It seems that so many people in modern times suffer from auto-immune diseases. From lupus, to rheumatoid arthritis, thyroid problems to gut problems like ulcerative colitis, IBD and skin issues like psoriasis. Lately there is more and more evidence that other diseases may actually be auto-immune based with even the possibility of depression having some root in Auto-immunity.
So What is “Auto-immunity”?
Very basically, Autoimmunity is when your body’s own immune system attacks structures naturally occurring in the body.
Rheumatoid Arthritis for instance, is caused by the immune system attacking the joints and causing inflammation and damage in those tissues. Lupus is a more systemic problem where multiple organs and systems in the body come under attack from it’s own immune system. All AI diseases experience high levels of inflammation and cause increased risk of Cardiovascular disease etc.
It’s strange how the immune system, our natural defence from attack and disease can turn on us and cause these problems. Many of these diseases are treated with drugs that suppress the immune system in order to slow the damage. However this can leave us open to infection; not an ideal solution (decreased immunity can also increase cancer risk).
So what is going on? Why is the immune system turning on it’s host!?
There are new theories being explored lately around the cause of these Autoimmune diseases. One of the leading hypotheses has to do with the lining of the intestines and gut health.
(DISCLAIMER: I am not a Doctor, and I don’t want to play one on the internet, so I am just relaying the theory as I understand it, in super simplified, reductionist terms. This does get the idea across though, and I hope somebody may find it helpful, or at least interesting.)
First we need to realise that anything we swallow, actually remains outside the body. We have our digestive tract running through us, so a human being can be seen as an elongated doughnut.
One of the digestive tracts main purposes is to selectively allow certain things to enter the body. The gut is a sentinel of sorts. Food, broken down into it’s small, molecular substrates runs through the gut. The gut lining, shaped like tiny “fingers” called vili has a massive surface area (one human gut has the surface area of around 300 square meters!!) allowing the cells of the vili to interface with the digested food and decide what molecules to allow in, and what to keep out. Things like amino acids (protein), fatty acids (fat) and glucose (carbohydrate) get allowed in to the bloodstream while waste products, undigested food and other unwanted molecules and bacteria are kept out.
The new hypothesis suggests that certain substances cause a disruption of this gut lining and it’s very selective absorption. Some of the main contributors seem to be certain Lectins that are present in many plant based products. Many lectins have great health boosting benefits, but two classes of lectins, “Prolamins” and “Agglutinins”, seem to be problematic for some people.
Now, not to get down on wheat, but the 3 most problematic substances are found in fairly high concentrations in wheat, even whole wheat.
Gluten is a Prolamin lectin that we’ve all heard of. In extreme cases, like celiac sufferers, Gluten causes a severe inflammatory response, but many people have gluten sensitivity on a spectrum. (Many people have no idea that they are sensitive to it. They just think bloating and feeling a bit slow after meals is normal…it isn’t ;) )
2. Wheat Germ Agglutinin
This is an agglutinin lectin present in wheat. This lectin can cause damage to the gut lining and cause an inflammation response in the gut.
Gliadin is a component of Gluten. Gliadin can cross the gut barrier and cause in increase of a protein called Zonulin, and this is where the trouble starts. Zonulin works to increase the permeability of the cells of the gut lining, thereby allowing unregulated entry from the digestive tract into the body.
Now I have to simplify the process quite drastically, because it gets extremely complicated, but the Immune system gets notified of a widespread security breach once the gut lining gets disrupted, and for good reason; suddenly things like waste products and unwanted bacteria are being let into the body…..THIS IS NOT GOOD! SOUND THE ALARM!
Now another problem is that the immune system recognises these proteins like lectins as intruders. While on the surface this is a good thing, if we look more deeply we can see a problem. Lectins spread throughout the body and attach themselves to various places, like healthy nerve, liver or thyroid cells….And the immune system, doing it’s job follows them and goes to war. Lectins are proteins, very similar to the cells they find their new home in and the immune system is hard pressed to see the difference between a lectin intruder and a healthy thyroid cell, or joint cartilage cell…etc etc et.
So we see a possible theory here of how these autoimmune problems can get started. In super simplified terms, intruders that look very similar to our own healthy cells are ingested into the digestive tract. Some of them “break in” through the security system of the gut lining, open all the doors and yell “Come on in, boys!”. The intruders then spread through the body while tripping all the alarms for the bodies defence force, the immune system. The immune system then does what it does best and attacks the intruders wherever they may be in the body, and collateral damage ensues!
Just a theory?
