There is no single element that causes autoimmune disease – not your genetics, not your toxin exposure, not lifestyle factors. It is the critical mass of many factors that causes your boat to capsize. Symptoms are simply the feedback from the instrument panel that is “your body” – that’s all.
If you medicate it (self-medicate with food, alcohol, shopping, over-the-counter, and/or prescription drugs), ignore it, judge it, criticize it, the body gets louder over time. The symptoms worsen as the imbalances move deeper into your tissues, cells, organs – that’s it.
The unfortunate part is that most of us have not been taught this at the onset of our symptoms, ending up then with a full-blown autoimmune disease and still all too often not being told this at the point of a diagnosis.
What causes leaky gut?
With the help of the Standard American Medical model (SAM, Uncle SAM) + the relationship between the insurance industry and the pharmaceutical industry, and fear thinking we create a story about our body, often criticizing it, blaming ourselves or our genetic inheritance, we follow doctor’s orders rather than listening to our own body, and seeking help with root cause resolution.
What is leaky gut?
Inside your belly, you have an extensive intestinal wall, a lining covering more than 4,000 square feet of surface area. When the environment is rich and working properly, it forms a tight barrier that controls what gets absorbed into your bloodstream. An unhealthy or leaky gut, what I call a bankrupt gut may have large cracks or holes, allowing partially digested food, toxins, and bad bugs to penetrate the tissues beneath it. This triggers inflammation and changes to your gut flora (the normal bacteria meant to be in there) that often leads to digestive difficulties and problems within the digestive tract and well beyond.
We all have some degree of leaky gut because the barrier is not completely impenetrable, and it’s not supposed to be! While some of us may have a genetic predisposition, meaning we may be more sensitive to changes in the digestive system, our DNA is not the only one to blame – modern living may be the main driver today of gut inflammation and increased intestinal permeability. The emerging scientific evidence is showing that the Standard American Diet (SAD), which is low in fiber and full of sugar and saturated fats, is a leading culprit in initiated leaky gut.
We already know that this increased permeability (aka leaky gut) plays a role in autoimmune diseases.
Once you have received an autoimmune diagnosis, you can’t get your “old life back.” It’s never possible to go back. You can, however, create a better future!
A Bankrupt Gut
Today I know that my autoimmune disease had been developing for many years. Tracing back the trail of causal factors, traversing the terrain of my own autoimmune story, a decade-plus passed – I’d had several unexplainable episodes of severe pain, vomiting, low blood pressure, and even passing out upon eating so-called “healthy foods; I was hospitalized and diagnosed with a rare portal vein thrombosis (aka a malfunctioning liver), prescribed Adderall for an inability to focus and brain changes that I called “adult-onset ADD,” and gone from an energetic entrepreneur teaching group fitness for fun at 5 am, running marathons with friends, traveling with my hottie husband, to dragging myself from point A to point B.
Mentally I began feeling defeated, believing that my body was the one betraying me. I expected that if I just worked out hard, ran marathons, ate a diet better than the Standard American Diet (SAD), and went to bed on time, I would never get sick.
And while I’d learned early in life not to ever let anyone see me as anything other than a high achieving, “in control” kind of gal, capable of navigating whatever life (and the people in it) threw at me, it was early in 2017 that I was emotionally bankrupt as I learned the truth – I had entered a joint venture business partnership with a man who not only lied, leading me into a charade but so much more than we have time or space for here. The worst part is that I never saw it coming. I had trusted him at his words and that which we put into writing. Then when he suddenly died, he left me to fight his wealthy estate and protect everything I had worked so hard for, personally, professionally, and in a relationship with my one true partner – my husband, Joe.
This truth shattered the premise that I had built my life on – work hard, be kind, take action, tell the truth, and you’ll do well in the world. I was grieving, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to express it at that time, nor did I know how to let grief and anger in without being consumed by it. So, I didn’t. Instead, I ran another marathon, took on a substantial fund-raising project with short timelines and high visibility, winning the title of Fort Worth Woman of the Year, and recording a record-breaking year in business.
He had betrayed me and the business. I was betraying my body by continuing to step over the psychological abuse this relationship represented, loading on more achievements, and binge eating sugary goodies, all because I wanted to feel something other than anger, shame, and disgust for the whole damn thing.
It may sound odd, weird, or even funny (and if it does, so be it), but learning I had Addison’s put everything into perspective. And while my body was ailing in ways I could never have imagined, my determination to live and live well was more straightforward than ever. I would not allow this relationship to take another thing from me, my family, or my financial future. In the process, I would fight for my health and protect my family, putting an end to a treacherous tale of joint-venture partnership.
This is when I would learn that autoimmunity from an Aryuvedic perspective is undigested anger. Functional medicine (which took the precepts of Aryuvedic medicine and translated them into western language for the western traveler) knows that the root of wellness and illness is in the digestive tract.
As we continue to traverse the terrain that contributes to autoimmune disease, genetics, and environmental toxins, the gut is next in line.
