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Now more than ever, we're all looking for ways to boost our immune system. Between upping our intake of vitamin C and throwing down zinc supplements, there are a ton of over-the-counter options available. But, there's one option many tout as a savior for not just your gut, but your immunity, too—and that's probiotics. The live microorganism actually refers to the "good" bacteria (think: probiotic yogurt) that balances out the "bad" bacteria in your gut, thus improving the overall immune system. And because much of our microbiome (aka the community of 38 trillion microorganisms—mostly bacteria—that live in and on you) resides in the gut, protecting it can serve as an active immunological barrier for foreign invaders.
To learn all about probiotics as well as how to protect our microbiome at home, we tapped co-founder of Seed, Ara Katz.
Meet the Expert
Ara Katz is the co-founder and co-CEO of Seed, a biotech company that focuses on using bacteria to improve human and planetary health.
Keep reading to find out how to keep your gut and your immune system in tip-top shape.
What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics are live bacteria that, when consumed, work to restore the gut health as well as the digestive system. Think of the bacteria in this case like silicones you'd find in your haircare products. Both bacteria and silicones have a bad wrap, but just like breathable silicones are shine-inducing and don't cause build-up on your locks, some "good" bacteria is considered essential for the health of your gut.
How Probiotics Boost Immunity
"Your body is complex and interconnected, and the gastrointestinal system sits at the core of it all," says Katz. "It’s connected to and influences everything from metabolic and gut immune function to cardiovascular, skin, and urogenital health. So, while improvements in gut health are often the most immediate, localized, and conspicuous, probiotics can actually have powerful effects across the entire body." In order for there to be a probiotic effect, the correct strains in adequate quantities must be consumed, and they must survive the many stages of digestion (think: stomach acid and bile) to make it into the colon.
For example, Seed's Daily Synbiotic ($50) includes strains studied for: gastrointestinal health (regularity, ease of bloating, occasional constipation relief), gut barrier integrity, gut immune function, micronutrient synthesis (supporting folate and B12 synthesis), and dermatological health (promoting healthy skin). "For gut immune function specifically, the Daily Synbiotic includes strains studied to increase the production of short-chain fatty acids, which are produced by bacteria and are the key nutrient and energy source for the cells lining your gut," says Katz.
Why We Should Protect Our Microbiome
Our microbiome performs critical functions like digesting food, managing inflammation, and synthesizing key vitamins, metabolites, and neurotransmitters. "While the majority of microbes reside in our gut, we have distinct ‘biomes’ across the body—in our nose, mouth, vagina, skin, and even our eye," explains Katz. "What we’re learning about the microbiome is redefining health and radically transforming our approach to medicine, hygiene, diet, living, and the choices we make for ourselves, our children, and our planet."
And just like our microbiome is constantly changing due to things like diet, exercise, medications, and sleep, the immune system is highly complex and unique to each individual person. "Our immune system is profoundly intertwined with the body as a whole, and can be affected by everything from hormone levels to sleep to these microbes, which live in and on us and play a substantial role in training our immune systems from birth," notes Katz.
Things like alcohol, sugar, tobacco, lack of sleep, stress, and poor diet can all disturb the balance of our microbiomes. "These factors have depleted the diversity and richness of our microbiomes and impacted our health," says Katz. "An unhealthy gut may manifest itself differently from person to person, including anything from mild gastrointestinal symptoms to a variety of chronic conditions."
How to Protect Your Microbiome
Below, find seven ways Katz recommends protecting your microbiome while at home.
- Eat fiber: "Microbes in your gut use fiber as a nutrient source and compounds to produce important metabolites for your health," notes Katz.
- Take a probiotic: Diet and exercise can help improve gut health, but taking probiotics is a sure-fire way to maintain that healthy balance.
- Channel your green thumb: Just one cm3 of soil contains as many microbes as humans on earth, so treat yourself to a new plant (or a herb garden, if you’re feeling ambitious).
- Spend time with your furry friends: Turns out our pets share more than love, they also carry microbes in from the outside, adding to the microbial diversity of your home and body. Epidemiological studies have shown that children growing up with dogs have a lower risk of developing allergic diseases.
- Limit screen time: "Our new normal means more screen time and more blue light, which could be disrupting your circadian rhythm," says Katz. "Your microbial 'clock' relies on regularity to perform its essential functions, including modulating your immune response and regulating metabolism." Switch off when you can—it may even help you sleep sounder.
- Monitor your news intake: Staying informed is vital, but information overload may not always be the best. "While research around the gut-brain axis is still early, scientists know that external stressors can alter the composition of the microbiome, which is an important mediator of health," says Katz, who recommends designating a “news hour,” to limit consumption.
- Check in on your poops (yes, seriously): According to Katz, a disruption to your routine coupled with less daily movement and dietary changes can all lead to changes in bowel movements.