Why Poor Gut Health is Linked to Autoimmune Disease

autoimmune disorders written over grains and wheat

If you are reading this, chances are that you or someone you know has been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. If you are a woman, your risk is even greater - significantly. Take your pick. There are at least 80 known autoimmune diseases, with more on the horizon. Some of the more common conditions are Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and Inflammatory Bowel Disorders (IBD), such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease. The prevalence of these conditions has dramatically risen over the last 80 years or so and I wish I could say the extrapolation of this data shows a downturn. Alas, I cannot as our conventional food supply is becoming more and more tainted as time marches on. Our cumulative environmental exposure to some serious immune system burdening stuff is undeniable.  All of these autoimmune diseases have one thing in common - poor gut health.


Currently, autoimmune diseases affect approximately 10% of the population here in the US – that’s approximately 24 million people and those are the people who have been officially labeled; there are likely many more walking around with these disorders who haven’t been diagnosed for a host of reasons. That number is growing and will continue to do so. Research shows that having one autoimmune disease puts you at risk for developing more. The more alarming research shows that currently teens are leading the pack in new diagnoses. 


It’s ok to gasp. I did. I do. Each day. But before we give in to our outrage, let’s learn some of the basics, dispel some myths and learn why your gut health is key to all things autoimmune.


What is an autoimmune disease?


It is a condition that occurs when the immune system begins to attack your own body’s tissue causing damage to that tissue and systemic inflammation. Your body produces autoantibodies against this victim tissue whether it’s the thyroid, synovial tissue of the joints, kidneys, GI mucosa, or the myelin sheath of the nervous system, to name a few. For a few hypothesized reasons, your immune system has deemed this tissue a threat to you and tagged it so that these autoantibodies can protect you from them. This doesn't quite work out as planned as you really can’t separate yourself from your own body! So inflammation and disease ensues. It’s often the clinical marker used in diagnosing an autoimmune disease in conventional medicine.


Your immune system doesn’t necessarily intend on doing this but something confused it and it is reacting - actually doing its job. 


What is the role of our immune system in autoimmune disease?


You see, our immune system’s job is to surveil and react. Think of it like the bouncer at a club that sits in the corner and quietly observes everything.  When a disturbance occurs, the bouncer acts, eliminates the problem and returns to monitoring for other disturbances. When our immune system is not operating effectively but is hypervigilant in the case of autoimmune disease, we have likely experienced an accumulation of stressors prior to disease developing - infection, food sensitivities, toxin accumulation, digestion and gut health compromise and mental or emotional stress. This continues to burden the immune system and cause chronic systemic inflammation. It’s no wonder our immune system becomes confused as to what’s friend or foe. It is very busy trying to sort out our issues while still performing its job to keep us alive.

Now that we have established that an autoimmune disease is really an issue with our immune system, we can begin to explore a bit more of how and why its affected.


Where does most of our immune system sit?  


Our gut!  So it makes sense that there has been some sort of breach there. Afterall, all disease begins in the gut. Hippocrates was onto something all those years ago and it’s just as true today as it was then. This begs the question - how did our gut become compromised? It’s really fascinating because many people with autoimmune diseases can identify gut problems but have never linked them to their autoimmune disease. There are even some who claim they do not have gut issues. We find that when asked more targeted specific questions, many of these people actually do, indeed, have gut dysfunction but for whatever reason do not think they do. As I’ve written before, many see their chronic gut issues whether it be reflux, bloating or trouble with digestion, constipation or diarrhea as normal. It may be common but it’s definitely not normal and very well may lead to disease, in this case autoimmune disease.


Here are a couple reasons why you have poor gut health…


  • Eating a Standard American Diet (SAD)


This is the term used for what the vast majority of Americans or Western people eat. To put it simply, it’s not what your grandmothers and great grandmothers were preparing or eating. It often doesn't even involve cooking. Fast food is certainly included but also think convenience or prepared foods purchased at grocery stores and even “high end gourmet” shops. It’s all about the ingredients! Lot of additives, preservatives, colorings and highly manipulated seed oils are added to often baseline substandard food to make it attractive so you will buy it. Not all oils are created equal and soybean oil for one is a definite no go. These foods and additives assault and burden your gut and entire system. Period.

Eating a diet high in refined, processed foods including sugar and refined carbs basically guarantees inflammatory effects in all cells. 

This inflammation doesn't stay in your gut - it inflames the rest of your system. It also crowds out your good bacteria which help keep your immune system optimized. It also causes overgrowth of not so good bacteria, which are linked directly to autoimmunity. In addition, so much of the food in the SAD is loaded with toxins in the form of pesticides, such as glyphosate, additives and preservatives.


  • Poor stress management


I’m speaking mainly of mental/emotional stress in this case. Poor stress management plus persistent chronic stress, which is how many live their lives today, adversely affects your gut in many ways. There will be stress in your life - always. We actually need it to achieve and elevate to a degree. Tending to it and regulating your reaction to it are some of the most important steps toward improving your health. Much of our reaction has to do with conditioning that we learned in childhood. It’s imperative that you process and integrate this and learn from it or it will limit you and put you at risk for the rest of your life.


For our more physiologically inclined readers, stress decreases your ability to digest your food as it lowers your stomach acid production - this allows for pathogenic bacteria to enter your GI tract since there isn’t a sufficient amount of stomach acid to kill them off. Stress skews your cortisol. Persistently elevated cortisol actually breaks down the gut lining, further weakening your immune system by allowing all sorts of foreign invaders in, such as pathogenic bacteria, viruses and parasites and toxic chemicals on your foods. This makes more work for your immune system and it begins to pick fights with these substances AND our native tissue as it becomes too chaotic and confusing to keep track.


