For quite some time now, scientists and medical experts have known that gut bacteria and the immune system appear to be closely intertwined. Until very recently, however, the precise mechanisms behind this connection have been unclear. In late May, researchers revealed groundbreaking findings observed in animal studies which suggest how the intestines may help regulate our overall health.
The Role of the Lower GI Tract
In mammals, the intestinal system allows healthy nutrients to pass through its walls, while at the same time blocking harmful bacteria from spreading throughout the body. In particular, the lower gastrointestinal (GI) tract is where most of these activities take place: food is processed until it becomes fundamental nutrients, which then pass through the intestinal wall to the bloodstream and to our vital organs. But the question of how the intestinal wall prevents the harmful bacteria from escaping with these nutrients has puzzled researchers.
Now, researchers from Rockefeller University in New York City think they may have an answer. Their study findings show that in mice, a sophisticated intestinal system has been observed. Specifically, certain areas of the GI tract are more likely to elicit an immune system response than others when encountering pathogens. While the intestines look similar, closer inspection reveals a complex intestinal immune system with a unique, organized structure.
Key Differences Throughout the GI System
Interestingly, researchers found that lymph nodes in mice’s large intestines would detect and combat harmful bacteria such as salmonella, whereas small intestines seemed to primarily carry out nutrient absorption and delivery to the bloodstream. According to the researchers, the ability to pinpoint the areas in the intestines which produce the most powerful immune system response could help medical experts create more targeted therapies for GI conditions. They also suspect that the findings could make oral vaccines, which have previously failed to produce an ample immune response, a possibility in the future.
While there is clearly still much to glean from microbiome research, we do know that maintaining healthy gut bacteria can have numerous benefits for our bodies. From eating a diet rich in plant-based food sources to taking supplements as recommended or approved by your doctor, there are many ways you can work towards maintaining a healthy balance of gut flora.