The theories linking gut health and autoimmunity have been evolving for several decades, but the research is now getting us much closer to an answer. The diversity and composition of the gut microbiota is a key driver of gut health, with research now linking the presence or absence of microbes in the gut to specific autoimmune disease. In this article, I will explore the role of gut health and microbiota in the onset and potential therapies for autoimmune disease.
Why is intestinal integrity important?
The gastro-intestinal tract has a vast surface area ranging from 180 – 300 square metres and is the barrier between the substance that you eat and drink, and the blood inside your body. As not all of what you consume is good (food may have been contaminated with harmful bacteria or mould) the immune cells on the walls of your digestive system need to keep a surveillance system running. Digestive wall policing is required to identify friend from foe. When a harmful bacterium is detected, the immune system responds creating an inflammatory response to remove the infection as quickly as it can. On the other hand, when the immune cells notice a nourishing food particle that is ready for the body to utilise, it gives the all clear for the particle to pass by and no immune response is created accordingly.
What happens in autoimmunity?
These two arms of the immune system working properly and collaboratively are imperative for a healthy gut and a functional immune system. However, when the immune system is damaged or impaired (which can be for various reasons), the immune system may lose its tolerance to the food it once viewed as a friend. An inflammatory response may then occur, causing damage to the gut, producing discomfort to the host and allowing particles to enter the blood stream that either shouldn’t be there or are not in the correct form to be used by the body. This can then lead to the body creating an immune attack on particles in the blood stream which leads to systemic inflammation and onset of chronic disease.
How does the gut microbiota interact with gut (auto)immunity?
In order for the gut to function properly, it requires a diverse range of commensal and symbiotic bacteria to help with proper digestive function and promote the integrity of the gastro-intestinal tract. Gut bacteria help produce compounds called short chain fatty acids which have various roles in the immune response and tolerance at the intestinal barrier.
In addition, gut bacteria such as Prevotella has been linked to multiple sclerosis (“MS”) and rheumatoid arthritis (“RA”). Interestingly, in MS, Prevotella appears to decrease in quantity in the gut, whereas in RA it is increases in quantity, which suggests a personalised therapy approach to these conditions is necessary.
Autoimmune disease is associated with gut dysbiosis where the concerto of beneficial and harmful bacteria becomes tilted. The loss of beneficial organisms in the gut which promote an anti-inflammatory response and an excessive growth of potentially harmful bacteria may create an environment where autoimmune disease can prevail. Understanding someone’s gut bacteria profile is important when underpinning whether this might be a contributing factor in the symptoms of autoimmune disease.
Improving gut health as a therapeutic approach
In the Autoimmune Transformation Packages that my clinic offers, a GI Map stool test is the first investigative test in the package. The GI Map not only looks at the makeup of the gut microbiota but also identifies autoimmune markers including parasites which have been linked in scientific research to the onset of certain autoimmune diseases. This is powerful information, as once the robustness of a person’s gut health is known, a personalised nutritional protocol can be recommended to support and address any issues found.
Nutritional therapies for improvement of gut health and support for autoimmunity include eating foods which feed beneficial gut bacteria and increase organisms in the gut which produce those helpful short chain fatty acids. Other therapies such as probiotic supplementation (or in more extreme protocols faecal microbiota transplantation) may also be considered dependent on the severity of symptoms and oddities revealed on the person’s stool analysis.
Start with the gut!
The cause of autoimmune conditions is multifactorial but addressing and improving gut health should be the first place to investigate when someone develops symptoms of autoimmune disease. Many people will have no symptoms of digestive upset, but they may still have issues in the gut. It is common in my practice that a client recalls a stomach upset when they were travelling overseas or someone close to them had a stomach bug before they developed their autoimmune disease.
So whether you have gut symptoms or not, it is worth knowing what is hiding in the intestinal abyss. Then you can take forceful strides to harmonise the symptoms of autoimmune disease by tackling any unbalances from within.
In my article next week I will be putting the spot light on Rheumatoid Arthritis and the interesting link between dental health and the onset of autoimmune disease.