able to work with some of the basic diet strategies mentioned today, or you need to see a practitioner to discuss your picture in more detail.
Here's what we'll cover:
- Alexx chats with Shalani McCray, holistic nutritionist and naturopath
- Basic types of immunity
- What happens when the gut is out of balance?
- Causes of dysbiosis of the gut
- The gut-brain connection
- Foods that nurture our guts
- Healing the gut
We want to start today, if time permits you, with this wonderful interview. It’s a one hour interview so if you need to break it up into a couple of cups of tea over the next couple of days that is perfectly fine but it's a great watch, packed with useful information thanks to the wonderful Shalani.
Alexx chats to Shalani McCray, nutritionist, interfaith minister and naturopath
SOUND CLOUD FOR AUDIO-ONLY option
Basic types of Immunity - for those interested
Immunity is the ability of the human body to fight against disease-causing organisms. The human immune system has two types of immunity:
- Innate immunity
- Acquired immunity
The innate immune system is the type of immunity that is present naturally in the child at the time of birth. These natural protectors are already present in the human body.
The first and foremost important barrier which prevents entry of the harmful micro-organisms in the human body is our skin. Skin acts as a barrier to the entry of harmful micro-organisms in many vital organs of the body.
Natural secretions of our body also help to prevent microbial growth in our body. Vital systems such as respiratory, gastrointestinal, and urogenital are prevented by the mucus coating of the epithelium lining these systems. Some important fluids which are protective in our body are acid in the stomach, saliva in the mouth and tears from the eyes.
White blood cells present in human blood also protect the body from many infections. Macrophages in tissues help in the destruction of harmful microbes entering into the body.
Every one of us suffers from one or other type of viral infection in our life. These virally infected cells produce special proteins called 'interferon' to protect healthy cells from further viral infection.
Acquired immunity, also called the 'adaptive immune system', involves two processes. The primary response is produced when our body encounters a pathogen for the first time. This is a mild response produced by our body. The secondary response is produced when our body encounters the same pathogen for the second time. This secondary response is highly intensified.
These responses are produced in our body by two types of lymphocytes in our blood. These two special lymphocytes are B-lymphocytes and T-lymphocytes. Whenever a foreign substance enters our body, B-lymphocytes produce proteins to fight them. These proteins are called immunoglobulin or antibodies. T-cells do not produce such proteins, but they help B-lymphocytes to produce them. There are many different kinds of antibodies produced in our body and if you want to have a discussion around immunity and antibodies, it's best to book to see a practitioner privately.
Now, when we’re acquiring immunity, we must wonder where this is all going to be happening. The answer? Mainly in our guts. Many people don’t realise just how critical gut health is to our immune system function - in fact, it is the majority of our immune system right in there.
We get our good guys (good bacteria/non-pathogenic bacteria) a number of ways over time, but initially, we get them when we squeeze through the birth canal, then on the breasts through breastfeeding and through the mothers’ milk, and every day on our foods, in our air, through our ears and through our skin.
Findings from The Human Microbiome Project (2008-2013) have made it clear that in fact, 90% of the cells in the human body are microbial and that the genetic repertoire of these microbes is at least 150 times greater than that of our human cells. If you're a nerd like us, the book by science writer Alanna Colen "10% Human" is a must!
And, as you might have guessed from that book title, yes, this means we are 90% bacteria and only 10% officially human. Mind blown?
Most of our bacteria is helpful, friendly and healthy for us. A small amount is pathogenic, but if we keep our good guys abundant, then we keep our bad guys in check quite easily.
