How to Improve Immunity with Dr. Michael Ash

In this episode of The Functional Medicine Radio Show, Dr. Carri’s special guest Dr. Michael Ash explains how to improve immunity and the key immune boosting foods.

Dr. Michael Ash is an osteopathic medicine doctor, naturopath and nutritionist with 30 years of experience.

For the last 15 years he has developed expertise in the role of the mucosal immune system in health and disease. Dr. Ash is also an adjunct faculty member of the Institute for Functional Medicine.

Main Questions Asked:

  • Can you explain what mucous membranes are? Why are they so important for how to improve immunity?
  • What about the importance of bacteria and our mucous membranes?
  • Which diseases can be caused from bacterial imbalances or this lack of diversity?
  • How are the gut and brain connected?
  • What are some practical suggestions that we can give our listeners that they can start doing today to nourish these bacteria?

Key Points made by Dr. Ash:

  • Answering the question about how to improve immunity starts with understanding our internal skin. We refer to this as the wet tissue or the mucous membranes. The biggest area for this is found in the gastro-intestinal tract.
  • We have a lot of defense molecules and chemicals lined up down there to protect us and we call that the mucosal immune system and it makes up 60% to 75% of the total immune system in our body.
  • A quote from Professor Lloyd Mayer said some years ago that “In a single day, the immune system in our gastro-intestinal tract has to make more decisions than the rest of our body’s immune system makes in its lifetime.”
  • There’s been a big shift in the last 15 to 20 years I’ve been researching this area to recognize these wet tissues or mucosal membranes hold many of the reasons and some of the secrets as to why people don’t feel very well for long periods of time and are the key to how to improve your immunity.
  • We’re not born sterile. We’re born with a relatively modest amount of bacteria that passed from our mother. These bacteria grow in number once we emerge partly through a transfer through the delivery process then, of course, from being picked up and hugged and moved to different environments. We build a population of bacteria which begin to contribute to our ability to survive. So, from the beginning this is one of the keys of how to improve immunity.
  • Think of these bacteria like you’re outsourcing some of the dull jobs that your body doesn’t want to take care of. These include the fermentation of different types of foods, the maturation of different types of immune responses, and keeping hold of metabolic health inside the body. That’s the way we handle foods and make sure they contribute to us healthily rather than as a disadvantage.
  • Modern medicine, the use of antibiotics, and a change in birthing practices over the last 60 years has meant that every generation that’s now born appears to have less and less diversity and that’s now bringing complications.
  • It’s a bit like having a very friendly neighborhood where everybody gets on and if there’s a problem, everyone gets together and works well to solve the problem. As time has gone on, we have lost some of those neighbors or they’ve been replaced by ones that don’t communicate very well or they give the wrong message.
  • Another big key to how to improve immunity is we can use these underpaid, undernourished, poorly treated bacteria in our gut and give them a better pay rise, better home to live in, and better quality food. They will start to work more efficiently, they give better messages, they turn off inflammatory molecules, and the result is that we end up feeling much better.
  • What the gastro-intestinal tract does for us is it allows for us to have a point of intervention that, once we clean it up, and make it work more efficiently, we often find symptoms associated with those different conditions either disappear or diminish. So we have a central point of intervention that’s safe, easy, and reproducible. This is the key to how to improve immunity.
  • There’s increasing confidence amongst the people who’ve been involved in the study of mucosal immune system dysfunction and in early stages were looking primarily at animal models to try and see the relationship between behavior and ‘dysbiosis’ – a state of being inside the gastro-intestinal tract which is no longer harmonious in the gut.
  • There is really no statistical evidence to support the fact that the utilization of serotonin reuptake inhibitor drugs profit any great advantage to mild to moderate depression over and above that which can be achieved by either cognitive behavior therapy, regular exercise, social interaction, and of course, a change in diet.
  • Inside our colon, we have the biggest population of bacteria. These are our outsourcing friends. If we give them a pay rise, appropriate food, and a nice warm environment, they don’t become rebellious, they don’t go on strike, and they don’t start causing a problem on the streets.
  • They actually produce for us a very nice metabolite known as a ‘short chain fatty acid’. This is used by our gut to heal itself. It’s used by cells in our gastro-intestinal tract to make sure that they remain healthy, vibrant, and are quick to replace. Again, this is another key to how to improve immunity.
  • These short chain fatty acids cross into blood and they migrate though your blood-brain barrier and into your brain. They change the flexibility, or plasticity, of neuronal tissue to respond to challenges.
  • A typical North American and European eats between 10 and 15 grams of fiber per day and our ancestors that are still functioning eat between 100 and 120 grams a day primarily from plants.
  • There are about 50,000 plants we could eat. We generally eat our food from 6 different types of food groups, and of those, grains make up the bulk of the fiber but they’re not always well digested.
  • The fibers we eat should be derived from vegetables. And the best vegetables are the ones that are a bit trickier to consume. These are the ones that are key to how to improve immunity: cabbage, cauliflower, onions, carrots, peas, beet root, and squash.
  • These foods turn on genes which switch off inflammation and send out special messages to our immune system to make us more tolerant of our environment which includes foods, toxins and poisons because it makes us work more efficiently, more tolerant to different types of medications, and ultimately more tolerant to other people because we don’t feel so grumpy or we don’t feel so prone to agitation.
  • So if we look at vegetables, particularly cruciferous or slightly denser packed vegetables, those with a bit of bitterness to their taste, and we cook them or steam them, but don’t overcook them, then this essentially is a wage packet with a bonus for our bacteria every week.
  • The second key to how to improve immunity is apples. I’ve used this for almost 30 years as a therapy. We take a Bramley cooking apple, peel about 90% of it, cook it down and add cinnamon. We add quite a lot of cinnamon because it helps to control blood sugar and it’s also a good anti-inflammatory.
  • So really the answer to how to improve immunity is try to eat a bigger range of vegetables. Try to eat a modest amount of fruits, especially apples.
  • The use of apples has two strong effects in humans. One is that it can change the composition of bacteria to favor an anti-inflammatory mix which has benefits both locally and elsewhere in the body.
  • Food is genuinely as efficient as medicine if you know what type of food to eat and when but you also respect that at the same time the immune system in the gastro-intestinal tract and it’s bacterial composition have to be managed at the same time.
  • Used correctly, a probiotic can be extremely useful. Used in conjunction with appropriate food selection then they can really leverage those bacteria.
  • You would choose a cooking apple in preference to an eating apple because cooking apples have more pectin.

Resources Mentioned:

Dr. Ash’s website

Research on apples

More research on apples

Dr. Ash’s recipe for stewed apples

Book – Reclaim Your Energy and Feel Normal Again

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