A well functioning gut with healthy gut flora holds the roots of our health. And, just as a tree with sick roots is not going to thrive, the rest of the body cannot thrive without a well-functioning digestive system.
– Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, Neurologist, Neurosurgeon, Nutritionist & Author of Gut and Psychology Syndrome
Accumulating research shows that there are many environmental factors that contribute to autoimmune conditions. The Top 6 Autoimmune Triggers You Can Control series helps simplify the seemingly endless potential triggers into 6 major autoimmune trigger categories I call F.I.G.H.T.S.™:
Top Autoimmune Trigger: Leaky Gut
In this second post in the Top 6 Triggers series, I highlight leaky gut and imbalanced gut bacteria (dysbiosis) and the science that confirms their involvement in the development of autoimmune and other chronic disorders. Then I share steps to help you address gut health naturally and effectively so you can get on the path back to health.
Let’s start with the great news:
Groundbreaking Research Shows Leaky Gut Is Key to Autoimmunity
In 2012 Alessio Fasano, MD, Chief, Division of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition at Massachusetts General Hospital (Mass Gen) & Director, Center for Celiac Research, and his team published their breakthrough research findings1Zonulin, regulation of tight junctions, and autoimmune diseases, A. Fasano, Zonulin, regulation of tight junctions, and autoimmune diseases, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3384703/, revealing the third element in the equation necessary for the development and perpetuation of most autoimmune disease: the loss of intestinal barrier function, a.k.a., “leaky gut syndrome,” or just “leaky gut” for short.
We now know that three conditions must be in place to cause and perpetuate virtually all autoimmune disorders:
- A genetic predisposition to autoimmunity
- Exposure to one or more environmental trigger (think F.I.G.H.T.S.™)
- Increased intestinal permeability (aka a “leaky gut”)
This is fantastic news for anyone dealing with an autoimmune condition. Dr. Fasano sums up why:
Once the autoimmune process is activated, it is not auto-perpetuating, rather [it] can be modulated or even reversed by preventing the continuous interplay between genes and environment. 2Leaky Gut & Autoimmune Diseases, A. Fasano, Clinical Reviews in Allergy & Immunology, DOI 10.1007/s12016-011-8291-x, https://crohnsdad.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/clin-rev-allerg-immunol-leaky-gutautoimmunity.pdf
— Alessio Fasano, MD
Thanks to Dr. Fasano’s findings we now have equations for both developing and reversing autoimmune conditions.
The path to autoimmunity:
The path to health:
Leaky Gut Leads to Illness: 3 Stories
1. Multiple Sclerosis (MS): My Story
I suffered symptoms of numbness, tingling, pain, tightness, heaviness, blurred vision and fatigue due to flare-ups of Multiple Sclerosis (MS) for 26 years before identifying my lynchpin triggers. I had no idea that my chronic mild digestive discomfort had anything to do with the MS. I just thought that it was normal to feel some tummy rumbling after meals.
In 2010 I saw a Functional Medicine nutritionist who ran some tests. Functional Medicine is root cause medicine and it’s all about detecting imbalances as early as possible. In contrast to standard lab tests which help doctors decide which drugs to prescribe for symptoms of disease, Functional Medicine tests detect early disease markers, allowing for correcting and optimizing function at the root cause level as soon as possible.
My test results revealed that I had both non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) and sensitivity to casein, an inflammatory protein found in animal dairy, especially A1 Holstein cows. A stool test revealed I had both dysbiosis (gut flora imbalance) and significantly low levels of immune-protective, secretory IgA (sIgA), which indicated lack of integrity of my intestinal mucosal lining. In other words, I had an imbalanced and leaky gut.
The nutritionist advised me to eliminate gluten and cow dairy from my diet and led me through a 30-day gut-healing protocol, including a comprehensive elimination diet and a leaky gut repair supplements. Within a week I stopped experiencing digestive distress following meals, and within a month I stopped having MS symptoms completely. To this day, twelve years later, I have never again experienced a single MS symptom. A blood test later confirmed that my antibody levels against myelin sheath (Cyrex Labs 7x) were completely in the normal range, which meant my immune system was no longer attacking my myelin sheath. I no longer had MS. To be clear, I will always have the genes for MS, but those genes don’t need to be EXPRESSED.
2. Autism: Sam’s Story
Sam, a 2½-year-old diagnosed with autism, was brought in to see functional medicine pioneer, Mark Hyman, MD. Sam had been happy and healthy until he had his measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccination at 22 months. Dr. Hyman explains that some people are especially sensitive to the vaccine preservative, thimerosal (ethylmercury). Sam lost his language function, became detached and unable to relate to his parents and friends.
Dr. Hyman ordered functional tests and found that Sam had high levels of antibodies to gluten, dairy, eggs and soy — common autoimmune food triggers. Sam also had a leaky and inflamed gut. Dr. Hyman had Sam’s parents remove the triggering foods and add in gut healing supplements: digestive enzymes, probiotics, zinc, magnesium, folate, vitamins A, B6, B12, D3, and fish oil. According to Dr. Hyman, “After 10 months, Sam’s bowels were back to normal, he was verbally fluent, mainstreamed in school and he ‘lost’ his diagnosis of autism.”
