Your Gut and Your Immune System

It was the year 1220 in the little town of Zheng Ding, not far from Beijing, and Dr. Li Dong Yuan was busy taking care of patients who had begun to line up at 6 a.m. This was a typical day for him. By the time noon rolls around, he will have seen more than 50 patients. These patients have come from all over, each with a different ailment. He was able to treat them all with their many illnesses where other Chinese Medicine doctors had failed. He had become the physician for physicians, specializing in unique and challenging conditions.

What was his secret? With many years of clinical experience, he believed that our alimentary tract, which includes our gut, is the foundation of our immune system. When we have chronic indigestion or poor assimilation of food nutrients, we can develop many different illnesses. With that foundation, he created numerous herbal remedies and treatments that are still effective with many diseases. He became revered as one of the most important physicians of his time.

By now, we know that there are more bacteria than human cells inside our bodies. These bacteria live in many parts of the body, but mostly in our gut. They interact with the cells in our gut, providing signals and clues about what is outside our body. Some of the bacteria are actually very good for our bodies, helping with digestion, with absorption and assimilation of nutrients through breaking down food particles, and with neutralizing toxins. These bacteria even help exercise our immune system. They stimulate our own cells to produce antibodies that help the body prepare our immune system to stand up to the bacteria inside and outside our body. By stimulating and strengthening our immune system, we can handle infections and even prevent certain forms of cancer.

Not all bacteria coming from outside the body are friendly. Even an overgrowth of good bacteria can create a burden for our body. Some research has investigated whether certain bacteria might be responsible for certain type of cancer, ulcers, and other diseases, so it’s very important to make sure that your gut and entire digestive system is functioning well. If you experience frequent heartburn, pain with hunger, gastric and abdominal pain, bloating, gas, constipation, loose stools or diarrhea, it’s best to address these symptoms right away by seeing your health care provider. These conditions can affect your immune system and make you susceptible to sickness. Sometimes a minor adjustment in lifestyle and eating habits is all that’s needed to create a balanced gut microbiome. In some cases, more dramatic changes are necessary to bring your system back into balance.

Almost 800 years ago, Dr. Li came to believe that the origin of a hundred diseases could be traced to the functioning of the gut. Appreciating that wisdom today, we continue to discover more and more about the intimate connection between the gut and the immune system.