Gut health is a hot topic but it’s easy to get your head around what it takes to have a healthy gut. This is loosely how we describe it to children - if you can put things into their terms by getting them to imagine something like this…
"We’ve got ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. What you eat and do depends on how many good guys and bad guys are in your tummy. The bad guys need things like sugar and refined flour to grow and get strong: Do we want to make the bad guys strong?” (Kids will most often chorus Noooooo - especially the under 6's if you can get them young!) So let’s feed our good guys their favourite foods then, shall we? Does anyone want to know some power foods for fighting the bad guys?" Yesssssss. Little kids love to feel clever so explaining things simply and asking them questions to get their buy-in is a great way to start shifting that food attitude if what you're working with right now isn't exactly, erm, 'enthusiastic'!
Here's a great book to read with your kids called, "Happy Happy Poo - The story of tiny creatures" - by Jacqui Kirkland for children. This book will help your kids focus on feeding their 'tiny creatures' and have a better understanding of why some foods should be limited.
Now it's important also that we don't stress our kids out and say 'it's a BAD food', the name of the game here is minimisation, not full exclusive nor demonisation and creating complexes or secret eating. We definitely want to avoid setting them up to feel ashamed of wanting to eat certain foods when they're with their friends or at a party. It's all about teaching them about how everything works, getting them to start connecting the dots between what they eat and how their body feels from a very young age, and then having them get better and better at making their own decisions over time. And remember - you have control usually two meals a day - the 'book-ends' of their day, so focus on all the good you can do there, rather than the nasty thing they ate at the part. As Alexx always says "we do what we do most of the time, to be able to go with the flow some of the time".
The caveat of course here is if you have a child with a health challenge that is dramatically impacted by even the smallest amount of something to eat such as a red snake lolly, a yeast extract containing spread like vegemite/marmite or a food they're allergic to, then, of course, you need to monitor much more closely and manage that need to control the foods 'out there' but getting excited about what you could maybe make at home for a treat to make up for having to skip the birthday cake.
Once your child understands the good guys/bad guys analogy, then you can play a game about naming the foods that feed the good guys’ squad to make them strong and clever and happy which makes us strong and clever and happy:
- Real food of course!
- Fish, seafood, sea vegetables
- Meat (A little reminder: Pasture raised, grass fed for beef / lamb and organic pasture raised for chicken / pork to avoid the genetically modified grains in their feed)
- Eggs (Organic / pasture raised OR free range and GMO free feed)
- Nuts and seeds
- Grains and legumes, properly prepared if they suit you (ie sourdough and legumes that are soaked and then cooked first, rather than Tip Top and lots of tinned beans - sometimes is fine, daily not so great)
- High quality dairy if it sits well with you - organic is best, milk- solids free, additive and preservative free.
So you can then say “So this is the list of food to get super strong and clever. It doesn’t matter if the bad guys get something every now and then, but this is the food that keeps us strong and healthy. Do you like feeling healthy and having lots of energy to play?"
It's amazing how much greater the uptake from kids when you include them IN the conversation and ask them questions and their opinion. The reason this is often hard is because we haven't done the work ourselves let alone teaching someone else, let alone sounding CONFIDENT, right? It may take time but stay consistent, read and re read script ideas / suggested phrases we plant throughout the course and stay away from 'telling them' yes or no and move towards 'asking them whether they understand' why you're making the decisions you're making. You're not the bad guy, the food companies are the bad guy who messed up with our food and processed it and added in all the weirdness. Make that VERY clear to your child and help them see why and then together - as we will on the additive day - find the great companies doing quality packaged foods and then hit that produce section and go for variety, variety variety!
Documentaries your kids might enjoy
Older kids might be a tougher customer at the start, but you can still describe the basics of ‘good vs bad bacteria and what the baddies like to eat that we need to minimise’. The benefit is that because of their age though, you can show them a documentary, sit with them and discuss with them how they feel about certain points and examples throughout the films (we believe 8 onwards is appropriate for the documentaries below). These doco's cover food industry, sugar and junk, rather than being ‘about gut health’, but if you’ve had the chat about good guys and bad guys and what feeds which, these films will show them everything that’s going to feed the bad guys in the gut.
