What We Know About Digestion and Autoimmunity
Our immune systems are remarkably efficient. Much like an army defending a territory from foreign invaders, working at all hours of the day, 7 days a week, troops of white blood cells provide ongoing surveillance in all our tissues including our skin, blood stream, nose, mouth, guts – you name it. Healthy immune systems are able to distinguish between foreign threats such as viruses or bacteria and “self.” In autoimmune diseases a break down in the regulatory aspect of the immune system results in white blood cells that inappropriately attack healthy tissue. Depending on which tissues in your body are being attacked, whether it is your skin, your joints, your muscles, or organs, a different diagnosis is given. In fact, there are more than 80 different diseases classified as autoimmune in nature and many more conditions suspected of having an autoimmune component. Although there have been many advances in patient care, an understanding of many of the underlying factors that are involved in the development or exacerbation of autoimmunity go under-recognized, and therefore under-addressed. Causes are generally believed to be multi-factorial involving genetics, hormones, the immune system, and environmental factors, but current research is now demonstrating a link to gastrointestinal inflammation.
We know that 70-80% of our immune system is physically ‘housed’ in our intestines, named the “mucosal immune system”. The intestines are an interface between our internal and external environment. Functioning much like Customs at an airport controlling the flow of people and goods in and out of the country, our intestines selectively absorb beneficial nutrients and block the uptake of potentially harmful materials. In our guts is also a fine balance of beneficial bacteria. From infancy, the maturation of a healthy immune system involves a process of learning the difference between ‘self-cells’ and infectious diseases through environmental exposures. Due to the proximity of the mucosal immune system, the foods we eat and the balance of bacteria present play an important role in regulating the white blood cells found in the intestinal lining. For example, mice raised in a germ-free environment show severe deficits in the maturation of the immune system as well as a disproportionate reaction to a single immune irritant. Research is finding alterations in gut bacterial flora quite common in those with autoimmune diseases, even in the early stages of conditions seemingly unrelated to gut health such as rheumatoid arthritis. Not only have studies highlighted the benefits of using probiotics for immune health, but pharmaceutical agents utilizing beneficial and human-symbiotic parasites are being investigated for treating Inflammatory Bowel Disease and showing improvements in the severity of disease.
Apart from utilizing probiotics, we need to look at ways by which our desirable gut microflora shifts out of balance in the first place. Some potential sources include a diet high in processed and prepackaged foods, stress and chronically eating on the go, and eating foods to which we are hypersensitive. All of these things contribute to poor digestion, irritation of the intestinal lining, and a change in the intestinal environment that is more conducive to the survival of the so called “bad bacteria” than the good bacteria.
While there is much more to learn, new insights hold promise for a paradigm shift in the prevention and treatment of all autoimmune diseases. With more of the public drawing attention to this need for further research, the hope is that more and more researchers will receive the funding to dig deeper.