Hippocrates once said, “All disease starts in the gut,” and as clinical evidence pours in it confirms this is often very true.
Many people are not aware of the connection between the health of the gut and their immune system. A 2009 article published Seminars in Immunology estimates “around 80% of all IgA-antibody-secreting cells (ASCs) reside in the gut mucosa” (1). Basically, 80% of your antibodies live in your gastrointestinal tract.
Since the gut mucosa houses the largest population of immune cells in your body treating it well can improve your health.
The Role of Gut Flora
The human gut is also a microbiome filled with bacteria, or “gut flora”. These bacteria interact with the immune system you’re born with (innate) and the part of your immune system that learns as it faces health threats throughout your life (adaptive). Ideally, the gut houses more beneficial bacteria than harmful. However, imbalanced gut flora can affect all parts of your body, including your brain.
A 2010 study published in Neurogastroenterology & Motility done on mice is of particular interest. When researchers switched gut bacteria, it changed mice behavior (2). Some experts believe bacteria can cause “profound behavioral and psychological changes” and treat the gut for mental disorders (3).
Another study on mice also showed thin mice have certain gut bacterial overweight mice lack. When researchers implanted the bacteria from the thin mice into the overweight mice, they lost weight (4).
It is clear the microbiome profoundly affects your immune system. Recent research also suggests changes in the microbiome influence the development of autoimmune disease.
The Three Legged Stool of Autoimmune Disease
Dr. Alessio Fasano, a world-renowned gastroenterologist is a pioneer in understanding the mechanisms of celiac disease. His work through the Mucosal Immunology and Biology Research at Massachusetts General Hospital now explores the role of gut health in other autoimmune diseases.
He describes three “legs”, or factors a person must present to develop autoimmune disease:
- Genetic predisposition: certain genes make individuals more likely to develop certain diseases.
- Trigger: specific antigen, or protein, the immune system recognizes as a threat (real, or not), that sets off a cascade of over-activation. For celiac disease, the trigger is gluten. However, the trigger remains unknown for most autoimmune diseases.
- Intestinal permeability (also known as “leaky gut syndrome”): increased permeability means normally tightly knit cells of the intestines weaken and become “leaky”. This allows large compounds, such as proteins from food or bacteria, entry into the bloodstream. Leaky gut can occur due to any number of reasons such a food sensitivities, gut infections, or chronic stress. (4)
Thyroid Autoimmune Disorders
Thyroid disorders such as Graves’ disease and Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism are autoimmune disorders, and not really thyroid issues at all. Thyroid dysfunction is just a symptom of a dysfunctional immune system.
Since leaky gut syndrome compromises the physical structure of the intestines it allows unwanted toxins, yeast, bacteria, and undigested food to pass through the gastrointestinal epithelium. It also triggers an immune response and inflammation. Chronic inflammation is a principal cause of disease.
Fortunately, the traditional medical model is slowly starting to recognize the importance of gut health as the results of clinical studies trickle in. They do recognize diet, lifestyle and stress may play a role.
Functional doctors fully recognize the principle role the gastrointestinal tract plays in autoimmune disease. Since they focus on the underlying cause of a disease, they’re very interested in the possible causes of intestinal permeability. Leaky gut syndrome coincides with many autoimmune disorders, including those that affect the thyroid such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and Grave’s disease.
Jill Carnahan, MD mentions the following possible causes of leaky gut syndrome in her article “Leaky Gut: The Missing Piece in many Autoimmune Diseases, like Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis” (5):
- Anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDS) like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, Nurofen)
- Microbial overgrowth or infection
- Parasite infections
- Fungal overgrowth (Candida)
- Ingestion of allergenic foods
- Maldigestion/malabsorption (pancreatic insufficiency or low HCl)
- Radiation therapy or chemotherapy
- IgA deficiency
- Chronic alcohol intake
- Excessive or strenuous exercise
- Inflammatory bowel disease – Crohn’s or Ulcerative Colitis
Restoring Gut Health
The health of your gastrointestinal tract can have a huge impact on your health and immunity. If you have an autoimmune disease, it is very important to begin at the root of the problem to restore gut health. Healing the gut improves immune function.
Many factors can contribute to the development of autoimmune disease. For some people it is a food sensitivity or allergy that stresses the immune system gradually. Others react to environmental toxins like glyphosate and other pesticides. Some people react to specific food additives like carrageenan or to exposures to heavy metals like mercury and lead. Still others react to a combination of these factors.
The first step is to seek the help of a trained health care provider adept in Functional Medicine. Arrange a consultation for a comprehensive evaluation so they can perform the necessary tests to identify your functional imbalances.
You are unique and require a unique treatment protocol to improve your health and counter thyroid autoimmune disorders. Get to the root of your health issues instead of treating symptoms.
Dr. Mark A. Scott D.C., C.N.S., C.F.M.P.
Board Certified in Integrative Medicine