Autoimmune disease and leaky gut are such esoteric and intangible concepts. A diagnosis of either (usually both) of these can make your head spin like the teacup ride at your town fair. Know this: if you have/suspect autoimmunity, you must address your digestive health as the majority of your immune system is located in your gastrointestinal tract.
So what comes first? Leaky Gut or Autoimmune Disease? We still don’t know, but it probably varies per individual. Autoimmune disease is NOT a single-origin process. It involves both the genetic predisposition to the formation of auto-antibodies as well as the necessary environmental triggers to initiate or catalyze autoimmunity. For example, hypothyroidism runs common on one side of my family, but I didn’t develop Hashimoto’s until I had a severe food allergy reaction to fried vegetable tempura at a questionable sushi restaurant in college. Within 1 week I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s and my thyroid levels were sky high. Prior to that event, I was a very healthy and active individual.
Our gut mucosa plays an incredibly important role in immune health. Healthy intestines protect us from autoimmune pathogenesis by keeping the good stuff in and the bad stuff out. Our bodies require an intact intestinal lining and a healthy gut biome (bacteria population) to prevent the passage of food and toxins into our systemic circulation, which leads to antigen formation in autoimmune-suscpetible individuals. If our guts develop an “Open Door” policy, a vicious cycle is triggered between autoimmunity and intestinal permeability.
Increased intestinal permeability (aka Leaky Gut) leads to immune system dysfunction/upregulation which leads to further damage to the gut mucosa which leads to a continuous immune response unless it is stopped. How do you stop such a stubborn cycle? Addressing inflammation from a dietary and lifestyle appoach while working with a knowledgeable practitioner who is open to some untraditional methods for decreasing inflammation.
While that was an incredibly simplified version of the connectivity between autoimmunity and gut health, it is beyond vital that you treat your leaky gut NOW. The Autoimmune Protocol/Paleo Approach has helped many people do just that. Relief from symptoms, repaired gut lining, improved digestion and nutrient absorption, and down-regulated immune responses are just some of the reported results of AIP. Of course this is all anecdotl and case study-based evidence, but there are certain interventions that aren’t feasible to reproduce in a lab-controlled study. How do you ensure an individual is sleeping 8-10 hours a night, eating the foods right for their body, keeping mental and emotional stress low, and reintroducing eliminated foods properly? That would take a whole lot of money and time! Instead, a trial and error approach individualized to each of you is in order.
So what steps did I take to start my healing journey?
1. BE YOUR OWN ADVOCATE. Research your autoimmune condition in your spare time, join relevant Facebook groups with titles like Paleo, Autoimmune, Hashimoto’s, etc. Find a naturopathic or functional medicine doctor who has success in treating those with autoimmune and GI disorders. Do NOT give up if you don’t see immediate results. This is a trial and error process that may take you years to truly understand your unique body and how external factors affect it.
2. EAT CLEAN. EAT AT HOME. EAT FOR QUALITY, NOT QUANTITY. Be in control of your food at least 95% of the time. That may sound inconvenient or time-consuming, but you will get into a rhythm. Allow yourself 1/2 to 3/4 lb of good quality protein per day, at least 3-6 cups of greens, as many non-starchy veggies as you want, and definitely some healthy root-based starches if you’re active. Cook in bulk. Always have fresh herbs and citrus on hand to add flavor to food. Take 1-2 hours on Sunday and prep, prep, prep. Your Tuesday self will thank you. I have been eating this way for over 18 months, and it has never been boring. You just have to experiment and have fun in the kitchen with what you CAN eat. Forget what you can’t have right now – it’s just food. You’ll make friends with coffee or rice again in the future, but for now keep your distance and don’t think about it too much.
3. HOLD YOURSELF ACCOUNTABLE. You are the only one that can help you. Do not rely on a doctor, a naturopath, Whole Foods or the Internet to heal you. Love yourself enough to realize your future happiness and well-being depends on how you treat your body today. Be kind and forgiving to yourself throughout your journey. Stay motivated by talking about your progress with loved ones. Take 30 minutes a day to do something that makes you feel like your old self whether that’s going for an easy run, meditating, painting, or having tea with friends.
4. DON’T BE CRAY. Don’t stay up late trolling the Internet for an answer. Sleep is just as important as food. Don’t let your leaky gut protocol prevent you from socializing. You don’t have to eat with your friends to enjoy their company at dinner. Meditate at least 5 minutes a day, even if your meditation means just being mindful of how you’re feeling today. Go out and enjoy your hobbies, friends, and family as if autoimmune disease didn’t exist. Do not let it overtake your happiness but let is inspire you to achieve your dreams despite this roadblock. Don’t feel sorry for yourself but grateful that you understand your body’s needs better than you ever did before.