Thursday, October 25, 2012

What's the biggest immune organ in our bodies?

Welcome to the the first part of the role of allergy and the intestines.

The intestines of course!  Amazingly, our intestines when stretched out are almost a 1/4 of a mile long.  Just beneath the surface the are collections of lymph nodes (areas where immune reactions are initiated) called peyer's patches and mucosal associated lymph nodes (MALT) and immune cells.  These areas are where our immune system encounters some of the first exposures to bacteria, food, and learns to differentiate safe items from non-safe.  This differentiation is key to maintaining a healthy well functioning immune system.

Bacteria populates our intestines as soon as we are born and plays many critical roles.  Our relationship with gut bacteria is mutually beneficial.  Important functions of the bacteria are helping our bodies develop oral tolerance to food, altering the way the immune system recognizes dangerous pathogens via various pattern recognition, and helping our bodies digest food. The types of bacteria living  in our guts vary depending on our diet (meat versus vegetarian) and where we live in the world. Through these roles, the bacteria receives its own nutrition and a safe place to live.      

So why is this relationship important to our immune system?
  • Our first exposures to food (breast milk or formula, vegetarian versus meat based diet) may influence the types of bacteria living in us
  • Gut bacteria help teach immune cells which patterns in nature are safe or not safe
  • It's possible that early use of antibiotics changes the numbers and types of bacteria we have in our guts and ultimately may affect the way the immune system develops
Our understanding of these concepts is still in its infancy.  Stay tuned from more information as it's available.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

"Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are."

In my practice, questions about the relationship between the immune system and food are commonly asked.   I see in the news, grocery stores, and advertisements words like pre-biotic, pro-biotic, and vitamins and claims for improved immune function.  Patients complain about digestive issues, abdominal pain, bloating and possible allergies. Many are concerned about gluten sensitivity, wheat allergy, and foods to increase their immune system.  This month's Nature Reviews in Immunology is dedicated to research talking about "how dietary choices affect immune cells".  More and more research is being done in this area and thought with the eating season of the holidays rapidly approaching it was worth spending a few posts on this fascinating area of research. 

I couldn’t start this topic without a bit of a tribute to Jean Antheleme Brillat-Savarin – a French lawyer, author, and one of the first foodies.  More than any individual, Brillat-Savarin was a proponent in the role of food, digestion, and health.  He had so many wonderful quotes about food, life, and eating, but his adage “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who your are.”  illustrates the important relationship between food and our immune system.  I might modify it to say, tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you what kind of bacteria live within your intestines and how they impact your immune system.

The movement of local farming and farm to table dining illustrates the interest that our society has in the relationship with food and their bodies.  There's an abundance of information out on the Internet and in grocery stores about ways to increase your immune system through food products and improve the health of your intestines.  It's difficult to tell how to navigate the system and what's true. Over the next few weeks we'll start with the basics and move gradually through the topic in the hopes of helping you navigate the system, keep a healthy immune system, and survive the holiday eating push.  

I hope you enjoy!  

Friday, October 19, 2012

Cough, cough, cough

So many people are coming into the office these past few weeks complaining of coughing.  The change in season brings about asthma, and cold season.  It's difficult to tell the difference and knowing when you're sick with a cold versus having an asthma attack is important.

Signs of Asthma:
  • dry cough often worse at night
  • chest tightness
  • feeling short of breath
  • wheezing
  • not contagious
  • often triggered by nasal allergies, a cold, change in temperature or weather
Signs of a Cold
  • sore throat 
  • nasal congestion
  • fatigue
  • low grade fever
  • cough often times productive
  • can often trigger an asthma attack

Remember- see your doctor is you aren't sure and you're aren't feeling well.

Enjoy Fall!