The Digestive Tract: First Line of Defense against Autoimmune Illness

If it seems to you that you are hearing more and more about auto-immune diseases these days, it is not your imagination. They are occurring with escalating frequency in this country and in other “developed” countries.

If you grew up on a farm with lots of animals, played in the dirt, and were otherwise exposed to bugs and infections, your body built a strong immune system with good instincts about what it needed to fight off, and what it could accept as “you.” Thus, you may not be as susceptible to autoimmune conditions as many others in this country.

People in poor nations without modern amenities like running water, flushing toilets, washing machines, and sterile backyards are plagued by other ills, for sure, but they are better able to fight inflammatory diseases from heart disease to cancer, diabetes to obesity, autism to dementia, and even depression.  These are all called what T. Colin Campbell, author of The China Study and other works the “diseases of the affluent.” Our relatively “high on the hog” lifestyle choices are also in large part responsible for other inflammatory diseases like allergies, asthma, arthritis, and autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, all manner of inflammatory bowel disease, and others, all of which, are on the rise.

It is definitely not your imagination that you’re seeing more of all of them.

Autoimmune disease affects about 24 million people. They are often medically addressed by powerful immune suppressants, which may alleviate some symptoms and then lose their effectiveness and cause other issues which then need to be treated.

Autoimmunity occurs when the immune system gets so busy fighting off invaders, that it becomes confused about which things in your body belong there, and which are foes.

Your body is fighting something – an infection, a toxin, an allergen, a food – and somehow it goes after the wrong target – your joint, your brain, your thyroid, your gut, your skin, or, sometimes, your whole body at once. That is autoimmunity

Your digestive tract is your first physical line of defense against inflammatory disease or what it may become — autoimmune disease. It, like your skin, acts a barrier that protects your blood and inner tissues against undesirable substances in your inner environment. If your digestive tract begins to break down, as it will after too many enemy attacks on it, it will cease to do its job well, thus allowing undigested proteins and toxins into your blood. This phenomenon is called “leaky gut.” Because there is no medical treatment that remedies it, it is not an official medical diagnosis, but is a painful reality for many people, nonetheless.

The bottom line is that if you now have an autoimmune condition, chances are good that your digestive tract is not as healthy as it can be, and that “leaky gut syndrome” is contributing to your symptoms.

Is There a Problem? How Do I Know?

Problems in our gut are not as immediately obvious to us as, say, problems on our skin, which are visible.  We see a scratch or an abrasion and we know how to care for it. However, if you have symptoms of an autoimmune illness and one or more of these symptoms — excessive, foul-smell gas production, ill-defined discomfort in your abdomen during or following meals, or chronic constipation or diarrhea — you can know two things. First, your body’s self-healing mechanisms are already hard at work to repair damage that already exists, including that in your digestive tract. Second, these provide signals to you that something is amiss, and needs careful attention.

Just as your body will work to heal a cut on your skin the moment the cut happens, your body is always on the alert for trouble spots throughout your body and will work to repair any damage that occurs.

The difference between the digestive tract and the skin is that you can see your skin and clearly determine if your daily choices are helping or hindering yourself healing mechanisms as they work to repair the cut. With the gut, the path forward may not be quite so easily determined.

If you keep the cut clean and protect it from abrasive objects, it will more than likely heal nicely over a period of days right before your eyes. With our digestive tracts, it’s a little harder to tell which daily food and lifestyle choices are helping or hindering your body’s attempt to heal damaged areas. If you could see with your eyes how a specific food that you had for lunch was putting undue stress on your digestive tract, and preventing it from healing, you would immediately remove that food from your food plan.

Lucky for us, there are integrative physicians who can help us get to the root causes of these autoimmune situations, and health coaches who can help to guide us into diet and lifestyle changes that will help to prevent the disease itself, prevent further damage to the digestive system that has already occurred, allowing the body to heal.

Watch for more the “how to” prevent and heal autoimmune illness in my next newsletter/blog.

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