Autoimmune diseases and the gut

Whilst on skype to my parents a few weeks ago, I was getting carried away talking about the autoimmune disease-gut connection when they ask out of the blue ’Charlotte what exactly is an autoimmune disease?”I was blown away – I have had one for 13 years!

This made me take a step back and realise that if my parents – who are the most caring parents I could have ever asked for – are not aware of what an autoimmune disease is, lots of people are probably in the same boat. 

Autoimmune diseases after all are rather confusing. Conditions like ankylosing spondylitis (the disease I have which affects my spine), rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes type 1, hashimoto's thyroiditis, psoriasis, lupus and multiple sclerosis all fall under this umbrella (not to mention more than 80 others), yet they appear to have nothing in common. What is the link?

A runaway immune system

The underlying reason why we get an autoimmune disease is nothing to do with the malfunctioning organ or tissue. The actual cause is a runaway immune system where the body is unable to distinguish between itself (auto) and a foreign invader, so it starts an attack on itself. 

This happens silently at first but symptoms appear when the tissue or organ becomes so damaged that its function is compromised.  

Why are autoimmune diseases so common? 

Autoimmune diseases are one of the fastest growing diseases in Australia, UK and the US.

When I was first diagnosed in 2006 no one I knew had an autoimmune disease - now they are being handed round like cupcakes at a party. As a trainee Nutritional Therapy Practitioner, we are taught to always ask ‘why’. Why have these symptoms arisen? Why has there been such an increase in these diseases? 

There certainly is a genetic component but why doesn’t everyone who has a genetic predisposition get an autoimmune disease?  Why do I have an autoimmune when neither of my parents have one? 

Interestingly, the environment (for example our food and lifestyle choices) can influence our gene expression (epigenetics) and influence whether we succumb to a disease we are predisposed to. This helps explain why such diseases could have increased in prevalence so much whilst our genetic makeup has actually not changed that significantly.  

The good news is that we have some ability to control this! 

The gut and food link

The gut lining is one of the main barriers between our body and the outside and to ensure invaders that manage to cross this barrier do not cause havoc, 80% of the immune system sits inside the gut wall.  This allows any invader to be neutralised. 

Ideally the gut lining controls what passes in and out through being selectively permeable but in many of us this barrier has often lost this ability. It has become leaky - hence the name “leaky gut”.  Therefore lots of unintended invaders like undigested food, toxins from makeup and cleaning products now cross the gut lining and come into contact with the immune system.  

As the immune system fights to get rid of an onslaught of invaders, inflammation is created in the gut and all over the body. Whilst inflammation is an essential part of the immune response and healing process, too much inflammation is less than ideal and is the cause of many chronic and degenerative diseases we see today.

In some people the immune system may eventually crack under pressure and start to attack its own body as it gets confused.  This is the start of an autoimmune disease - which one depends on the tissue being attacked.

Repairing a leaky gut

So health condition or not, it is really important to look after the health of our gut lining. But in those with an autoimmune disease it is even more critical. 

Repairing the leaky gut and reducing the inflammation produced by the overactive immune system is key to addressing the underlying cause and for the ongoing management of the disease. Unfortunately you are unable to reverse an autoimmune disease once it has arisen but you can certainly keep it under control and make life more liveable.

Many modern day treatment methods don’t take this approach.  They instead use medication to suppress the immune system or reduce the inflammation which has already developed. Whilst this may reduce pain, this does not address the cause and often causes side effects.  Surely it makes much more sense to address the root cause which may also prevent against other autoimmune or chronic diseases arising further down the track?

Could I have prevented my autoimmune disease?

Managing my autoimmune disease through the eyes of my gut has got me to where I am today. I sometimes consider what would have happened if I never had damaged my gut in the first place. Perhaps if I didn’t live life as a teenager consuming lots of wheat and sugar and getting very stressed out during school exams my autoimmune disease may never have appeared.  Who knows! 

So Mum and Dad, I hope that after 13 years of living with a daughter with an autoimmune disease you understand a little bit more.

In the next blog I will delve further (or more deeply) into “leaky gut” and explain how to take steps to repair it. Stay tuned.