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Researchers make new discoveries in ways to improve gut health

July 18, 2018

immune health

Studies on the gut microbiome indicate that there are complex interactions between intestinal microbiota, diet, inflammation, and disease. Consequently, experts believe that intestinal microbiota play a significant role in maintaining human health, aiding in digestion, nutrient absorption, and immune responses. During session 082, “Current Nutritional Trends in Immune and Gut Health,” on Wednesday, July 18, speakers discussed how researchers and food companies are seeking ways to nurture and nourish beneficial gut microorganisms to improve the body’s immune response 

Parveen Yaqoob of the University of Reading said that the function of the human immune system is influenced by a host of factors, including genetics, gender, diet, and intestinal microorganisms. A robust immune system is necessary to combat the inflammation associated with aging and other lifestyle factors. In fact, the increase of inflammation is so closely related to aging, she said, that a new term describing the relationship has been coined: inflammaging. Inflammaging is the progressive increase in inflammation as humans age, resulting in, among other things, DNA damage, oxidative stress, obesity, and chronic diseases. Yaqoob said that scientific evidence indicates that polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) help reduce the progression of inflammaging. She presented research data illustrating that as intake levels of PUFAs increase, the levels of inflammation biomarkers such as interleukin-6 and C-reactive protein decreased.  

Yaqoob said that at least two research studies appear to debunk the widely held belief that omega-6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory. These studies suggest that both omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory effects. She concluded that strategies to reduce inflammation should therefore include increasing intake of omega-3s and omega-6s along with healthy eating patterns, losing weight if overweight or obese, and increasing intake of antioxidants.  

Probiotics are live microorganisms that, when administered, populate the colon with good microbes that benefit the host. Although a lot of probiotic research focuses on the effects of probiotics in immune-compromised individuals, Bobbi Langkamp-Henken of the University of Florida has been curious about whether probiotics confer any benefits to healthy individuals. She believed that when healthy people experience stressful situations (such as military training and combat, athletic endurance training, or job-related stress), their immune systems may benefit from the intake of probiotics. In humans, one of the body’s responses to stress response is readying immune cells in case of injury; this preparation is a form of inflammation.  

Langkamp-Henken presented recent research that indicates that probiotics can reduce the duration of cold and flu in healthy individuals undergoing stress. Other studies she discussed suggest that probiotics aid in the alleviation of seasonal allergy symptoms (sneezing, itching, and nasal pressure) as well. These studies have led Langkamp-Henken to believe that healthy individuals can benefit from probiotics when their immune systems are challenged. However, she cautioned that not every probiotic works in everyone as different people have different gut microbiota. 

 Donald Cox of Kerry said that because of research showing that probiotics and prebiotics (food ingredients that induce the growth or improve the activity of beneficial microorganisms in the gastrointestinal tract) can benefit consumer health, food companies are being proactive in developing functional foods containing probiotics and prebiotics. The prebiotics gum Arabic and beta-glucan are of particular interest because both have consistently been shown to improve digestive health and immune health. He concluded that the functional food segment will benefit as clinical research continues on ingredients that appear to have positive effects on immune and digestive health, spurring the development of new products.