A common myth that is widely held is that autoimmune disease is solely genetic. 


The truth is that a genetic predisposition is in fact part of the autoimmune puzzle but it accounts for about one quarter to one half of the formula. Twin studies that looked at people with essentially identical DNA and whether or not they have an autoimmune disease have supported this theory. The rest is thought to be epigenetics or your environment including lifestyle. Lifestyle such as diet, sleep and stress management plus environmental exposure to toxins and infections play the biggest role in whether or not these genes get activated or turned on. If you combine these genes with a leaky gut where the gut lining that’s just above the gut immune tissue has broken down - also called enhanced intestinal permeability - you do indeed have a perfect storm for developing an autoimmune disease. 


There are many people who carry a gene linked to autoimmunity but, unless the gene is turned on by lifestyle and/or environment, they do not develop disease.


A great example of this is Celiac disease. Approximately 30% of Americans carry at least 1 of 2 genes associated with Celiac but only about 1% go on to develop disease. In further support of this is that, in the vast majority of Celiac cases, there are no other relatives within a diagnosed person’s family with the disease. In truth, there certainly may be others in the family with the disease or even with non celiac gluten sensitivity, as gluten allergy and sensitivity is on the rise. Most do not even know it!


Since a healthy gut is essential to a healthy immune system, it makes sense that certain viruses and even bacterial infections can trigger an autoimmune disease. It’s usually the case when the infection is chronic. Our immune system operates optimally when there’s resolution of the threat. But it’s important to remember that, in the vast majority of autoimmune disease, this resolution of the root cause or threat never occurs. Most don’t hear the clues and cues aka signs and symptoms that their bodies are giving them. There are so many reasons for this - fear, busy schedule, lack of awareness. 


You must stop, sit and listen to what your body is telling you.


Another myth is that the only way to deal with an autoimmune condition…


  •  is to take powerhouse medications - you know the big guns that we see advertised on TV all the time (completely ridiculous but that’s for another blog!). 


The scenario goes something like this - patients are diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and they are evaluated by the specialist which just means the health care provider who conventional medicine has deemed the proper silo to place your specific autoimmune disease in. It’s not uncommon for people with multiple autoimmune diseases to see many specialists. They are often told there is nothing they can do beyond “manage” their condition with medication. So, they are offered a pharmaceutical drug. These drugs have different mechanisms of action but the powerhouses block certain immune pathways. 


It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand that there are probably going to be some unintended consequences


The question is are they tolerable and worth the risk? There is significant risk of adverse side effects such as increased risk of serious infection and even cancer. Sure, they may prevent further tissue damage in some but at what cost - that’s meant both literally and figuratively. While there certainly may be a time and place for these medications, they do not address the root causes. 


By addressing the root causes, you can stop what is driving this particular dis-ease causing imbalance. 


Our immune system, when given a fighting chance and supported by us, will do a perfectly good job of this - think of when you are sick with a common cold or other common viruses. You might be ill for a few days but with the proper supportive measures, you will heal without sequelae. It is the same for an autoimmune condition. But you must be informed and committed. As with most things in life, your choices determine the outcome.

Some ways to prevent, reverse or improve your outcome regarding autoimmune disease…

  • Ditch the SAD and hop on the whole food, nutrient dense diet.

It’s also recognized that gluten and dairy are particularly inflammatory and should be avoided. It’s much simpler than you imagine! Eat lots of vegetables with a bit of fruit, well sourced protein and some healthy fats. I just had some kale and spinach (sauteed with garlic and onions in avocado oil, sardines, a half a sweet potato with mushrooms and cilantro. I squeeze some lemon and drizzle some olive oil on top and voila! Make enough to have for a few meals. 

More than 70% of our environment is integrated as information from our food and enters via our gut. That’s alot of baggage if we aren’t eating healthfully. This transition often involves a period of withdrawal from the nutritionally deficient food (namely gluten and dairy) you were consuming but will be so worth it in the end.

  •  Heal your gut

Work with a functional medicine minded practitioner who can help you to balance your gut by assisting with ways to improve your nutrition or eliminate chronic infections of the gut or bolstering your gut immunity. This coupled with eating a nutrient dense diet will do wonders if you give it a chance.

  • Avoid toxin exposure 

           Filter your drinking and bathing water, eat as much organic as you can and be mindful of using natural, non-toxic personal care products on your body. Your skin is a great big mouth and a good rule of thumb is to only put something on it that you would eat. Read labels! Typically, the less the ingredients, the better.

  • Manage stress

            As we’ve noted some stress is unavoidable but you want to aim to manage the stress you do encounter. This is quite personal as everyone’s reaction is different to different stressors. It’s part of being unique and our past experiences. But it’s always a good idea to develop some tools to help you deal with it. Ensure optimal quality and quantity of sleep. This differs for us but for the most part anywhere from 7-9 hours. Start there. Do some intentional deep breathing before bed and throughout the day by inhaling for 4 counts and exhaling for 8. This sends a message to your brain and body that you are safe. Connect with your loved ones or pets. This often goes underrated and is quite powerful.


This quote by Max Dupree stood out to me and maybe it will to you too:


We cannot become what we want by remaining what we are.


So begin.

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