These documentaries are really going to help them understand that to be resilient in the body, resist disease, THRIVE, be strong, fit and not get sick so often… you gotta eat real food. You can also check out the beautiful documentary SUSTAINABLE on Netflix. Caution: There are many agenda-based docos these days that verge on propaganda. If you hear something sensationalist like "eggs are as bad as smoking" you should consider reading the many studies that show eggs to be full of vital nutrients such as Vitamin D and Choline for healthy cell walls and realise that in the end, nothing is black and white, and a caged hen living in squalor and cruelty is going to produce an unhealthy egg for us to eat, just like a pasture-raised hen eating scraps and bugs and organic feed is going to. produce one of nature's most nutrient foods. It's not the 'what' it's the 'how'.
PRO TIP: Always watch the videos as a family. This fosters conversation, exploration and personal learning while at the same time your kids will feel supported by you. “Making them go and watch it” while you do other stuff? That doesn’t work so much… Neither does watching everything, 50 tabs open on the internet pouring over blogs, podcasts and research and then "announcing" everything's going to change. That doesn't work on kids OR partners! (And we can feel some of you saying to yourselves right now "Nope, that doesn't work. I've tried it!" 😉
What happens when we disturb the balance and the bad guys build their armies and start running amuck?
This is also known as ‘leaky gut’.
The digestive system is a pathway starting at the mouth and ending at the anus. It is responsible for breaking down the foods we eat, extracting the nutrients needed, and then eliminating the waste. The problem is that poor food choices, viruses, parasites, caffeine, alcohol consumption, antibiotics, c-sections, formula feeding and bad bacteria can cause damage to the gastrointestinal tract, which leads to increased permeability or 'leaky gut'. This 'leaky gut' means that instead of foods being broken down, absorbed, and eliminated, partially digested foods can now cross through the damaged area of the intestinal lining and enter the bloodstream directly.
This leak can cause intolerances that then initiate an inflammatory response in the body and the release of stress hormones. One of these stress hormones is cortisol, which further taxes the body and starts to impair the body’s immune system. This can then lead to a host of issues that may not seem related to the impaired gastrointestinal tract, like allergies, skin conditions, impaired performance, and weight gain to name but a few. See how it all comes back to the gut and how crazy it is that we treat body ‘parts’ instead of whole bodies?
What can cause dysbiosis of the gut?
Our good guys are being depleted largely due to these factors:
- Obsession with antibacterial 99.9% of germs must DIE type products, disinfectant wipes, Dettol in the wash, bleaches, triclosan (a hormone disrupting antibacterial agent) which appears in commercial toothpaste, face wash, anti-bacterial sponges, personal care (especially teens), hand sanitisers and even household paint!
- Overuse of antibiotics. Now we are all for the use of antibiotics when they’re able to save the day and prevent a bad situation from becoming a disaster. They’re a miracle. BUT to treat recurring infections with antibiotics, instead of digging to find the WHY of the recurring infection as is done these days all too commonly? This sadly causes disaster for our overall bacteria picture. Here's an example - for 15 years Alexx had chronic tonsillitis. Roughly 60 rounds of antibiotics later, she was drug resistant and her infections became more and more horrendous. Her gut and digestion did too but she was too ashamed to talk about constipation and excessive gas – especially in quite a closed family in terms of ‘private’ conversations. She saw a naturopath who diagnosed a processed cheese intolerance and an immune function deficiency. Makes perfect sense given her gut flora probably looked like a few bad guy armies in a desert landscape without a good guy to be seen for miles! They’d all been wiped out. The naturopath taught Alexx to nourish herself with soups of chicken stock, well-cooked carrots, soaked brown rice, pure thyme ‘shots’ and liquid propolis sprays to kill the strep at early signs. She taught Alexx where hidden sugars were, so her consumption literally halved overnight, placing far less strain on her immune system. A combination of cutting out pasteurised and processed dairy, the sugar (including yeasty breads) and starting to build that immune system, meant she literally hasn't had tonsillitis (bar 1 mild case a few years ago), since.
