In Part 1 of the Women’s Autoimmune Series we went and explored autoimmunity and the role of the immune system. In Part 2 we will look at the importance of the digestive system and the role it plays in immune health and immune regulation. Before we dive into the digestive system, I want to the gap we are experiencing in healthcare today with regard to autoimmune disease management and treatment.
The Gap in Healthcare…No Autoimmune Specialists?
Another BIG problem we are faced is the fact that we do not have doctors who are specialists in dealing with autoimmune disease. You can see a cardiologist for your heart but there is no specialty equipped to deal with the immune system. If you have an autoimmune disease of the nervous system you may see a neurologist. If you have an autoimmune disease damaging muscles, joints or connective tissue you may see a rheumatologist. If you have an autoimmune disease of the thyroid gland then you will see an endocrinologist. With an autoimmune disease of the digestive tract you would see the gastroenterologist. You get the idea. The point is that you just fall into the lap of the specialist who deals with that particular part of the body…it does not mean they know a great deal about the immune system; and in most cases they know very little. This is not a slam against these doctors or their training; they just are not immune system specialists. They were trained to treat a body part or system of the body and the immune system was not one of those systems.
While there is not a “cure” for autoimmune disease, it is possible to achieve remission in many cases. Remission means the condition has become “silent” and is not actively causing damage to your body and you experience a great deal of relief. Your goal should be to achieve remission and reduce your chances of developing additional autoimmune diseases.
We will now discuss some possible solutions for autoimmunity. The first area we will focus on is the digestive tract. Most of your immune system lies in and around your digestive tract. Does it make sense we should look at digestive tract health if this is where most of your immune system is located? Another reason to focus on digestive health is because the microbes that live there and the food we eat plays a significant role in immune health and immune regulation.
Gut Immune System
Most of your immune system in found in and around your digestive tract. One of the reasons your immune system maintains such a dominant presence in your digestive tract is because it is point of communication and exchange with the environment. The digestive tract is basically a tube that accesses the outside world; a world full of potentially dangerous microorganisms and toxins. To establish an effective defense for your body, the digestive tract maintains very high levels of immune cells like lymphocytes, macrophages and other immune cells. In addition to the functions of digestion and absorption of nutrients, your gastrointestinal tract is considered a “lymphoid organ” and all of this immune- tissue is referred to as the gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT). What I want you to get from this information is that your digestive tract is literally an immune system organ. In addition to identifying harmful microbes and destroying them, your gut immune system must assess the foods we eat and determine if they should be attacked or not. That takes us to the subject of food and its role in autoimmunity.
Leaky Gut Syndrome
Maybe you have heard of “leaky gut” before, but what does it mean and how does it affect the immune system. There is a great deal of information available today about this condition, so I will just briefly summarize the key points. Leaky gut syndrome is a condition of the small intestine. You small intestine is where you absorb nutrients from the food you eat. The process of digestion basically works like this: you break down food in the stomach and then it passes into the small intestine where it is broken down further and absorbed (taken into your body). Whatever you do not absorb (mainly fiber) is passed into the large intestine (colon) where most of your gut-bugs (microflora) live…they feed on the fiber and other food products you were not able to absorb. Ok, so back to the small intestine…this is where food gains access to the interior of your body. So, it also makes sense that most of your immune system is located at this location.
Your small intestine should be very selective in terms of what it absorbs and permits access to your blood stream and the interior of our body. It should function like a very selective, very fine filter; however, when it becomes leaky it is no longer very selective and the filter has “holes” or “gaps” in it. Ok so now we have a contents of the small intestine that should not be gaining access to the interior of your body. This is a big trigger for the immune system. It’s most fundamental law is this, “if you are not supposed to be here, then I will launch an attack against you.” So, your immune system starts attacking the food you have eaten. This starts a vicious cycle because this attack on food leads to increased damage and leaking of the gut which only gets the immune system fighting even more. More leaking, more immune response, more inflammation, more negative reactions to food…round and round.
Before we move on, I want to touch on another small intestine condition called SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth). This is another problem with the small intestine. With SIBO, there are too many bacteria living and thriving in the small intestine. Just so you know, most of the bacteria of the gut should be further downstream (in the large intestine). The bottom line is that they should not be living in the small intestine in such large numbers and this interferes with nutrient absorption. They are gaining access to food you should be absorbing and using…not them. The traditional treatment for this condition has been antibiotics; this rarely leads to resolution of the condition because the cause of the problem has not been addressed. Taking a functional medicine approach to leaky gut and SIBO usually results in the best outcomes. SIBO can cause gas, bloating, gut inflammation, leaky gut, etc. for more information on this you can go to my website.
To summarize, leaky gut and SIBO can both place a great deal stress on the immune system and this can contribute to poor immune health and immune system regulation.
In Part 3 of the Women’s Autoimmune Series, we will look at diet and the importance of the microorganisms that live in your digestive tract.
If you would like more information about autoimmunity, functional medicine or Dr. Sexton go to www.napervilleintegratedwelness.com
Do your own research, inform yourself and ask lots of questions. When collecting information, you MUST consider the source. There is no shortage of false, misleading, outdated, profit-driven and utterly biased information in healthcare today; even from the most respected sources and organizations.