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Focus on right food to boost intestinal bacteria and immunity

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

New research shows exactly how intestinal bacteria play a role in boosting immunity – beginning with birth. The findings, from Australian scientists show that consuming fiber rich foods, probiotic and prebiotics supplements really can keep disease at bay. Now scientists understand better how food can boost intestinal bacteria and immunity.

Researchers from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research say that plant based foods, when broken down in the intestine, are converted to short chain fatty acids.

PhD student Kendle Maslowski and Professor Charles Mackay from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research found that GPR43, a molecule released by immune cells, binds to short chain fatty acids acting as an anti-inflammatory.

“The notion that diet might have profound effects on immune responses or inflammatory diseases has never been taken that seriously” said Professor Mackay. “We believe that changes in diet, associated with western lifestyles, contribute to the increasing incidences of asthma, Type 1 diabetes and other autoimmune diseases. Now we have a new molecular mechanism that might explain how diet is affecting our immune systems.”

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Maintaining the right levels of intestinal bacteria plays a huge role in immunity, and the current study shows why. The scientists found that mice that lack the GPR43 gene also lack the ability to resolve inflammation because there are no long chain fatty acids for immune cells to bind to.

The researchers say, "Changing diets are changing the kinds of gut bacteria we have, as well as their by-products, particularly short chain fatty acids. If we have low amounts of dietary fiber, then we’re going to have low levels of short chain fatty acids, which we have demonstrated are very important in the immune systems of mice."

Another important finding of the study was that obesity can interfere with short chain fatty acids in the intestine. "Obese people were put on three different diets over time – high, medium and low fiber – and there was a direct correlation between the level of carbohydrate, or fiber, in the diet and the level of short chain fatty acids".

The absence of short chain fatty acids in the intestine can not only lead to compromised immunity, but can also contribute to other inflammatory diseases such as asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. Whole foods, including fiber from grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables, like those found in the Mediterranean diet are now shown to be important for a variety of reasons, including cancer and heart disease prevention and for fighting obesity.

The study is one of the most compelling reasons to date to eat more fiber, fruits, nuts and grains and avoid processed foods. Whole foods, when broken down in the intestine, provide the body with short chain fatty acids. In turn the body produces the anti-inflammatory molecule, GPR43 in the intestine that can help fight disease and boost immunity. A focus on the right food really can keep us healthier by increasing the right kind of bacteria in the intestine and boosting immunity.

Garvan Institute