- Rise of c-section babies and formula fed. We miss two huge, natural opportunities for proper colonisation when we ‘skip’ these two. All is not lost, however, and the film MICROBIRTH is a great one to watch. Being aware of needing to foster healthy bacteria growth in c-section babies in the early days, is a wonderful way to support what sometimes is the only solution – it sure was in Alexx's case after her emergency C section. Her son was on probiotics from day 1, so from 5 months on she included a few tiny drops of cultured vegetable juice in his purees/munchies. Brenda's situation is similar to a C-section plus babe on antibiotics for 2yrs. A holistic doctor prescribed probiotics to take during that time. It’s never too early to look after the gut and it’s never too late. These days you can even discuss ‘swabbing’ from the birth canal onto the newborn baby so that the baby still gets colonised with the mother’s gut. The film discusses this in detail.
- Rise of refined, ‘dead’: Pasteurisation, refinement of flours, a moving away from activating, soaking, fermenting and souring for the sake of ‘convenience’ has meant we eat a lot of dead foods with little life force in them. It is debated whether grains and legumes are the issues, or whether it’s the way we grow and prepare them these days that’s the issue. Best thing we can do on the refined food front? Focus on moving from PRODUCT to PRODUCE over time. Produce is G.S.T free, so you save 10% overnight right there. Cool, right!?
- Rise of pesticides: Simply put, pesticides kill stuff. That’s what they’re for. So if they’re on our food and then in us as residue, they’re literally very slowly killing us, starting with our gut bacteria and affecting not only digestive health but our endocrine system too, with most pesticides using hormone-altering chemicals in their formulations. This might seem harsh, but the reality of this can’t be pussy-footed around. No, you don't have to go organic overnight or even 100% organic. PRO TIP: Just swap your apples, pears, zucchini, leafy greens and berries to organic where possible at first. Then follow with pork and chicken products. Then over time try increasing slowly, growing your own if you have space, joining a co-op to save $$. You can get a little more inspiration for creative organic spending HERE.
- Rise of grain ‘serves per day’: Traditionally we ate sourdough bread, teeming with enzymes at the preparation stage, to break down phytic acid in grain. These days we just harvest, bleach and grind where it then sits in bags for months travelling around the world. We eat it all year round. Anyone know the wheat ‘season’? Exactly. We get that wheat into vacuous processed bread, crackers, cereals, chips, flavoured snacks of all kinds… it’s a disaster that we eat refined, processed, puffed, squished and fluffed grains more than any other foods and are actually directed to by our government for our 'wholegrain' count per day. It’s actually ludicrous when you put it that way, don’t you think? Worst is, the grains turn into our next point…
- Sugar. It’s everywhere and it’s the favourite food of who’s? The bad, pathogenic guys. Every popper, lolly, roll up, dried fruit, fruit yoghurt, fake custard, packet jelly, supermarket condiment, breakfast cereal, slushie, icy pole, ice cream, muesli bar, muffin, cupcake… Take a look at your ‘per 100g’ %. Anything above 10% where a serving size is 100ml, you're looking at 2-3 tsp right there. Just start being conscious and start choosing lower sugar brands or making more batch-style amounts of things. Our livers can metabolise 4-6 tsp equivalent of sugar per day. The World Health Organisation recommends no more than 6 tsp per day. We’re eating an average of 40 tsp per day in many parts of the world. It’s not difficult to do the maths and see why there are health situations everywhere you turn. Don't freak out about a piece of cake or nice bikkie on the weekend or in the lunchbox. Focus on the big picture of everything you enjoy and just be mindful of the added sugar factor and strip that back.
