21 April 2014
An optimal immune system is crucial to human health. Feed it well and it will take care of you for life.
Next to vaccination, nutrition is one of the most accessible, cost-effective and underrated ways of supporting the immune system. Starve it through malnutrition and the immune system is unable to work as well, leading to an increased susceptibility to infection. Conversely, over-nutrition and obesity are widely accepted as being associated with a state of chronic inflammation (excess immune activity).
So what is the link? Overwhelming evidence suggests it is the trillions of bacteria living in our gut the so-called gut microbiota. The foods we eat not only support the growth and development of our own cells and tissues, they also impact on the microbiota in our gut. These microbiota in turn play crucial roles in regulating nutrient absorption by our intestinal cells, in metabolism and in immunity.
The Gut Inflammation Team at the Malaghan Institute (pictured above), led by Dr Elizabeth Forbes-Blom, is taking a new look at health by suggesting that we are what our gut microbiota eat! Most importantly, this paradigm may play a crucial role right from the very start of life.
Evolutionary biologists propose that lactation evolved over 200 million years ago to provide infants with both immune and nutritional support. Yet many of the sugars in breast milk known to be important for infant health, cannot be digested by the infants themselves they instead pass undigested to the lower part of the intestinal tract, where they are consumed by the gut microbiota.
Dr Forbes-Bloms research is investigating whether we can nutritionally target the gut microbiota to reduce the risk of inflammatory disease and maximise the chance for a healthy life.
This article features in the May 2014 issue of our Scope newsletter (Issue 53). Download the full newsletter here - 506 KB (PDF)