Now as I said, this is just a theory, but lets take a look at a study done by Dr Stephen R Gundry:
He put 102 patients showing clinical markers and physical signs and symptoms of various Autoimmune diseases on a lectin restricted diet, along with probiotics and prebiotics (food for good gut bacteria) and had amazing results (just read the bold for the basics):
"One hundred and two consecutive patients with immunoassay markers of autoimmune disease activity, i.e., RF, anti-CCP, ANA, Histone, etc, and signs and symptoms of RA, Lupus, Sjogrens, Crohns, Colitis, Scleroderma, Mixed Connective Tissue Disease, and biomarkers of endothelial inflammation, were enrolled into a program of elimination of major dietary lectins, consisting of all grains and pseudo grains, beans and legumes, peanuts, cashews, nightshades, squashes, and Casein A1 milk products (The Plant Paradox Program), supplemented with probiotics and prebiotics including resistant starches and polyphenol supplements. All pts initially low Vit D levels and low Omega 3 index and adiponectin levels above 16mg/dl. Biomarkers of inflammation, hs-CRP, TNF-alpha, IL-6, fibrinogen, myeloperoxidase and autoimmune markers were measured every 3 months."
"95/102 patients achieved complete resolution of autoimmune markers and inflammatory markers within 9 months.
The other 7/102 patients all had reduced markers, but incomplete resolution.
80/102 patients were weaned from all immunosuppressive and/or biologic medications without rebound.
We conclude that a lectin limited diet, supplemented with pro and prebiotics, and polyphenols are capable of curing or putting into remission most autoimmune diseases."
So what do we do?
The theory I’ve laid out revolves around wheat, but all grains contain different lectins, many of which are problematic, and all plants contain lectins which can be problematic, depending on the person. Having said that, modern “dwarf” wheat seems to be the single most problematic of these plants, in this respect. Some people are severely sensitive, some seem fine with it, but many are in the middle, and may not even realise that they have a reaction to these substances. (The Primal stance on this is that these grains were not available in any meaningful quantity while humans were evolving. Only after the agricultural revolution, around 10 000years ago did humans start relying on grains as a major source of food. And more recently grains like wheat have been selectively bred to yield more and more usable product per plant, making modern wheat a very different plant from what would have been available 10000yrs ago.)
The first, most obvious idea is to try to avoid gluten and grains for a while and to then see how you feel. MANY people find that strange symptoms that they just thought were part of getting older spontaneously vanish after a few weeks of being gluten and grain free. Skipping grains for a month seems like an extremely small price to pay for these results. More severe autoimmune problems may have sensitivities to other foods as well, even going as far as eggs, milk protein (casein) or nightshade vegetables (peppers, tomatoes etc). In severe cases like this a strict elimination diet like the Auto-Immune Protocol (AIP) can be done for a month or 2 in order to resolve symptoms. After this, foods can slowly be re-introduced in order to discover trigger foods to avoid.
That is an extreme case and for most people a regular paleo/primal diet of meat, fish, fowl, eggs, loads of multi-coloured veg, a little high fat dairy and starchy tubers now and then can resolve a bunch of AI symptoms (and provide stacks of other benefits!).
Adding probiotics, in the form of supplements (check out “Mibiotix"), or fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir or kombucha can really help to build a strong gut and allow more resilience in the case of a food sensitivity slip up. We have literally trillions of bacteria in our gut. We actually have more cells in our body that don’t have our DNA than the ones that do! So we should aim on keeping these bacteria in balance and let the healthy ones get rid of the dodgy ones. There is so much new info coming out on Pro and Pre-biotics now days I'll need to do a separate post on them on their own!
Stress is another element of intestinal permeability. It appears that chronic stress can also alter the workings of the gut lining and increase it's permeability, again allowing intruders in and triggering the immune system. Many autoimmune sufferers notice that they tend to have flare ups around, or just after very stressful times in their lives. Taking measures to get a handle on your daily stress levels can have a great impact on autoimmunity symptoms as well as simply creating a more stable “you” to take through this crazy life. Physical exercise, sufficient sleep and things like meditation and solid morning and evening routines can go a long way to mediating the stresses of modern day to day life.
I hear about autoimmune related problems so often. They seem to be more prevalent than before and this theory might explain that. Immune suppressing drugs, while possibly necessary in many cases, do not come without risks and costs. A simple dietary change (even if just for a month or two, “just to see”) is free, and carries zero risk, and a possible benefit of drastically improved symptoms, besides the other obvious benefits of a healthy, nutritious diet!