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The Link Between Leaky Gut and Autoimmune Disease

Updated: May 10, 2021

What is Leaky Gut?

The space between our intestines and abdominal cavity is only one cell thick. These cells are called enterocytes. Leaky gut (also known as intestinal permeability) is when the space between the cells that line your intestines (also known as ‘tight junctions’) become inflamed and open up, allowing large particles of food, toxins and bacteria into the bloodstream where they do not belong. This can lead to systemic inflammation and an immune response as well as a whole host of uncomfortable symptoms and more serious health problems. Leaky gut is caused by anything that can increase inflammation in the gut lining. Intestinal infections, poor diet, excessive alcohol intake, stress, toxic exposure, and medications that affect gut bacteria like antibiotics and pain killers.

Most often symptoms of leaky gut include GI distress like constipation, diarrhea, pain, bloating, and gas. Nutrient malabsorption can be a problem as well because inflammation at the gut lining associated with leaky gut prevents adequate absorption of essential vitamins, minerals and fatty acids. Because 70-80% of the immune system lives in the gut, we also see compromised immunity in those with leaky gut. An increase in infections, environmental and food allergies, inflammation and autoimmunity tend to be more common in those with compromised immunity.

We Can Measure Leaky Gut!

Leaky gut is measurable! Zonulin is a protein that modulates tight junctions between the cells of the wall of the intestines. It is found in increased amounts in leaky gut. In fact, the more zonulin you have, the more ‘leaky’ your gut lining is. We can measure zonulin levels through a simple blood test. We know that there are numerous things that increase zonulin levels. A big culprit is gluten. Infections, dysbiosis, toxins, and yeast, among others, can also increase zonulin levels.

The Tie Between Leaky Gut and Autoimmunity

Autoimmune disease is almost ALWAYS tied to leaky gut. In fact, the ability to reverse autoimmune disease depends on healing the gut. An autoimmune disease is defined as one in which the immune system attacks its own tissue. Leaky gut allows this to happen. Here is why: when particles get through the gut lining into the blood stream some of them look very similar to self. This is called molecular mimicry. ‘Molecules of non-self mimicking self’. When your body recognizes them as foreign and creates an ‘attack’, it can also trigger an attack on self. A good example of this is with thyroid and gluten. The molecular structure of the protein found in gluten closely resembles that of the thyroid gland. When gluten breaches the gut barrier and enters the blood stream, as in the case of leaky gut, the immunes system tags it for destruction. These antibodies that have formed also cause the body to attack thyroid tissue. If you have autoimmune thyroid disease and you eat gluten, you are causing further attack on your thyroid.

The Autoimmune Trifecta

In order to get an autoimmune disease, you have to have three things in place.

  1. Genetic predisposition

  2. Environmental trigger--toxins, poor diet, stress, medications, infections, etc.

  3. Leaky gut, so that genetic predisposition becomes ‘turned on’ by the environmental trigger.

Do you suspect you have leaky gut and want to reverse it to prevent future autoimmune disease? Do you already have an autoimmune disease and want help finding the root cause? Undercurrent Wellness can help!

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