Today’s post is a long one, so bear with me. Why? Because I’m very passionate and concerned about this topic and I feel that there’s a lot of confusion surrounding our health today and more people need to understand these specific matters better. So I would like to share about the topic of:
- auto-immune disease
I want to specifically talk about these topics because it’s one that’s coming up more and more.
It’s something that really affects everyone. I think the immune system can come across as something unclear and complicated. The immune system is something we can’t see and yet it’s defending us at all times, 24/7 for your entire life and it’s keeping you alive. So how does it do that? And more importantly, how does it get messed up?
There’s an epidemic in autoimmune disease, inflammation and allergies. 50 Million people, and it’s probably a low estimate, but at least 50 million people in the world have an autoimmune disease, meaning their immune system is attacking themselves. We have 15 million people with food allergies. The number of children with food allergies has increased by 50% from 1997 to 2011. So all of this is a lot of numbers. We have to ask ourselves the question: ‘What is going on?’ Our immune systems are unhappy. And something that we are doing is making them very unhappy. This is affecting a lot of people and it affects a lot of the people I see in my health practice. I’m a big believer in the approach in functional medicine. In functional medicine, we try to get to the root cause of disease and trying natural therapies and nutrition wherever possible.
So next, I want to talk deeper about these 4 issues: auto-immune disease, allergies, immunity and inflammation and I’m going to break it down so you have a better understanding.
There are some surprising factors influencing your immune system.
I want to ask you the following questions:
- Were you born with a C-section or vaginal?
- Were you breastfed or bottled fed with formula?
- Did you have antibiotics early in life, could be from an ear or throat infection?
- Did you use over the counter painkillers like Advil and Tylenol some time of your life?
- Do you drink alcohol from time to time?
- Did you have a parasite or a major gastrointestinal illness at some point?
- And at last, do you feel stressed out?
All these things may seem totally unrelated to the immune system, this defines the system in your body, but they are actually very much related. That’s because our interaction with the world is a very complicated dance. Our immune system is actually an ecosystem. That ecosystem is defined much more by bacteria than it is by us.
We have these invisible forces called bacteria, they’re visible but not to the naked eye. They are really controlling how our immune systems interact with the outside world. This is radically new information, so 10-15 years ago you wouldn’t have learned about this in medical school. In 2008, the NIH, National Institute of Health created something called the ‘Human Microbiome Project.’ And in it, their mission was to understand everything there are about the kinds of bacteria that live inside us and on us. They thought there might be a couple of hundred bacteria, but what they realized is that there are over 2000 strains of bacteria living inside of us or on us in some way and that there’s 10 times the number of bacterial cells in you than actually you. This is pretty radical, right? Knowing that you are more bacteria than yourself.
Then they figured out that these bacteria are breaking down our food, they’re metabolizing our drugs, detoxifying us, helping our immune systems mature after we’re born because we are born with only a very basic immune system. They’re regulating the immune system over time. So as we are thinking about what these bacteria are doing and most of them live in our digestive tract the main group of them, another important thing to understand is what is outside of you and what is inside of you. What is outside of you is not just your skin, but it’s also from your mouth all the way down through your digestive tract.
You have two interfaces with the outside world, which is your skin and your digestive tract. All these bacteria living in your digestive tract that are your first line of defense. They are the first things that are meeting the outside world that you take in every day through the foods that you eat, the things that you drink and the medications you take.
You always start with the question ‘Why?’, ‘Why does someone have does food sensitivities, or things like asthma, bronchitis and so on.’ Whenever they do a stool test, the result will always be an imbalance of the bacteria in your gut. Too much of the bad stuff and too little of the good stuff. Imbalance which is called dysbiosis is causing the problems. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), where you check the back of the tongue of patients you can see hefty white coating, this is not normal and it’s a physical sign that you may have an imbalance in that good and bad bacteria in your gut.
What is Dysbiosis?
Dysbiosis is an imbalance in the good and bad bacteria. What do bacteria do? What’s the point of them being there? Why is it so important to immunity? These bacteria do a bunch of things. One of them is that in their digestion of our food, in helping us out by creating certain vitamins and nutrients for us, they create a lot of bioactive compounds that talk to our immune systems through the cells that line our digestive tract.
