Here’s an intriguing statistic – 70% of the immune system is in the gut. The microbiota of our gut can have a remarkable effect on our entire physiology, influencing everything from our resilience to viruses to our tastes and cravings. So why is digestion important to our health? Essentially, a healthy digestive tract is central to fighting off disease and maintaining overall well-being.
Naturally, a balanced and nutritious diet is key to maintaining a healthy digestive tract. This involves fundamental rules that any nutritionist or health professional is familiar with; consuming fresh foods that are high in fibre, low in fat, with a moderate intake of animal proteins and minimal processed foods or toxins. Equally, avoiding alcohol and tobacco, and ensuring proper hydration is essential to maintaining gut microbiota.
There are also physiological approaches to supporting good digestion. Sufficient sleep and practising slow, mindful eating also supports proper gut function. Moods and emotions also have an impact on gut health; for instance, stress can cause hormonal changes that compromise the gut microbiome. Interestingly, there are dietary supplements that can support both the dietary and physiological factors that influence our immune health – namely, medicinal mushrooms. Here, we give an overview.
The Brain/Gut Axis and its Effect on Immunity
The principal reason why digestion is important to immunity is that a healthy digestive tract will more efficiently absorb nutrients. Essentially, this is a cycle; by eating nutritious, high fibre foods, you can maintain a healthy gut that more efficiently absorbs the nutrients within these healthy foods. Equally, there are also some supplements that can support this process, such as prebiotics.
However, it’s not just what passes through the gut that impacts the microbiota; holistic factors also influence this system. Our emotions and digestive system are closely connected – this is because emotions have a substantial impact on hormonal changes. This is referred to as the brain/gut axis, where the hormones released in our bodies affect organ function.
For instance, stress hormones can cause the slowing of digestive activity, as the body slows down to compensate for the stress. If stress is chronic, these hormones remain in the body and the digestive tract is affected long-term. This can lead to symptoms such as acid reflux and heartburn, as well as a more generalised negative impact on immunity.
Medicinal Mushrooms’ Dual Action on Gut Health
Of course, it’s easy to tell patients to ‘be less stressed’, but the reality of modern lifestyles is that this often isn’t possible. Instead, a nutritionist should consider supplements that support gut health by encouraging better nutrient absorption – or better still, tackle the physiological, hormonal and dietary aspects of gut function from all angles.
This is where medicinal mushrooms are an interesting proposition. Certain varieties of mushroom, like Pleurotus eryngii and Pleurotus ostreatus, have potent prebiotic activity that stimulates the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut . Equally, the Shiitake mushroom, commonly used in Japanese cuisine, is rich in polysaccharides like beta-glucans that protect against cell damage and boost white blood cell production .
However – perhaps most interestingly – there are varieties of medicinal mushroom that act on the brain/gut axis. The Lion’s mane mushroom (Hericium erinaceus) is known as a medicine food homology to ameliorate gastrointestinal diseases and has proven to regulate immunity and gut microbiota. At the same time, this mushroom has been found to have calming effects, modulating certain neurotransmitters associated with stress and anxiety . In several studies, improvements have also been observed in sleep-related and depressive disorders. Considering the relationship between stress, gut health, and immunity, this mushroom could have substantial benefits for patients with high stress, low immunity and gastrointestinal.
Why is Digestion Important to Overall Well-being?
A healthy gut is essential to immunity – so the answer to why is digestion important to overall well-being is quite simple. A healthy gut helps us fight off disease and that keeps us healthy. However, approaches to maintaining healthy gut microbiota are multifaceted; it’s not just about what we eat but also how we manage our moods and emotions for achieving overall well-being.
This is why medicinal mushrooms are such an interesting proposition when it comes to maintaining gut health. By acting directly on the gut microbiota and the hormonal changes triggered by our emotional states, medicinal mushrooms can support proper gut function. Equally, with a potent beta-glucan content, mushrooms can stimulate the production of white blood cells and other components of our immune system to fight disease. Easily incorporated into a healthy diet, nutritionists and healthcare practitioners alike should keep an eye on developments in the field of mycotherapy.
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