Supplement Perspectives
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The Complex Fighting System

Regular contributor Mark Becker introduces you to your immune system and its overlooked stars, the gut and probiotics.

Your immune system is the body's version of the military: it is tasked with defending against all who threaten it. It has some really interesting soldiers that help make this possible.

The immune system is a complex strategic fighting system powered by five liters of blood and lymph, a clear and colorless liquid that passes throughout the tissues of the body. Together, these two fluids transport all the different elements of the immune system so they can effectively do their jobs.
The immune system is comprised of the skin, bone marrow, thymus, spleen, white blood cells, antibodies, hormones, and more.

White blood cells are particularly compelling as they charge into battle at the first sign of trouble. These cells patrol your body with a variety of weapons, including antibodies that will overpower an offending organism. These brave soldiers only live up to a few weeks, but the cavalry is not far behind. A single drop of blood can contain up to 25,000 white blood cells. 

Natural killer cells are an elite fighting unit as they bring the heavy artillery. Armed with a protein that breaks down a cell's membrane, natural killer cells seek out cells with abnormal membranes, such as tumor cells and cells that are infected with a virus, and kill them on contact.

But sometimes the immune system fails: An invader will compromise the immune system making you sick. Can people be proactive in making the immune system stronger? The immune system is precisely that—a system, not a single entity. To function well, it requires balance and harmony. There is still much that researchers don’t know about the intricacies and interconnectedness of the immune response. For now, there are no scientifically proven direct links between lifestyle and enhanced immune function.

Nonetheless, researchers are exploring the effects of diet, exercise, age, stress, and most notably, beneficial bacteria, or probiotics. And suppliers are taking notice.

Probiotics are essential to basic human nutrition. They are live microorganisms or beneficial bacteria that are similar to the beneficial microorganisms naturally found in the human gut. These “good bacteria” are used to prevent and alleviate many different conditions, but particularly those that affect the gastrointestinal tract, where most of the immune system is located.

To fully understand your health, one of the crucial areas to appreciate is your gut and what is happening inside it. Because all of the systems within your body work closely together to maintain optimal health, when one system is unbalanced, it can trigger a domino effect. This will cause problems in other areas of your body creating a cascade of chronic health complications.

This is particularly true of the gut and its impact on immune health. Your gut health and immune system are inextricably linked. Approximately 70 to 80 percent of immune tissue is located within your digestive system. The gut is often the first entry point for exposure to pathogens (bad bacteria and viruses that can cause disease). Therefore your gut immune system needs to be thriving and healthy in order to avoid illness. 

The gut is home to over 500 bacterial species. These “visitors” form a bioreactor, which facilitates digestion, provides nutrients, and helps form the immune system. Some important nutrients made by this bioreactor include several B vitamins, vitamin K, folate, and some short-chain fatty acids. Up to 10 percent of an individual’s daily energy needs can be derived from the byproducts of the beneficial bacteria in the gut.

Furthermore, probiotics can provide multiple benefits for your immune system. When probiotics are abundant in your body, it’s harder for bad bacteria to get a foothold. Some probiotics also keep you healthy by making bacteriocins, which suppress the growth of harmful bacteria.

Examples of beneficial bacteria are as follows (among others) and can be found in many probiotic formulas offer by suppliers and marketers:

Bifidobacteria: a family of bacteria that has been studied for its ability to prevent and treat various gastrointestinal disorders, including infections, irritable bowel syndrome and constipation. In addition to making lactic acid, it also makes some important short-chain fatty acids that are then absorbed and metabolized by the body.

Lactobacillus bulgaricus: can be found in many yogurts and soft cheeses. Helps to convert lactose and other sugars into lactic acid, which may be particularly helpful for those who are lactose intolerant.

Lactobacillus acidophilus and Lactobacillus casei: both convert lactose into lactic acid–also helping the lactose intolerant. Research has indicated that L. Acidophilus may also be helpful at reducing cholesterol levels.

Compelling science is emerging on a wide range of probiotics that impact a wide range of health conditions. Researchers continue to study how the immune system works and how to interpret measurements of immune function. Your gut is filled with tons of bacteria and other things that drive immune function. Ironically, germs that originate outside the body can actually bolster immune function. The immune system has the profound ability to adapt to foreign invaders and will remember these invaders and know what to do if they return. 

A whole host of factors contribute to the health of the immune system, including diet, exercise, age, stress, sun exposure, rest and even laughter, among others. Suppliers, marketers, and health professionals will continue to explore natural solutions that will support the health of this truly complex fighting system. In the end, we will all benefit.

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