Q: What’s within your body but not inside your body, about 30 feet long, has 800-900 folds, would cover an entire tennis court if laid out flat, comprises the majority of your immune system, and contains about 3-4 pounds of microbes?
A: Your gut!
Amazing, right? As I’ve mentioned before, the gut, or the intestinal tract––the long tube that goes through the body from mouth to anus––is a very big deal. Among other things, it helps keep us safe from viruses and other pathogens thanks to its large surface area, the epithelial barrier, which includes epithelial cells, plus proteins or lipids, and a layer of mucus (sometimes called the “gut lining”). If a person’s gut lining is intact, they are healthier, less susceptible to viruses and other pathogens, and they have better outcomes if they do get infected by a virus or some other pathogen.
Every day provides us with lots of opportunities to maintain and even improve gut health which, in turn, helps to keep us thriving and happy. In this article, I provide an introduction to how different components of the gut protect us, and I also provide straightforward, day-to-day ways to care for and support your child’s gut as well as your own.
The Gut Lining Keeps What’s Inside Your Gut Separated From Your Body
As Dr. Robynne Chutkan, integrative gastroenterologist, explains in her most recent book, The Anti-Viral Gut, the gut is a hollow, digestive superhighway. It’s a tunnel from your mouth to your anus, and the gut lining keeps what’s inside your gut separated from the rest of your body, including pollen, viruses, bacteria, poorly digested food particles, and toxins. An intact gut lining is selectively permeable, meaning it only lets certain things of a certain size through. When the barrier gets damaged, however, all kinds of things that shouldn’t be able to penetrate the gut lining suddenly have access to the inside of your body and can cause trouble.
The gut has several key anti-viral components: the microbiome, stomach acid, and mucus. Here is a brief overview of each.
The Gut Microbiome
As Dr. Chutkan says, “You’re only as healthy as your gut bacteria” (9). Because most pathogens enter the body through the gut, the microbes that live in the gut have an enormous effect on the immune system which was “designed” to reject foreigners in the form of pathogens and accept foreigners in the form of food. In a balanced and healthy microbiome, there will be a far greater number of “good” bacteria (peaceful cohabitants and those that play an active role in keeping you healthy) than “bad” bacteria (pathogens). The good bacteria do so much, including help to digest food, maintain your gut lining, crowd out pathogens, and synthesize enzymes, vitamins, and hormones you can’t make on your own (Chutkan 7-8). And of course, the medications we take, the foods we eat, and our environments influence the bacterial communities in our microbiome.
Gut bacteria help protect you in several ways:
- By regulating your immune system and making sure you have a “just right” response when you encounter a virus, i.e. enough response to clear the virus and keep you safe but not so strong it damages parts of your body and harms you in the process (Chutkan 14).
- By creating a physical barrier to block viruses from penetrating deeper into your body. “Viruses literally have to wade through a dense army of bacteria–plus their surrounding web of mucus and the epithelial gut lining–to penetrate common entry points like your nose, mouth, gastrointestinal tract, and lungs” (Chutkan 15).
- By triggering your immune cells to release virus-repelling substances called interferons, which help keep viruses from multiplying (Chutkan 15).
Stomach acid is essential to digestion and it also kills pathogens.
- It activates an enzyme in your stomach called pepsin, which breaks down proteins into components your body can absorb (Chutkan 35).
- It is necessary for absorption of Vitamin B12 and other nutrients that can only be properly used by the body in an acidic environment (Chutkan 35).
- The release of stomach acid produces chemical signals that aid digestion through the rest of the gastrointestinal tract (Chutkan 35).
- Stomach acid helps prevent food poisoning because certain potentially harmful microbes in food and drink can’t survive in an acidic environment (Chutkan 36).
“Mucus is mostly water with a little bit of salt and polymers . . . ‘a cross between Jell-O and glue'” (Chutkan 39). It lines surfaces like your eyes, nose, mouth, throat, lungs, and intestines to keep them healthy, lubricated, and protected from infection. It can trap and kill pathogens, too.
- “Microscopic bristles in mucus ensnare viruses in its sticky matrix, which then get coughed or snorted out, or swallowed and inactivated by stomach acid” (Chutkan 39).
- 1.5 liters a day of mucus is made by specialized cells in your gut, and viruses have to penetrate this overlying layer to gain access to the cells that they are trying to infect.
- “The protective barrier that mucus provides is five thousand times the diameter of a poliovirus particle” or, the equivalent would be human wading through 150 gel-filled football fields to reach the end zone and score a touchdown (Chutkan 39).
- Mucus contains enzymes that can degrade viral proteins and antibodies that can neutralize them (Chutkan 42).
