“My joints hurt.”
“I have this rash…”
“I get terrible headaches.”
“I think I’m allergic to…”
“Am I going bald?”
I hear these complaints on a daily basis from my patients, many of whom struggle to keep their conditions under control with medications such as steroids, anti-inflammatories, pain killers, and the like. Most of my patients are surprised to learn that their conditions are actually symptoms of an underlying autoimmune disorder originating in their gut!
You’ve probably heard the term “leaky gut syndrome” by now. Yes, I agree, it sounds awful, but as we take a closer look at how our immune system operates, you will understand why it is called this and why Hippocrates proclaimed some 2,000 years ago, “All disease begins in the gut.”
Discover the root cause of autoimmune disorders–it’s not what you think!
Just Me, Myself, and I
Scientists have identified over 100 different autoimmune conditions, and this list continues to grow. Some of the well known autoimmune diseases include rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, lupus, thyroiditis, multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, alopecia, psoriasis and eczema. These diseases and disorders all share a common root cause: an overactive immune system that destroys the body’s own tissues.
A healthy immune system creates antibodies against anything it deems as foreign, such as bacteria, viruses, and large particles that aren’t normally found in our bloodstream. During autoimmunity, the immune system fails to recognize its own cells and mistakenly produces antibodies against its own tissues, also known as autoantibodies. This leads to chronic inflammation and tissue destruction, pain and loss of function.
In fact, what distinguishes one autoimmune disease from another is simply the part of the body (the type of tissue) that is under attack. For example, rheumatoid arthritis involves an autoantibody attack against the joints, whereas celiac disease involves an autoantibody attack against the intestinal cells. Regardless of the particular disease, the underlying cause is an overactive immune system, which explains why autoimmune disorders are commonly treated with steroids and other immune-suppressing medications. But why in the world would our immune system turn against us? The answer, my dear friends, is a leaky gut.
Leaky Gut is a Party Pooper
The gut wall (that is, the lining of the intestines) is made up of a single layer of tiny cells which allow nutrients and water in while keeping bacteria, large proteins, and other toxins out. You can think of the gut wall as the bouncer of the body, giving access only to those worthy of entry while keeping the trouble makers and the “bad guys” away. Nobody likes to think about it, but the intestines are a pretty toxic place. We inadvertently swallow oodles of toxins on a daily basis, which is why a healthy gut wall is critical to maintaining strong immunity and overall good health. Apparently Mother Nature thought so too when she placed about 70% of our immune system in and around the gut wall! (1)
The scientific name for leaky gut syndrome is intestinal hyperpermeability, which essentially translates to “an excessively permeable intestinal lining.” When the gut wall develops tiny holes in it, it’s as if the bouncer has left the door unattended, allowing all the bad guys to flood in and cause a ruckus. Considering that the gut wall is only a thin layer of cells, it’s easy to imagine how toxins often sneak past it and find their way in to the rest of you body. This is precisely what happens when you have a leaky gut: Unwanted toxins crash your immune system and the body shuts down with inflammation.
In other words, the toxins that ordinarily stay in your intestines until they’re pooped out “leak” into your body, triggering inflammation in the tissue surrounding your gut wall. Over the short term this isn’t such a big deal, since our immune system is designed to handle short breaches in security. But over the long-term the immune system becomes overwhelmed, allowing toxins to sneak into the bloodstream, and “troll’ our systemic circulation. Through a process known as translocation, these toxins can travel to virtually any part of the body and incite an inflammatory immune response wherever they land. (2) This, my friends, is autoimmunity.
Keep Your Zonulin on the Down Low
Dr. Alessio Fasano’s discovery of zonulin (an endogenous molecule) marked a turning point in our scientific understanding of autoimmune disease. (3) With evidence that the intestines naturally mediate their own permeability by releasing zonulin from the gut wall, researchers were finally able to gain a deeper understanding of what causes a leaky gut. As it turns out, a lot of different things can trigger this condition, such as certain medications (i.e., NSAIDS and steroids), chronic stress, alcohol, and certain foods. (4) However, two main triggers have been identified to produce zonulin and are thought to contribute to increases in intestinal hyperpermeability in everyone who has a gut wall (not just people with autoimmune disease). (3) (5)
The two main triggers for a leaky gut are:
- Gluten and other anti-nutrients from foods
- Dysbiosis – an imbalance in the body’s natural microflora (i.e. too much “bad” bacteria in the gut)
A New Theory of Autoimmune Disease
Previous theories of autoimmunity were developed before the discovery of zonulin, but they did not recognize the significant role that a leaky gut plays in autoimmune disorders. With the discovery of zonulin, Dr. Fasano proposed an updated theory of autoimmune disease, suggesting that three separate factors must be present simultaneously in order for an autoimmune disease to be active: 3 5 6
- Genetic predisposition to autoimmune disease (that is, you carry the HLA gene)
- Exposure to a trigger of zonulin production
- Exposure of the trigger to the immune system, via a leaky gut
According to this theory, autoimmune diseases can be stopped (or better yet, reversed!) if at least one of the three factors in this trio is removed. Until scientists can figure out how to remove our genetic predisposition to disease (don’t hold your breath for this one), we are left to address and heal our leaky gut on our own. And I’m committed to helping you do that.
Want to learn more? Order Dr. Sara’s new book – about this topic and so much more – entitled, Younger: A Breakthrough Program to Reset Your Genes, Reverse Aging, and Turn Back the Clock 10 Years.
2. Helena Tlaskalova-Hogenova et al.,“Commensal Bacteria (normal microflora), Mucosal Immunity and Chronic Inflammatory and Autoimmune Diseases,” Immunology Letters 93 (2004): 97-108. Accessed February 1, 2015. doi: 10.1016/j.imlet.2004.02.005.
3. Alessio Fasano, “Zonulin, Regulation of Tight Junctions, and Autoimmune Diseases,” Annals of the New York Academy of Science 1258 (2012): 25-33. Accessed February 1, 2015. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2012.06538.x.
4. Dulantha Ulluwishewa et al., “Regulation of Tight Junction Permeability by Intestinal Bacteria and Dietary Components,” The Journal of Nutrition 141 (2011): 769-76. Accessed February 1, 2015. doi: 10.3945/jn.110.135657.
5. Alessio Fasano, “Zonulin and its Regulation of Intestinal Barrier Function: The Biological Door to Inflammation, Autoimmunity, and Cancer,” Physiological Reviews 91 (2011): 151-75. Accessed February 1, 2015. doi: 10.1152/physrev.00003.2008.