This deterioration hasn’t just happened. It’s been slowly building over the generations since we started moving away from nature and industrialising our food and agriculture practices way past what our bodies can recognise and we pass this deterioration onto our kids, thus the crisis point of allergies we are experiencing today. "No one was rabbiting on about allergies in my day" says the grandparent. Sound familiar? Well, nobody was eating MSG laden, sulphite containing, GMO fried French fries back then gramps. Even Macca's fries were cooked in regular beef tallow until the mid 80s - Immune BUILDING, not destroying back then...
The deterioration of our colony balance between the good and bad guys occurs with each generation too. As new babies are born from mothers with weakened bacteria. It is believed that this is a major contributor to this generation being so hard hit by allergies, mental illness and autoimmune conditions. Our bacteria has quite literally come undone.
1 in 100 children 10 years ago presented with some sort of allergy requiring hospitalisation. In 2014, the figure was 1 in 10. WHAT??? That’s real and that’s crazy.
Instead of continuing to restrict foods one by one from the schoolyard (which of course is essential due to possible consequence of death for precious little people, so we do it of course) - we need to ask a very important question: WHY? We must focus on the root cause so that something can be DONE about it!
Our guts aren’t happy because the good guys aren’t getting the food they want, or they’re being killed off by various things. Then, our bad guys seize the day and capitalise on the good guys' weakness, and so, they progress and takeover. It’s no good and our brains aren’t happy about it. Why our brains?
Our guts being unhappy greatly impacts our brain too. How?
There are many people who know they ‘don’t feel quite right’. Perhaps you’re down quite a bit for no apparent reason. Perhaps you present with anxiety over seemingly illogical things. Perhaps you have a child with any number of symptoms from hyperactivity to ADHD, autism, skin ailments, food sensitivities and more.
There are many schools of thought on healing the gut. Ayurveda does it one way, Chinese medicine another, naturopaths might use a combination of diet and herbs and so on. The important thing to realise is that all of these conditions can be vastly improved, if not sometimes reversed, when your gut is in good working order, your bacteria is in balance, and your environmental bacteria exposure to raw veggies, soil, nature, pets etc is often.
So, while our interviewee the wonderful Shalani McCray of LIVE ALIVE is focused on GAPS, when it comes to healing and boosting immunity, most important is to realise your experiments can start today with healing methods that resonate with you, your children and a practitioner who you feel is very much in your corner. This is your journey and ‘freedom’ is trusting your gut and your personal motivations and ways of healing.
Dr Natasha Campbell McBride says in her book Gut and Psychology Syndrome, that by correcting the gut wall and healing dysbiosis, you can heal many brain disorders and behavioural issues, you can heal UTIs, candida overgrowth, skin ailments, skin bacterial rashes, psoriasis, most intolerances, many allergies and of course all the gut issues such as Crohn’s, IBS, Diverticulitis, gastroenteritis. There is overwhelming research coming out every day that supports her theories and clinical experience with her patients.
So when it comes to foods we can use to nurture our guts and keep the good guys growing and abundant?
Cultured foods are your friend. Your gut’s BFF. We highly recommend The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz to get a full initiation into the science and how to of cultured foods.
- Start sneaking those cultured veggies into things your family loves as a baby. We’ve got a whole post on getting started with cultured veggies HERE as well as 10 ways to ‘hide’ fermented/ cultured foods HERE for parents who need it! A child will only need a 1/2 to 1 tsp a day so it's incredibly easy to get it into things unnoticed.
- Swap refined flours for dense, whole foods such as buckwheat, teff, almond meal or coconut. We both have plenty of recipes on our blogs using these nutrient-dense flours as does Google! You can lighten and bind with Tapioca or preservative-free arrowroot.
- If you’re going to eat bread, consider buying sourdough or making your own. This is an excellent resource over on Nourished Kitchen.
- Enjoy prebiotics to fire up the probiotics that will go in afterwards – onions and leeks are great through cooking for upping your prebiotics as are resistant starches - cooked and cooled potato and rice being good examples there.
- Fermented drinks like Water Kefirs, Milk Kefirs and Beet Kvass are all incredible for rebuilding a diverse and happy gut bacteria - less is more. A small 90-100ml is plenty.
