How the Immune System and Digestive System Work Together | Microbiome Plus+
Written By Ana Aleksic, MSc Pharm

How the Immune System and Digestive System Work Together

Our digestive health has a lot to do with our immune health and vice versa. Its role in maintaining our immune health and, eventually, our overall well-being cannot be underestimated. The two systems work closely to keep us in good physical shape.

Here, we’ll see how the two systems partner each other and what one does to keep the other system running.

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How Are the Digestive System and Immune System Interconnected?

The digestive and immune systems may seem like two individual parts of our body but they’re inter-connected with each influencing the function of the other. In fact, all components of our body are more interrelated than we’d like to believe. However, when it comes to the immune system and digestive system, that statement couldn’t be more relevant. How effectively one system works, depends on the health of the other - it’s as simple as that. So, to enjoy optimum digestion it’s important to keep the immune system healthy and a robust digestive system can help enhance the foundation of your immune system.

Come to think of it, digestion impacts several body functions and influences our overall health and wellbeing. If food is not digested properly and nutrients are not assimilated into our body, there would be no nutrients available for performing countless critical functions such as, cell repair and regeneration.

What is the Immune System-Gut Connection that Keeps the Body Healthy?

Even nutritious foods contain bad bacteria, which the good bacteria in our gut help balance out. A healthy balance of bacteria thus helps keep the digestive system running at optimum efficiency. On the other hand, an imbalance in the gut means that there is an overpopulation of bad bacteria.

Whenever this happens, toxins tend to accumulate which are flushed out of the pores in the small intestine and into the bloodstream. When the immune system detects these toxins and undigested food particles it thinks of them as antigens that need to be attacked. As a result it elevates its response by releasing histamines and we experience uncomfortable symptoms like stomach pain, irritable bowels, and others. As can be seen, the immune system and digestive system feed off of each other. In terms of gut health and the immune system, remember consuming fermented foods and probiotics, and reducing the intake of alcohol and antibiotics can help the incidence of good bacteria in the gut.

How Much of Your Immune System is in Your Gut?

Exactly how much of your immune system is in your gut? Around 70% of our immune system dwells in our digestive tract in the form of gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT). An important component of our immune system called plasma cells (which give rise to invader-defending antibodies) also reside within the GALT. Our gut is the major channel between the external environment and the internal systems of our body. It is exposed to plenty of germs and harmful invaders such as bacteria and viruses present in food particles on a daily basis. [1] These toxic agents are perceived by the immune system in the gut as being harmful to our body and attacked. That being said, our body does not reject everything we put into it. This process is known as tolerance. When our immune system rejects an otherwise harmless substance, we are labeled as being sensitive or allergic to that food/food ingredient.

Our Gut Microbiome Shapes Our Immune System

Our immune system, which is designed to control microbes, is, in essence, also controlled by the microbes themselves. The “friendly” gut bacteria function exactly opposite to the harmful microbes that cause disease. These bacteria provide essential nutrients, defend against pathogens, breakdown indigestible substances, and even contribute to the development of the gut structure. [2]

An additional factor emphasizing the importance of these beneficial microbes in actively shaping our immune system is their absence leading to disease. An imbalance in the composition of the microbiome (called as dysbiosis) upsets the relationship between the gut microbiome and our immune system. This alters the immune responses, which in turn, triggers several inflammatory disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). [2]

It is also noteworthy that with IBD, your immune system fails to recognize and differentiate between self and non-self (invading) agents such that it begins attacking self (your own body tissues). So, with the gut microbiome getting off-balance, your immune system may also not be able to hold up well.

Components of the Immune System Interact with and Modify our Digestive Health

Regulatory T cells (Tregs)

Just like the gut microbiome functions to shape our immune system, the latter also tends to modify the former. This is exemplified by an important aspect of our immune system called Tregs. These cells counter-balance the inflammatory responses. If for any reason, the Tregs stop functioning, it causes a breach in the intestinal immune responses, resulting in diseases like leaky gut, IBS, and IBD. In fact, the role of Treg cell defect in triggering IBD has been vastly documented so much so that these cells represent a promising approach for treating IBD. [3]

Toll-Like Receptors (TLRs)

Other crucial components of our immune system called TLRs are present on the intestinal cells as well as immune cells. They serve to identify and guard against the invaders in their “crosstalk with the microbiota.” [4]

As soon as the gut bacteria come into contact with the gut lining, TLRs are activated and stimulate the production of antibodies to limit the gut bacteria from over colonizing the gut. This, subsequently, protects us from inflammation. Aberrant TLR signaling, thus, forms the basis of conditions like inflammation of the colon and even cancer. [5]

This further elucidates the partnership of the immune system and digestive system.

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  1. Vighi G, Marcucci F, Sensi L, Di Cara G, Frati F. Allergy and the gastrointestinal system. Clinical and Experimental Immunology. 2008;153(Suppl 1):3-6. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2249.2008.03713.x.
  2. Round JL, Mazmanian SK. The gut microbiome shapes intestinal immune responses during health and disease. Nature reviews Immunology. 2009;9(5):313-323. doi:10.1038/nri2515.
  3. Lord JD. Promises and paradoxes of regulatory T cells in inflammatory bowel disease. World Journal of Gastroenterology : WJG. 2015;21(40):11236-11245. doi:10.3748/wjg.v21.i40.11236.
  4. De Kivit S, Tobin MC, Forsyth CB, Keshavarzian A, Landay AL. Regulation of Intestinal Immune Responses through TLR Activation: Implications for Pro- and Prebiotics. Frontiers in Immunology. 2014;5:60. doi:10.3389/fimmu.2014.00060.
  5. Cario E. Toll-like receptors in inflammatory bowel diseases: A decade later. Inflammatory Bowel Diseases. 2010;16(9):1583-1597. doi:10.1002/ibd.21282.
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