A rich gut – let us peek into the process! (or bypass the process, and potentially go straight to a bankrupt body)
Unless you have reoccurring stomach issues, you probably don’t think much about your gut or digestion. The kale, cake, corn, cookies, whatever you eat, goes in one end, and then comes out the other in 24-36 hours – or at least that is how it is supposed to go – that’s how you are supposed to go.
- Grehlin – when you haven’t eaten for a while, levels of this hormone increase in the stomach, sending the message to the brain, “I’m hungry” – this stimulates your appetite. Grehlin gets the digestion train moving by prompting mobility in the gut.
- Hypothalamus – the part of the brain that plays a vital role in controlling many bodily functions, including the release of hormones from the pituitary gland, has grehlin receptors. The hypothalamus gets its hunger and fullness signals from the stomach. Gut bugs (the good, the bad, and the ugly) also send up signals of their own, influencing your cravings.
- Mouth & Teeth – the food goes in your mouth, and your teeth break it down, increasing its surface area (aka mechanical digestion). Enzymes in your mouth begin the first phase of digestion. It sounds so simple, yet it’s actually a more complex part of the process triggered by oral receptors in the oral cavity that notify the nervous system.
- Esophagus – Think of it like rails in a car wash – as you swallow, the food passes through the pharynx en route to the esophagus, peristalsis, the involuntary constriction, and relaxation of the muscles in the intestine creating a wave-like movement that pushes your food forward and through your system. A “sticking point” is that many sphincters work to keep your food in the stomach. When they fail, that’s when you get heartburn, acid reflux, the autoimmune disease known as GERD and food backs up into the esophagus. Sometimes there’s more. The esophagus can then pass through the diagram a thin sheet of muscle on its way to the stomach. A common occurrence from this glitch can occur – the stomach pushes up through the diaphragm, creating what’s called a hiatal hernia, causing stomach pain and acid reflux.
- Vagus Nerve – starts in the brain and wanders throughout the body’s different branches. It has a MASSIVE role in digestion under the direction of the parasympathetic (aka rest and digest) nervous system. The stomach starts ramping up the digestion process at just the smell, sight, or thought of food that appeals to you. As previously shared in “Steeped in Stress,” a body stuck in the sympathetic nervous system (aka fight or flight) kicks ass because it slows digestion so our resources can be directed elsewhere and address the perceived threat. This process is lifesaving when a hungry lion is chasing you. It destroys your gut when kicked on repeatedly because the bills are piling up, the money isn’t coming in, you have children to feed, clothe, and house, you work (or live) in a toxic environment, with toxic people steeped in their own toxicity. You get where I’m going with this.
- Stomach – this is where things get interesting. As the food is torn down in a vital way to a “digestive chop shop” (aka chemical digestion), gastric juices carrying hydrochloric acid and pepsin are secreted by stomach glands. A “sticking point” is that the stomach also secretes intrinsic factors that bind to vitamin B12 and shuttles it into the intestines, where it goes to be absorbed. If it goes missing, you won’t get adequate B12, which can lead to other conditions like pernicious anemia, an autoimmune disease characterized by a decrease in red blood cells. Red blood cells provide oxygen to body tissues. Hmmm, that sounds important!
- Enteric Nervous System (ENS) – this is where there is so much happening in the gastrointestinal tract (GI), it must have its very own switchboard or “brain” – the ENS. It is located within the muscles of the GI tract. It works with the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. It also calls its own shots.
- Dopamine – by now, many recognize dopamine – it’s the feel-good brain juice (chemical). It gets released every time you eat something high in fat and sugar. A “sticking point” serotonin, also a feel-good hormone is produced in bulk in the gut. Its job is to keep food moving through. The process is called motility. Research shows that Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) may be related to altered serotonin function in the GI tract. Stress tends to make symptoms worse with both IBS-C (constipation) and IBC-D (diarrhea).
- Small intestine – is divided into three parts, the duodenum, which attaches to the stomach, the jejunum, and the ileum, which connects to the large intestine where much meaningful action happens. Villi, or small-finger-like projections that look like the thread loops on a towel, line the small intestine. The tiny nubs are tissue whose job is to absorb nutrients (protein, fat, and digestible carbohydrates) from food. They provide the surface area for the breakdown of small chunks of food called chyme and do the detailed work of absorbing and assimilating the essential vitamins, minerals, glucose, amino acids, fatty acids, and sending them into the bloodstream and lymph system. A “sticking point,” small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), happens when gut bugs that would typically hang out in the large intestine get through the lining and take up residency in the small intestine, causing nausea, gas, bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and more.
- Duodenum – is the gatekeeper to the small intestine. Once food enters the stomach, that pancreas then does its job secreting enzymes to start tearing apart protein and carbs. The enzymes join with bile to begin breaking down fat too.
- Large intestine – popularly referred to as the colon, the large intestine receives the leftovers of food (aka chyme) from the small intestine. It is populated by trillions of bacteria, fungi, and viruses (aka microbiota) that feed on any remaining undigested food and their waste products before the remaining material is pooped out.