They are in constant contact with those cells and with the cells of our immune system. Surprisingly 65% of your immune system lives in your gut. Meaning 65% of your immune system in your whole body lives in your digestive tract, which makes sense when you remember again that we are an ecosystem and the inside of your digestive tract is actually really the outside world.
Leaky Gut Syndrome
The immune system is really important. Now over time by eating the wrong foods, by taking medications, through stress, through your birth history these things can derange the population of bacteria that live in there. And all of the sudden these guys they are supposed to be down there regulating your immune system, keeping things healthy, feeding the lining of your intestines with their by-products are not there and they’re not doing their job. You’ve got these other bacteria in there that aren’t so good at that.
The result is that you have these shifts in the immune system. That can contribute to something called ‘leaky gut’. You’ve probably heard about this weird term. You might be wondering is my gut leaking? The scientific term for leaky gut is intestinal permeability, it’s the same thing.
Not only are the cells that line your intestines super-specialized and in constant communication with the bacteria that are there, but they are also one cell layer thick. So there’s one single cell layer between you and the outside world in your gut. The cells come together really tightly fastened, so that everything that’s coming along in your gut is nicely processed through each cell is taken through nicely, handed the immune system on the other side on a silver platter so your immune system can be like, this is cool and this is not cool. It’s a very regulated process.
Unfortunately, when you take a lot of these medications when your bacteria system is off-balance, the cement that glues these cells together gets damaged and they come apart a little bit. Then all of a sudden, you have bacterial walls and breakdown products. You have larger proteins, like gluten, which are too big. And these proteins are getting through and your immune system which is right behind that wall, which is waiting there is seeing all these things that it’s not supposed to see and it’s saying: ‘Hey, I don’t like that and I don’t like this.’ As this happens, your immune system gets activated. It makes more and more of the cells in your immune system and it makes more of these different proteins and chemicals that kind of patrol around the body and try to get rid of intruders.
What is Inflammation?
This is what your immune system is supposed to do. Your immune system is not messed up, it’s doing what it’s supposed to do. But it’s supposed to turn on when there’s a problem, take care of it and turn off.
But when you have leaky gut, all of this stuff coming through every day, because you are eating every day. There’s daily movement through your intestines every single day. Your immune system is seeing things that it doesn’t like, over and over again. Then on top of that, you are eating foods that you are already sensitive to, it’s reacting to those and maybe it’s getting more confused and now it’s reacting to new foods and you’ve developed other food sensitivities than you’ve had before.
Its this over-activation and this chronic activation of the immune system, and that’s what inflammation is.
We hear a lot about inflammation and you’re inflamed. What is really that chronic activation of your immune system, which is just doing its job sending out all these chemicals into your bloodstream that go all around your body.
At first, it starts locally in your gut, and then it goes everywhere. If it’s not already crazy, there’s new research showing that there are these biofilms that line the lining of our intestines, which is basically a collection of bacteria and fats, proteins and carbs, but these living biofilms that bacteria that are not good, that is making us sick, they start to hide in. Then you take an antibiotic and the antibiotic, can’t get into that biofilm.
Sometimes you end up with an overload in your body of certain pathogenic bacteria that are living in these biofilms. All of these biofilms are talking to our immune system as well.
This sounds all scary, but what can you do about it?
It’s Starts in the Gut
The takeaway is when we think about autoimmune disease, inflammation, and allergies, which are really all kind of the same thing now that we’ve learned about how the immune system works. They’re all being regulated by these bacteria in our digestive tract and these bacteria in our bodies.
Even if its a skin rash or it’s a lung problem or it’s chronic nasal congestion or it’s asthma, or it’s even acid reflux, some of these different derangements of the body that you think, ‘Oh well, that’s my stomach, that’s my lungs, that’s my skin, that’s my nose, these things have nothing to do with my digestive tract.’ That’s wrong.
In functional medicine, you always start with the good. If you work on the gut, you work on the digestive tract and try to heal what’s happening in there, you will usually make some headway.