3. Persistent Brain Fog, Headaches, Insomnia & Obesity: Shoshana’s Story
Shoshana, a 40-year old patient of Raphael Kellman, MD, author of The Microbiome Diet, was afflicted with frequent insomnia, headaches, near-constant brain fog and a persistent extra 20 pounds. Dr. Kellman knew that Shoshana was almost certainly facing two problems: an imbalanced gut microbiome and a leaky gut. Both conditions set Shoshana up for chronic inflammation, an overactive immune system and a fat-storing metabolism. On the autoimmune spectrum, these symptoms are common with the autoimmune expression phase which precedes full-blown autoimmune disease.
Dr. Kellman had Shoshana follow a “4R Protocol” to 1. Remove the top triggering foods: eggs, dairy, soy, gluten, and grains; 2. Replace missing stomach acid and enzymes; 3. Reinoculate her microbiome with needed pre- and probiotics, and 4. Repair the leaky gut barrier with healing minerals, foods and anti-inflammatory supplements. By the time Shoshana completed the 4R gut-healing program, her symptoms disappeared along with her unwanted weight.
How a Leaky Gut Leads to Poor Health
More than 2,500 years ago, Hippocrates observed that “all disease begins in the gut,” and science now confirms that there is a critical and delicate interplay between our intestinal integrity, our environment, and our health and wellbeing. When gut balance is disrupted and/or the intestinal barrier is compromised, health and wellbeing suffer.3Think Twice: How the Gut’s “Second Brain” Influences Mood and Well-Being, Adam Hadhazy, Scientific American, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/gut-second-brain/
Leaky gut refers to a damaged or compromised intestinal lining (epithelium) and atrophied “microvilli.” When the intestinal lining is damaged due to any number of inflammatory substances — SAD or processed foods, toxins, stress, infections — the “shag carpeting” (microvilli) becomes worn down, resembling “Berber” carpeting, and the intestinal “tight junctions” loosen. The lining that normally functions like a fine sieve becomes more like a torn fishing net – allowing large, undigested particles — including bacteria, incompletely digested proteins and toxins — to pass through the gut lining and into the bloodstream, where they don’t belong.
When pathogenic (“bad”) bacteria outnumber the good, the gut lining can become inflamed and leaky. Nutrients are not properly absorbed, the creation of the feel-good neurotransmitter, serotonin, is disrupted, and a vicious cycle persists until the health of the gut lining and bacterial balance are restored.
Leaky Gut and Immune System Activation
Once the undigested foods and toxins enter the bloodstream, the immune system – just doing its job — tags those particles as “dangerous invaders” and creates antibodies (soldiers) to attack them. A cascade of immune reactions follows. Food sensitivities, malabsorption, nutrient deficiencies, systemic inflammation and even breaching of the blood-brain barrier become common. The immune system can become confused and attack the body’s own tissue — which is the initiation of autoimmune processes.4Mechanisms of disease: the role of intestinal barrier function in the pathogenesis of gastrointestinal autoimmune diseases; A. Fasano, et al., Nat Clin Pract Gastroenterol Hepatol.; 2005 Sep;2(9):416-22; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16265432
Signs that You Have a Leaky Gut
If you have autoimmune issues or any of the symptoms below, chances are that you have gut issues too — and here’s the clincher: whether or not you feel gut symptoms:
- Abdominal discomfort
- Bloating after meals
- Brain fog
- Celiac disease
- Chronic inflammation
- Chronic pain
- Food cravings (especially sugar and carbs)
- Food sensitivities
- Gastrointestinal (GI) issues
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Learning challenges
- Mouth sores
- Sinus conditions
- Skin conditions (acne, eczema, hives, psoriasis, rosacea)
- Undigested food in stool
- Weight loss resistance
The Many Causes of Leaky Gut
The inflammation that leads to leaky gut can be caused by many factors, sometimes in isolation but often in combination. For me the inflammatory combo was sugar, gluten, dairy, Candida overgrowth, mercury toxicity from multiple fillings, and chronic stress. For other people it could be nuts and nightshade vegetables (tomatoes, white potatoes, eggplant, and peppers); or perhaps overuse of antibiotics and other prescriptions meds.
- Standard American Diet (SAD): processed oils, flours, sugar
- Biggest food triggers: gluten, dairy, grains
- GMO (genetically modified organisms) foods
- Foods sprayed with or engineered with glyphosate (RoundUp)
- Soda (regular and diet)
- Excessive alcohol or caffeine consumption
- Pain relievers (steroids, ibuprofen, acetaminophen, aspirin)
- Antibiotics, antacids & prescription medications
Studies Link Leaky Gut with Autoimmune Issues
Strategies to Heal Your Gut
Let’s recap how we develop an autoimmune condition:
How do we heal?
Simple steps, but the devil’s in the details. What can you do to address your gut health? Consider one inflammatory thing to remove and one nourishing thing to add in today.
Take good care!
P.S. Want my personal help? If you live the U.S. and are ready, willing, and able to invest in your best health, I offer Functional Medicine Total Health Transformation Programs over Zoom. I collaborate with skilled naturopathic doctors (NDs) who are expert in resolving root causes like hormonal imbalances, gut disorders, chronic infections and toxic burdens which are almost always part of the autoimmune puzzle. Together we provide comprehensive, customized treatment plans, and collaborative, caring support. If you are ready to beat autoimmune and reclaim your best life please book a 30–minute consultation with me to gain clarity, confidence, and explore the possibility of working together. You can do it. We can help.
Image Credit: Ohmega1982/Shutterstock