- Rectum – is the staging area for feces before it’s time to have a bowel movement. A “sticking point” constipation occurs when food moves too slowly through the large intestine, enabling more water to be absorbed back into the body, feces dry out, and make for sluggish function.
A Path to Leaky Gut: 10 Things that Destroy Your Gut
Now that you understand the inner-workings of the digestive tract, below is a list of 10 things that destroy your gut and eventually cause “leaky gut”. Reflect and see if any of these could potentially be causing your gut issues:
- Stress – Your gut is sensitive to your thoughts, feelings, and undigested emotions. When your body is stuck in your stress response (see Steeped in Stress), continually cranking out cortisol destroys the mucosal barrier; the lining of the gut wall serves as a kind of second skin. The mucosa’s job is to produce a range of peptides that help block potentially harmful microbes (aka the bad bugs) from adhering to the gut lining or crossing the gut barrier, entering the bloodstream, and triggering immune system reactivity and the release of pro-inflammatory chemicals.
- Over the Counter (OTC) & Prescription Medications – Most people know by now that prolonged use of over-the counter drugs and prescription antibiotics broadly destroy all bacteria in the body as a way of eradicating the disease. Indeed, antibiotics can be a life-saver when nothing else will work. The unfortunate part of antibiotic use is, generally speaking, we take them but never make an effort to re-establish the good bacteria in our gut. According to Dr. Martin Blaser of NYU’s Langone Medical Center, “Early evidence from my lab and others hint that, sometimes, our friendly flora never fully recovers. These long-term changes to the beneficial bacteria within people’s bodies may even increase our susceptibility to infections and disease. Overuse of antibiotics could be fueling the dramatic increase in conditions such as obesity, type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, allergies, and asthma, which have more than doubled in many populations.” Dr. Blaser wrote this statement in 2011.
- Sugar – bacteria feed on sugar, mainly pathogenic bacteria that sustain an army of nasty bugs and an unbalanced gut. As an example, yeast does not feed on yeast; it feeds on sugar. The USDA reports that the average American is consuming between 150-170 pounds of sugar per year – is it any wonder now as to why the gut of most American’s is compromised?
- Gluten – found naturally occurring in grains such as wheat, rye and barely travels to your small intestine, where it triggers the release of a chemical called zonulin that signal the tight junctions of your mucosal barrier to open up, causing a leaky gut.
- Dairy – In addition to gluten, you may decide to ditch dairy. Milk does a body good if you are a baby cow! Dairy causes inflammation in a massive percentage of the population, either due to lactose intolerance or casein and whey sensitivities. Additionally, with modern industrial farming practices, dairy products are very often full of hormones and antibiotics. Even if you’re not directly taking a prescription dose of antibiotics, you could be unknowingly consuming heavy quantities through your dairy products.
- Alcohol – regular alcohol use can cause dysbiosis, unevenness of the gut microbiota, and gut permeability syndrome. The exception to the rule is red wine, which contains polyphenols that support probiotic activity. Hence, moderate consumption of red wine has actually been shown to help promote a healthy gut.
- GMO foods – GMO foods may contain herbicides called glyphosate that is used in genetically modified crops. Repeated exposure to glyphosate in our food supply has been found to upset intestinal microflora balance and further the growth of harmful bacterial strains -this can impair the immune system, augment underlying infections, as well as influencing mood and behavior.
- Lack of sleep – your gut follows a daily rhythm much like your circadian rhythm. Interrupting your body clock by lack of sleep, shift work, or eating late a night can negatively affect your balance of good to bad gut bacteria. A 2016 study compared the effects of short-term sleep deprivation (approx. 4 hours per night) versus two nights of normal sleep duration (approx. 8.5 hours per night) in nine men. After just two days of sleep deprivation, the findings were this – subtle changes to the gut flora and an increased abundance of bacteria associated with weight gain, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.
- Lack of regular exercise – the research has shown that regular movement and exercise improves the gut microbiome’s health after just six weeks of regular exercise. The flip side is this – the gut’s health declines again if the movement/exercise is stopped.
- Smoking & smokeless tobacco products – smoking cigarettes is one of the most critical environmental risk factors for Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), an autoimmune disease characterized by the digestive tract’s ongoing inflammation. Smokers are shown to be twice as likely to have Crohn’s disease. In one study smoking, cessation increased gut flora’s diversity – a marker of a healthy gut. Sometimes perceived as safer than cigarettes because they aren’t linked to lung cancer, smokeless tobacco products contain numerous chemical compounds, including known human carcinogens, and are known to harbor diverse bacterial microbiota that differs across product types and brands.
Show Some Gut Love
Accessible ways to immediately start healing your gut, you could begin with doing these 3 things:
- Remove as many of the destructive ten stressors as humanly possible.
- Repair the relationship you are having with your own body.
- Rebalance your life in terms of who and what you are giving your precious energy to!