How To Support An Anti-Viral Gut Every Day
In our daily lives, the focus is often on speed and convenience, so it can feel challenging to support a healthy gut. But if you can help your child to establish gut-healthy habits, over time, they will simply become part of life and require less attention. A huge win!
Here are some suggestions:
- Eat more vegetables: Plants are essential food for your army of gut bacteria! Aim for at least 6 servings per day, so eat some at every meal (see recipe ideas below).
- Avoid Factory Food.
- Eat fermented foods: Just one tablespoon of sauerkraut contains up to one billion live bacteria, over two dozen strains that can help repopulate the gut, plus the fiber to feed them (Chutkan 206).
- Hydrate: Drink plain water.
- Avoid unnecessary medications.
- Sleep: Establish a regular time for going to sleep and waking up. Depending on the child and their age, they will have different requirements. This chart offers some guidelines.
- Exercise: Children ages 6-17 should have at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day.
- Get outside: Regardless of the weather, some time outside every day is beneficial.
- Get Quiet: Every day, offer some unstructured time for doing absolutely nothing. “Nothing” will look different for different-aged children, though daydreaming, fantasizing, humming, singing, whistling, doodling all count.
Sounds like a lot? If you’re a GetzWell family, you are probably doing a lot of these things already. For what you consider your weaker spots, consider building a daily or weekly rhythm that will help you and your family to incorporate the most essential activities regularly.
Small shifts can add up to big changes, especially when it comes to eating more vegetables, moving our bodies, managing medication choices, and reducing stress.
Eating More Plants
One challenge that also can have the biggest impact is getting 6 or more servings of vegetables per day (which is honestly challenging for even the most motivated among us!). Lately, some doctors and health-influencers have started framing this idea a little differently: consume 30 different types of plants per week. The 30 plants idea comes from this study, which noted that individuals who consumed more than 30 types of plants per week compared to those who consumed 10 or fewer per week had a reduction in certain antibiotic resistance genes. The study suggests that people who not only consume more plants, but also consume more different kinds of plants (herbs, spices, and all plants count), will experience better health. This idea makes sense–you’re feeding multitudes in your microbiome, and different organisms need different nutrients to thrive!
However, 30 doesn’t appear to be a magic number, so “eat more different plants” would be a terrific goal. Of course, if you felt like making a game of seeing how many different plants you and your family can consume in a week, that could also be fun!
Tips for eating more vegetables:
- Cook in batches and take from those containers over several days to save prep time and refrigerator space.
- Pre-sautee spinach, maybe with other greens, leeks, and garlic. You can add them to scrambles, serve as a side dish, or reheat them to eat on their own.
- Roast broccoli, romanesco, or cauliflower with a little olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. Store in containers in the refrigerator for easy meal prep.
- Incorporate vegetable-packed grain salads once or twice a week.
- Lean on stews and soups, which are easily frozen and are a great way to fit all kinds of different vegetables in the same dish. You can also try reheating these savory foods for breakfast.
- Green smoothies can be a great way to sneak in some frozen zucchini as well as other vegetables
Sauteed Leeks and Greens
Leeks are a gut-friendly food, full of prebiotic fiber that helps to feed and balance the gut microbiome. You can cook and eat them on their own, like in this recipe, or you can cook them, add some chopped garlic, and then some chopped greens, like spinach or dandelion greens, or even some cabbage like in this recipe. Remember to choose organic greens when you can.
Thai-Inspired Stir Fry
This quick (20 minutes!) recipe offers a whole lot of vegetables in one meal, and the sauce is simple and flavorful. Remember you can add or substitute other vegetables (snap or snow peas, anyone?) and increase or reduce the spice to your taste. And while the Thai basil definitely adds another dimension of flavor, the recipe still tastes great without it.
Medication and Stress Reduction
When it’s time for therapeutics, like an antibiotic, GetzWell providers are experts at assessing whether the benefit of the drug will outweigh the harm to the microbiome. They are also keenly aware of the need to mitigate that harm. We always welcome dialogue about the best approach, too.
Additionally, stress, and the increased inflammation that accompanies it, can encourage pathogenic bacteria to grow, shifting the gut into dysbiosis, possibly leading to conditions such as “leaky gut.” Chronic stress can also weaken the immune system (Chutkan 77). If your child is facing stress-related issues, Getzwell is ready to support your child through individualized, science-based, targeted stress-management interventions.
As always, please reach out to us with any questions––we love to help cultivate healthy microbiomes!
Chutkan, Robynne. Avery, 2022. The Anti-Viral Gut: Tackling Pathogens from the Inside Out.