Increasing amounts of research show a connection between leaky gut and autoimmune disease, which means that disease reversal is NOT an impossible dream.
We first want to provide two definitions (or, you can scroll down to Dealing with Autoimmune Disease). First, here’s how a highly-respected Harvard publication defines “leaky gut,” an important concept that weaves throughout this entire post (and, really, throughout our entire website).
“Inside our bellies, we have an extensive intestinal lining covering more than 4,000 square feet of surface area. When working properly, it forms a tight barrier that controls what gets absorbed into the bloodstream. An unhealthy gut lining may have large cracks or holes, allowing partially digested food, toxins, and bugs to penetrate the tissues beneath it. This may trigger inflammation and changes in the gut flora (normal bacteria) that could lead to problems within the digestive tract and beyond. The research world is booming today with studies showing that modifications in the intestinal bacteria and inflammation may play a role in the development of several common chronic diseases.”
Now, here is how Healthline.com defines autoimmune diseases. “An autoimmune disease is a condition in which your immune system mistakenly attacks your body. The immune system normally guards against germs like bacteria and viruses. When it senses these foreign invaders, it sends out an army of fighter cells to attack them.Normally, the immune system can tell the difference between foreign cells and your own cells.In an autoimmune disease, the immune system mistakes part of your body — like your joints or skin — as foreign. It releases proteins called autoantibodies that attack healthy cells.”
Armed with those definitions, here’s more about what research shows about leaky gut and autoimmune diseases.
Dealing with Autoimmune Disease
If you deal with one of the numerous types of autoimmune disease, you likely need to manage symptoms and address flare-ups all too often. Perhaps it’s even gotten to the point that you don’t get much of a break in your symptoms at all. If so, we invite you to read this overview of leaky gut and autoimmune diseases, starting with encouraging new research on the subject.
In March 2018, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reported on gut microbe research and its connection to autoimmunity, noting how “Scientists found evidence that a certain gut microbe can trigger autoimmune disease in mice that are prone to such disease and identified the same microbe in people with autoimmune diseases.”
Although some researchers and medical professionals have long suspected this and although this isn’t the first study to link gut organisms to health/disease, this report provides additional, very solid support and, as the NIH notes, “results suggest new avenues for treating debilitating and potentially lethal autoimmune diseases.”
As the NIH article explains, when the lining of the intestine is breached (or, to use another term, when the gut is “leaky”), this can cause disease. This includes autoimmune disease, when a person’s immune system turns on his or her own body tissues.
There is now reason to believe, NIH says, that people with autoimmune disease may have their lives improved through antibiotics, vaccinations and so forth—something that would seemed highly unlikely not that long ago.
The notion that autoimmune diseases can be reversed (not just managed, but reversed) is, without a doubt, extremely encouraging. Having said that, this is not a new concept to some forward-thinking professionals in the medical community, including Amy Myers, MD. Dr. Myers wrote about this very topic in March 2016 for Huffington Post, saying that, “Contrary to what most conventional doctors say, an autoimmune diagnosis does not mean resigning yourself to debilitating symptoms that get worse and worse over time, or settling for a lifetime of harsh medications.”
She notes how autoimmune diseases don’t simply occur overnight and so you can’t just turn a switch and cause one to go away. But, she says, you can work with your doctor to find environmental and lifestyle factors that helped to serve as triggers, and you can make changes to help yourself heal.
Dr. Myers lists five of these factors, with her first one being to “Heal Your Gut.” She cites another NIH study that shows how 80 percent of your immune system is really housed in your gut. So, she concludes, without a healthy gut, it is extremely difficult to have an immune system that’s healthy.
Having a leaky gut, she says, is in fact a primary cause, as well as a likely prerequisite, of the development of autoimmune diseases. Fortunately, she believes this means that healing your gut can play a huge role in improving your health, overall. To heal leaky gut, she lists four strategies:
- Remove inflammatory foods and toxins, as well as stress that causes damage to your gut.
- Restore what’s good, which includes enzymes and acids that aid in digestion.
- Re-inoculate yourself with healthy bacteria that supports your immune system.
- Repair your gut through nutrients and amino acids.
As step one, remove processed foods from your diet as much as you can, and also avoid “pseudo health foods” that contain plenty of sugar, as well as additives and preservatives. You can read her article for even more insight.
We also want to recommend that your doctor serves as an integral part of this conversation, as well. Hidden infections can play a significantly negative role in your overall health, whether it’s a virus, a yeast infection, a bacterial issue or something else entirely. Also talk to your doctor if you have any reason to suspect food allergies (more about elimination diets later in this post), and also ask about being tested for celiac disease as well as for heavy metal toxicity. Fix what can be fixed!
Autoimmune Disease List
If we can reverse autoimmune disease, as this research is suggesting as possible, then the impact is truly staggering. Even by taking a quick look at the website of the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA), you can easily see how dozens upon dozens of diseases are autoimmune in nature, impacting the health and quality of life of millions upon millions of people.
