Balancing our body's immune response
Desiree Nielsen, BSc, RD
Inflammation is our immune system's way of telling us to pay attention to our health. While occasional inflammation is a crucial step in healing, chronic inflammation can signal a more serious underlying condition. Recent research is studying the potential for probiotics to soothe inflammation in our gut and offer resistance against harmful gram-negative bacteria.
Inflammation is a hot topic. It is implicated in our most serious and debilitating ailments, from heart disease and diabetes to arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease. Make no mistake: acute inflammation is an important part of our healing response. However, chronic inflammation represents an immune response that is out of balance. There is still debate on whether chronic inflammation is the origin or a promoter of disease, but reducing inflammation is an important step in restoring health.
We may not realize that our intestinal flora can be a driver of inflammation. Gut-associated inflammation has been linked to insulin resistance, some forms of cancer, and even mental health concerns.
The trillions of bacteria that live within our gut have an intimate connection to our immune system, helping to strike a balance between tolerance and regulation. One type of bacteria that can cause inflammation is gram-negative bacteria.
Some gram-negative bacteria exist naturally in a balance with gram-positive bacteria in our gut. But excessive or harmful gram-negative bacteria may appear due to an infection or in response to poor lifestyle choices, such as a high-fat, low-fibre diet.
Gram-negative bacteria have molecules in their cell walls called lipopolysaccharides (LPS), which are a little like a coat of gnarly armour. If the barrier function of the gut is diminished (which can result from a high-fat, high-sugar diet, stress, or other causes), these LPS can enter the bloodstream, where they incite an inflammatory response.
While we see evidence that altered intestinal flora can lead to increased inflammatory markers, the ability of probiotics to reduce chronic inflammation is still being researched. In some studies, selected strains or blends of probiotic bacteria have outcompeted gram-negative bacteria. In addition, some probiotics have been shown to physically reinforce the gut barrier to prevent LPS passage. Through research to date, we see that certain probiotic strains within the Lactobacillus group are strong enough to act this way.
Some probiotic bacteria have also shown promise in reducing the production of messengers called pro-inflammatory cytokines. Probiotic bacteria produce substances known as short chain fatty acids, which can lower inflammatory markers in addition to strengthening the gut barrier.
Chronic inflammation can be debilitating, but it is not a life sentence. Inflammation is best addressed through an integrative approach to healthy living: eat more plants, move more, manage stress, and don’t forget to use beneficial bacteria to your immune advantage.