Autoimmune Disease: The Gut Connection
By Joanne Aponte, ND • March 21, 2017
Autoimmune diseases are a group of conditions in which the immune system goes awry and starts to attack the body’s own cells. It can no longer distinguish self (you) from invader (not you). This immune attack against “self” leads to various symptoms and disease of the body based on where the immune cells attack. In the case of rheumatoid arthritis, the immune cells attack and destroy the joints. In the case of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, the immune cells attack the thyroid.
Research now shows that in order for an autoimmune disease to develop, 3 factors must be present.
- Genetic susceptibility and presence of certain genes
- A trigger
- Triggers include: infections (viruses, bacteria, yeast), food intolerances (mainly gluten), environmental toxins (heavy metals,) and stress (including improper diet and lack of adequate sleep)
- Intestinal permeability AKA Leaky gut
Addressing the first 2 factors – genetic susceptibility and the initial trigger can be difficult. There is not much that can be done to change your genetics and identifying and treating the specific trigger may be difficult. There may also be more than one trigger that sets the stage for the immune system to break down. Also, removing the initial trigger is often not enough to regain normal immune function as the damage has already been done. However……
YOU CAN HEAL AND REVERSE A LEAKY GUT
What is leaky gut?
Leaky gut, also called intestinal permeability, is when the tight junctions that hold the cells of the gastrointestinal tract close together, loose integrity. In other words, the spaces between the GI cells widen and open. The digestive tract is an open tube and is open to the environment. Much like the skin which protects all the underlying tissues and organs, the cells of the GI tract are supposed to create a protective barrier from the outside world. When the GI tract becomes “leaky”, unwanted substances pass in between the cells and enter the body via the blood and lymph. These “unwanted substances” include undigested food particles, allergens, toxins, bacteria, yeasts and other microbes.
Leaky gut is a major problem in autoimmune disease. The immune system has already gone rogue – it is out of balance, over-reacting and confused about what is really a threat and what is just “you”. Having a leaky gut puts more strain on the immune system – unwanted substances leak into the body and are perceived by the immune system as harmful invaders. This leads to more inflammation, more recruitment of immune cells and the potential to create more autoantibodies that attack your own cells.
The result: increased autoimmune activity and the potential for destruction of targeted tissues and organs.
To heal a leaky gut, we must first restore a healthy GI microbiome
What is the GI microbiome?
Our gut is a zoo of bacteria and other pathogens – we call this the microbiome. There are 100 times more microbial cells in the gut than all the human cells in the body. Normally these microbes are good and make us who we are. When the numbers and types of microbes are out of balance, for example too many “bad bugs” and not enough “good bugs”, we call this dysbiosis. The result of dysbiosis is inflammation, immune activation in the digestive tract and damage to the digestive tract cells – this leads to a leaky gut.
Another factor that causes imbalance in the microbiome is food. An improper diet high in sugar, refine foods, unhealthy fats and other inflammatory foods, results in inflammation the GI tract. These foods also promote the growth of harmful microbes. Intolerances to certain foods, such as to wheat/gluten and dairy also result in immune activation in the gut. When a person is intolerant to these foods, they are inadequately digested and this leads to inflammation and irritation. Gluten also maintains a leaky GI brrier. Gluten contains a chemical called zonulin which causes the space between GI cells to open and widen. This reaction is usually temporary and not harmful in persons who are not intolerant to gluten. However, if you have a sensitivity to gluten, the space between GI cells stays open and a leaky gut becomes permanent.
Optimize the microbiome and seal up the leaks
75% of the immune system resides in the digestive tract. The key to controlling and resolving AI disease is to help balance and calm down the immune system in the digestive tract. This is done by creating a healthy microbiome and healing up the leaky gut.
Here is my approach for healing the digestive tract and calming down the autoimmune attack:
- Remove the irritants
- Remove food irritants and food intolerances. At a minimum – gluten, sugar and dairy should be avoided. Other food intolerances can be identified by a blood test that we do at the office. Some autoimmune protocols advise the removal of all grains and beans/lentils. This may be necessary for some but not all.
- Remove pathogens and correct dysbiosis – a stool analysis can help identify potential pathogens in the GI tract.
- supplement with beneficial probiotic and probiotic rich foods to help increase numbers of “good bacteria” and to crowd out the harmful pathogens.
- supplement with digestive enzymes to help break down food into small particles. Identify nutrient deficiencies resulting from poor digestion and supplement as needed.
- Repair the leaky gut
- read more about healing a leaky gut here
Healing the digestion is the first and primary approach to healing from autoimmune disease. Doing this can greatly reduce your symptoms and balance your immune system. Know there is hope and more options beyond medication for controlling and recovering from a disruptive autoimmune disease.
Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health practitioners with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.