Connecting The Dots Between Gastrointestinal Health And Autoimmune Disease


Autoimmune diseases are described as diseases in which the body’s immune system attacks certain parts of the body itself. Depending on the disease, it can attack different parts of the body all the way from the nervous system such as in multiple sclerosis, the pancreas such as in type 1 diabetes, or the musculoskeletal system such as in rheumatoid arthritis. Whichever the disease and part of the body is being attacked, naturopathic medicine evaluates the health of the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract) first and foremost. Tissue in the GI tract called GALT (gut associated lymphoid tissue) and MALT (mucosal associated lymphoid tissue) comprises over 70% of the immune system. Therefore, maintaining a healthy gastrointestinal tract is paramount to having a healthy immune system and preventing and treating autoimmune diseases. Several factors play into a healthy GI tract including the balance of bacteria, toxins, inflammation, diet, and intestinal permeability.

There are trillions of microorganisms in the GI tract including good, bad, and commensal bacteria and yeast to name a few. The balance of these bacteria plays a crucial role in the health of the GI tract and the immune system. Often times, an imbalance of the bacteria, called dysbiosis, can trigger or contribute to an abnormal immune response. Luckily, research into these microorganisms has really taken off in the past few years and there are now stool tests that can identify how much of each certain microbiota are in the GI tract of an individual. This information helps naturopathic doctors create treatment plans which can help good bacteria thrive and decrease bad bacteria thereby decreasing autoimmune disease activity.

Dysbiosis can contribute to inflammation in the GI tract which in itself triggers autoimmune diseases. But there are other causes of inflammation in the GI tract including certain foods and toxins such as alcohol, tobacco, and certain medications. Diet has a profound effect on the GI tract in many ways including causing or decreasing inflammation, feeding certain types of micro-organisms (good and bad), and helping the body excrete toxins. Certain foods that we traditionally think of as healthy may actually increase autoimmune disease activity in some individuals. A delayed IgG food sensitivity test can help identify some of these sensitivities. In addition, processed and packaged foods and foods high in sugar and artificial ingredients lower the pH of the system making it more acidic which leads to more inflammation.

When there is enough inflammation (whether it be due to dysbiosis, unhealthy foods, or toxins) the cells lining the intestines and the mucosal barrier that they create between the GI tract and the rest of the body becomes compromised. When this happens, foreign compounds and bacterial antigens can enter the bloodstream and cross react with other tissues creating an autoimmune response.

At Walnut Creek Naturopathic, our doctors use functional medicine tests to help patients with autoimmune diseases evaluate the health of their GI tract using food sensitivity tests, comprehensive digestive stool analysis, and intestinal permeability screens. Although this is just one step in evaluating a patient with autoimmune disease, it is significantly important in helping our patients identify the cause of their illness and starting them on their road to healing.