You’re focusing on a part of the body that in conventional medicine they would say, well, you don’t need to worry about the gut for your asthma. You need an inhaled steroid. You need an albuterol inhaler because you just need to focus on the lungs. But you now learned that’s being driven by something else. Pretty awesome right?
So how you really want to work with a leaky gut, the cells that got pulled apart, you want to give them food that feeds them. You want to help them come back together, and this can certainly happen. You can use supplements to do that, things like glutamine and aloe, licorice and zinc L-carnosine that are fuel for those cells so that they can begin the healing process.
Removing inflammatory foods is the next step. You go on an elimination diet, and there’s really no reason why not to do it as you will learn a lot about yourself if you take a food away for a while and then reintroduce it. Take away the foods that could be causing the problem and that really helps the gut heal as well. Think of removing the big triggers like gluten, dairy, corn, eggs, and soy. In addition, you can add some other supplements like digestive enzymes that help break down some of those proteins that are overactive in the immune system that are irritating the gut lining. This is the healing part of the leaky gut piece.
The Microbiome & Probiotics
Then we restore the microbiome. We try to fix the dysbiosis. We try to get that population of bacteria in your gut to be one that’s a little bit more healthy and a little bit more supportive of you and good for your immune system. You can do that in a couple of ways, you probably have heard of probiotics. Probiotics are certainly one way to do. Get probiotics from a provider that is trusted, don’t get it from the store. From the day they’re manufactured to the day that they get to the health food store, they’ve shown that most of them are dead. What’s in them isn’t really what they say they are. The stuff you’re buying, you don’t know necessarily the right proven strains that you actually need.
The lactobacillus in your yogurt is not enough, sorry to disappoint you. If you’re going to spend money on this, you want to make sure you are getting the potent therapeutic dosing of the real stuff that’s really going to work.
The thing with probiotics is like planting seeds in the garden. Whatever probiotic you’re getting has been bred, it’s lived to date on some medium, some food and now you are putting it in your gut and it doesn’t have that food anymore, so it’s not going to live very long down there. But what it is going to do is affect the population of good and bad bacteria, make it hard for those bad bacteria to survive. It’s also going to dump out all of its bioactive compounds that are really important for healing the gut and talking to your immune system. It’s not by taking probiotics you are replacing your gut flora.
The other thing that is more important than probiotics is prebiotics, because ultimately the bacteria that live in your digestive tract, what lives down there is what you feed it. If you don’t feed it, it doesn’t live. If you feed it sugar, the sugar-eating bugs live. If you feed it chemicals, the chemical-eating bugs live. If you feed it leafy greens and whole grains, then those bugs live. Prebiotics are actually specifically a type of fiber that you can find in foods like leeks, asparagus, hickory, onion, garlic, dandelion greens. How your diet looks like is one of the most important things that you can do, to shift your microbiome.
In that, you have all the power within you, as everyone can do that. Anyone can change their diet. You can use herbal to fight the bad stuff in the gut too, like bitter herbs, berberine, oregano, grapefruit seed extract, a lot have shown to have efficacy against some of these different bad bacteria. The process of working with herbs, it’s not like a drug, it takes time, it might take some months before you see any result, so please be aware of that.
You Can Heal Yourself
With this long article, I talked about lots of big things and numbers, but I really want to leave you with the idea that our immune system is an ecosystem. It’s bacteria that live inside of us that are talking to our cells. They’re talking to our immune system. They’re regulating everything. So next time when you think about well, I have this allergy, or I’m having asthma, or I’m having a rash or my immune system is inflamed, know that this is all a continuum of behavior by your immune system that’s natural.
Your immune system is just doing the job it’s supposed to do. These symptoms aren’t things that you should be angry at your body for and think that it’s just a symptom, let me take a drug and make it go away. Listen to your body, because this is your opportunity to understand what’s happening in your body. Your body is sending you a message. Your message is about a lot more than what’s happening right there on the surface. Your message is oftentimes about this ecosystem that lives inside of us and it’s something that you can fix.
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