In fact, AARDA estimates that 50 million Americans are affected by at least one autoimmune disease, which is 20 percent of the population. Perhaps as much as 75 percent of those affected are female. Here is a quick overview of just five of these conditions.
Taking lupus as an example, this chronic inflammatory disease has multiple types, including systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). This disease can attack virtually any of the body’s organs and systems, including the central nervous system, the digestive tract, heart, kidneys, lungs, blood vessels, and muscles and joints. An estimated 1.5 million Americans and five million people, worldwide, have this disease, according to the Lupus Foundation of America.
Multiple sclerosis is also considered an autoimmune disease, one that affects the brain and spinal cord. In more severe cases, people with multiple sclerosis can’t speak, walk or write, and suffer from memory issues, visual disturbances, coordination and balance, numbness and more. Approximately 2.3 million people are believed to have multiple sclerosis, although the true number is very likely to be larger, since this disease is not required to be reported and symptoms are not always obvious.
Another autoimmune-related disease is interstitial cystitis, a condition that can cause significant bladder and pelvic pain, with an urgent need to frequently urinate. As many as 12 million people in the United States alone may suffer from this disease.
With rheumatoid arthritis, joints become swollen and stiff. People with this condition often feel pain and experience loss of joint function. The most common joints affected include fingers and wrists, and symptoms can come and go, with the most severe form causing problems throughout a person’s lifetime. This is a different disease from osteoarthritis, a condition that people sometimes have as they age. According to the Arthritis Foundation, about 1.5 million people in the United States have rheumatoid arthritis.
Not surprisingly, autoimmune diseases can also attack the gut, which is what happens with ulcerative colitis. People with this condition experience inflamed rectums and colons, and painful sores (ulcers) can also appear. Symptoms include abdominal pain, and diarrhea with blood and/or pus. People with the condition might experience fatigue, weight loss, anemia, loss of appetite, joint pain and more. This condition can also flare up and subside and, in the the most severe cases, part or all of the colon must be removed. Approximately 1.6 million Americans have this condition.
By providing quick overviews of just five autoimmune diseases, it’s easy to see how much pain and suffering they can cause, and how much can be alleviated if these conditions can be reversed.
Protecting Yourself From Autoimmune Disease
AARDA provides strategies to help prevent autoimmune disease from developing. These include:
- managing your stress, by meditating or otherwise using relaxation techniques; exercising; and spending time at a hobby you enjoy
- eating healthy foods, including fruit and vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains
- getting quality sleep; it can help to create and stick to a sleep schedule, one in which you get seven to nine hours of sleep each night
- exercising regularly; consult with your doctor if you’re starting a new exercise program
Reversing Symptoms Through Diet
Today’s Dietician was already sharing ways to manage your diet for better gut health, with the goal being to improve autoimmune conditions, in an article in 2013. This article suggests that you try an elimination diet to determine what foods may be contributing to your particular leaky gut. Foods that make sense to test in this elimination diet include:
- nightshade vegetables (these include potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and eggplant; although many people are fine with these being included in their diets, some people are sensitive to them)
- processed foods
During the elimination period, use this time to practice reading food labels, if this isn’t already a habit. You’ll want to identify foods that include ingredients on the elimination list and avoid eating them during this phase of the process, then continue to read labels as you mindfully make food choices going forward.
During this phase, focus on eating well-balanced meals using limited foods “such as chicken salads with leafy greens, avocado and olive oil-based vinaigrette, hearty stews of lean beef with a side dish of cauliflower, or grilled salmon sprinkled with lemon juice and served with a side of vegetables stir-fried in coconut oil.”
When problem foods are eliminated, many people with autoimmune conditions experience fewer symptoms and/or less severe ones. They often have more energy, more easily digest foods, and experience elevated moods.
If you try an elimination diet, take good notes of what symptoms improve and to what degree. Then, as you slowly reintroduce each of the previously-eliminated ones, see what happens to your symptoms. Add foods in slowly, perhaps several days apart, so you can tell what foods trigger symptoms. Start with small portions of foods being reintroduced and, if you tolerate them well, gradually increase portion sizes to what’s normal.
Gut Healing Supplements
Today’s Dietician says that dietary supplements can “promote gut healing and improve autoimmune disease management.” Specific types of supplements listed include:
- fermented cod liver oil
- digestive enzymes
- medium chain triglycerides
- vitamin D
An article in Huffington Post delves more deeply into the connection between probiotics and autoimmunity, referencing a study published in the January 2017 issue of the Journal of Experimental Medicine. In the article, the writer shared how researchers boosted a specific strain of probiotics in mice, Lactobacillus, which lead to a “reset” of the mices’ inflammatory gut condition, which then reduced the inflammation. One medical researcher involved said that “Probiotics and probiotic-modulated microbiota … may represent a potential avenue for combating autoimmune diseases.”
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