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The “Leaky Gut” Link to Autoimmunity

By John R. Dixon, DC, CCN, Dipl.Ac

Autoimmune disease is an emerging health concern for millions of people. Autoimmunity results when components of the body’s immune system target one or more of a person’s own bodily tissues instead of attacking foreign bacteria or viruses. More than 40 autoimmune conditions have been identified, including type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, Hashimotos thyroiditis, multiple sclerosis, and celiac disease. Together they constitute the third leading cause of sickness and death after heart disease and cancer.

Over the past 15 years, a growing number of scientific studies have revealed that the human body is capable of creating certain antibodies directed against itself. These are called autoantibodies. In many cases, years and sometimes a decade or more can pass before the autoantibodies cause enough damage to result in a disease being named or diagnosis being rendered. Detecting and identifying autoantibodies in otherwise healthy persons can help predict certain predisposed individuals likely to develop autoimmunity years down the line. Armed with this predictive knowledge, patients could develop effective strategies to prevent or curtail the autoimmune process.

The importance of a healthy gut and digestive system is becoming increasingly more evident, especially pertaining to autoimmune disease. New medical research has shown that at the heart of autoantibody production is a condition called Leaky Gut Syndrome. Leaky gut represents a breakdown in what is called intestinal barrier function resulting from damage to the lining of the intestinal wall and leading to increased intestinal permeability. If this occurs, the intestinal wall will begin to ‘leak’ large or only partially digested particles of food into the blood stream. These particles, which are called peptides, are perceived as foreign invaders by the immune system. The immune system will then mount a defense against these particles by releasing antibodies called immunoglobulins. It is now apparent that immunoglobulins target amino acid sequences found on these peptides that leak into the bloodstream. In some cases the immune system becomes confused. For example, if the amino acid sequence that makes up the partially digested food peptide matches that of your thyroid, the immunoglobulins can become misdirected and attack your own thyroid gland. In this case it results in Hashimotos thyroiditis, the most common cause of low thyroid.

Other factors, combined with leaky gut, contribute to the autoimmune disease process. These include genetic weaknesses and environmental factors such as a poor diet, excessive alcohol consumption, overuse of anti-inflammatory medications and food sensitivities or intolerances, especially to gluten. Gluten sensitivity and celiac disease has been strongly associated with several autoimmune diseases such as
type 1 diabetes, systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis and autoimmune thyroid disease.

New research suggests that the autoimmune process can be arrested if the interplay between your genes and environmental triggers (such as consuming foods containing gluten) is prevented, thus re-establishing intestinal barrier function (fixing leaking gut). The advent of novel new treatment strategies including early testing for autoimmune antibodies, the use of probiotics, a gluten free diet, and colostrum are at the forefront for addressing autoimmune conditions.

Dr. John Dixon can be reached at the Natural Medicine Group (760) 345.7300.

Sources: 1) Fasano, PubMed , 2005; 2) Nayer, PubMed, 2008; 3) Valentino, PubMed, 2002

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