- Easy to digest foods such as pureed vegetable soups, broths, cooked veggies, slow-cooked meat are the sorts of foods which literally give your gut a break from trying to grow the good guys all the time, but not assaulting it with stuff that’s going to kill more of the good guys. We do at least a couple of dinners a week that are super easy digesting purees and soups, to give our bodies a little break.
We've also put together this handy cheat sheet for you keep handy. It lists some foods that are great for the gut and why they are so good for gut health.
HEALING THE GUT
So what do you do if you suspect your gut is leaky and you want to do something about it? Well, the cheapest and easiest thing to do is to do the GAPS introduction diet for a bit and see how it feels for you. You will potentially save hundreds of dollars on expensive tests if you just have a little go and see how you feel. Here are a few more … If it feels good, you keep going and explore the longer haul of GAPS. It’s that simple and there are plenty of resources online. Other things you can do…
- Get those universal evils out of the house – vegetable oil, white sugar, white flour, GM foods and additives – and assess whether further work needs to be done.
- Ditch the wipes and the antibacterial 'overkill' - pun intended. Washing your hands 3-4 times a day with warm soapy water is all the protection you need unless you've been somewhere dirty and need to wash stuff away / off.
- Add the good, real stuff IN over a couple of months and you will be amazed at how a nutritional experiment like this one can be so fruitful in providing clues as to your gut health.
Your new mantra: WHAT YUMMY SOMETHING CAN I ADD!?
- Find a school in line with your food values OR work to change ‘fake food’ canteens to real ones (more on that on coming up!).
- Culture your own foods, starting super small with serve size & slow and work up to a tablespoon per meal. Super simple veggie recipes HERE.
- Give your kids cultured veggies, or 1 teaspoon of the juice from the ferment in a smoothie where they won’t know.
General immune building tips
- Watch for congesting foods that might bring on symptoms. For many families that’s dairy or eggs. Do a month of swapping to other ‘milks’ (like nut milk or coconut milk), or different foods altogether and see if that congestion goes away.
- Let your kids play out in nature and dirt to develop good resilience and natural bacterial levels. A good hand wash with regular soap after messy play and before meals is all they need unless you're concerned something was touched (ie if we've caught the train/bus we wash hands as soon as we get home).
- At first sign of an immune attack, ensure that you limit sugar to just whole fruit that day. Chicken soup for dinner and an early night in.
- Minimise antibiotic use – certainly stop using it every time there is a cough or cold. Antibiotics don’t just kill bad guys, they kill ALL guys while they’re in there. It’s not a failure if you must take them for an emergency - and indeed they perform miracles when truly needed! - but keeping their use to when it really counts and have a GP that supports limiting antibiotic use unless when definitely necessary. This will mean they will still work for you when you really need them down the track as you'll have greater bug resistance. Always see your doctor if you’re concerned about fever/temperature change / other symptoms. Peace of mind is a beautiful thing even if you get sent home to ‘just get rest’!
- Keep your kids well-nourished with a variety of foods but don't be afraid to back off if they say they're not hungry and they're running a bit fo a fever - let them sleep and rest rather than worry about food too much. Keep up the fluids and of course, if ever worried, pop into the doctor's.
- Take a listen to Dr Elisa Song's podcast with Alexx about Immunity - we talk a bit about Covid19, but it's essentially also a great broad look at what we can do for immune support and enhancement any time or season.
So there you have it. Immunity through the lens of the gut. There are many ways to strengthen the immune system and many paths to healing and if we get strong in the gut and stop feeding it bad stuff, well, the body will be much more resilient.
© Thrive 2020
Disclaimer: This eCourse contains the educated opinions of the authors and does not substitute for medical advice from your health care professional. It is your responsibility to consult your medical provider before making any changes to your diet. The author, therefore, assumes no responsibility for the decisions you take based upon the information contained in this eCourse.
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