When we take a look at the causes of autoimmune disease, the most influential piece of the puzzle is the community of organisms that live in our gut. The gut is the largest area of our bodies that is in contact with the outside world. In fact, if we pressed the lining of the small intestine so that it lies flat, it would cover a tennis court!
The community of organisms that live in our gut is called the microbiome. This amazing collection of trillions of organisms develops when we are still in our mother’s womb.
Our mother’s diet and lifestyle affect the organisms that are present when we are born. Then, in the first 1000 days of our lives, our microbiome is influenced by the following factors: the type of birth we had, the food we eat, the use of antibiotics, and even the stress in our home.
During infancy, our microbiome is educating our immune system about what is friendly and what is foreign to our bodies. By the time we are two years old, our immune system has key information that we need to keep us safe. This immune system development can be either optimal or unhealthy.
How does the microbiome influence our immune system?
Not only does it keep our gut lining healthy, it also contributes to our intestine’s ability to regulate what passes from the inside of our gut into the bloodstream.
Passage of nutrients and other molecules takes place across and in-between the cells that line the gut. This lining of cells is only one layer thick, making traffic flow happen easily (wonderful for nutrient absorption).
Think of passing through cells as an escort service, where molecules hook up with a special carrier protein and are transported across to the bloodstream. Between our cells is a series of drawbridges or gates that open and close when appropriate, depending on the size and type of molecule that needs to enter.
Understanding the relationship of our gut community and the gates between cells is important. When there is an imbalance in gut organisms, a substance (zonulin) is produced that keeps these gates open.
The openings between cells can enlarge, now allowing toxins, harmful bacteria, and partially digested food to pass through. Fortunately for us, we have an immune system that constantly samples what is in the gut and decides if it is friend or foe so that it can defend us if need be.
However, if too much unfriendly material starts to cross over, the immune system can become overwhelmed, leading to chronic inflammation (an over-active immune response.) Yes, we can have chronic inflammation in childhood, and also later on.
Not only do microorganisms influence our immune systems, they also interact (cross talk) with our genes to turn on and turn off gene expression. Healthy gene expression depends on a balance of helpful gut buddies. If we have some genes that put us at risk for autoimmune disorders, having a healthy balance of organisms in the gut will help reduce that risk.
How do we keep our microbiome healthy?
We want to keep our microbiome healthy, so that we have a better chance of staying well, responding appropriately to infection, and avoiding inflammation. The most powerful way is with food. We choose foods 3-4 times every day.
Choosing anti-inflammatory foods not only nourishes us, but also feeds our little gut buddies so they can help keep us balanced and healthy.
Anti-inflammatory super stars are foods such as tomatoes, berries, cherries, oranges, leafy greens, nuts, olive oil and fatty fish. Besides these nutrients, we can also help our gut flourish with fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut and miso, and a variety of fiber foods contained in colorful vegetables and tubers (such as sweet potato).
Thus, food is a very important way to support a thriving healthy community of microorganisms in the gut. These organisms can then turn on healthy genetic expression, and assist the gut lining with regulating traffic into the bloodstream. Besides food, there are other ways to influence this community. Exercise, such as a brisk walk, can positively influence the balance of organisms in just 36 hours. Because our microbiome is intimately involved with our immune system and nervous system, socializing, laughing, feeling connected, expressing gratitude and love, are all additional ways that we can shape our microbiota.
What about probiotics?
But wait, can’t we just take some probiotics and some prebiotic supplements? Won’t that do the trick? Unfortunately the answer is “no”. Probiotics can be supportive, but the science for which ones are best is still pretty new. That’s why many people who take supplements without changing their eating habits are not feeling better.
The bottom line is this – we can’t alter our genetic material or the circumstances that shaped our birth and childhood development once we reach adulthood. But we DO have control of our lifestyle.
What’s the best answer?
The lifetime lifestyle we develop can have a profound effect on our microbiome and thus our immune function.
Basic healthy lifestyle habits will benefit many people. Keep in mind, however, that each of us has a unique history and life.
We may require a more personalized approach to regain and maintain good health. Don’t hesitate to seek out a functional medicine practitioner for that personal approach.
Here at Gentle Integrative Care we are all about finding the unique causes of your immune imbalances.