Autoimmunity – Food for Thought…..

Autoimmunity – Food For Thought

Autoimmunity is loss of ‘self tolerance’ caused by the immune system attacking the body’s own tissues. There are over 80 autoimmune diseases. Common conditions that are classified as autoimmune include type 1 diabetes, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, colitis, Hashimoto’s (accounts for over 90% of low thyroid conditions) and Raynaud’s and their incidence across the World continues to explode. Why is this happening? It is now estimated that over 600 million people globally are presenting with an autoimmune disease and women are 2.7 times more likely to present with such a condition than men.

It is now over ten years since the concept that autoimmunity develops via a complex interaction between our genetic base and our environment was first postulated. The single largest point of interaction between our environment and our genetic base takes place in the gut – the small intestine has the surface area of a tennis court. It is interesting to note that digestive dysfunction is a very common symptom with individuals presenting with autoimmunity.

Our genes are set at conception, however the environment is to a large extent and depending on individual circumstances controllable, as is the health and permeability (leakiness) of the gut. Current thinking is that by modulation of both the environment and intestinal permeability (leakiness of the gut), it might be possible to not only arrest the development of autoimmunity, but also potentially even reverse it.

‘……..once the autoimmune process is activated, it is not self-perpetuating; rather, it can be modulated or even reversed…..’

Professors Fasano and Shea-Donohue – Nature Reviews Gastroenterology and Hepatology 2005

So by modulating the health of our digestive tract (using dietary and lifestyle interventions) in conjunction with removing specific triggers from our environment (removing/reducing – toxins/stress/bacterial and viral infections), we might be able to alter the outcome of these devastating diseases…….now that’s quite a thought.

You think you’re Human?

Science continues to discover extraordinary facts about the microbes (bacteria, viruses and protozoa) that live in our gut (the tube that runs from the mouth to the exit). These microbes weigh in total anywhere between 1 and 2.5 kilos in the average adult, outnumber our human cells by a factor of about 3 to 1 and consist of thousands of different species with 100 times more genetic material than the entire human genome.

In broad terms there are three different classifications of microbe, namely ‘beneficial’, ‘opportunistic’ and ‘transitional’. We now know that optimal health requires a delicate balance to be maintained between these different types (eubiosis). The beneficial microbes should be dominant, keeping the opportunistic and transitional microbes under tight control. In fact the science in this particular area of research is moving at a rapid pace with the recognition of distinct ‘gut-organ’ interactions and dependencies such as the ‘gut-brain’ and ‘gut-skin’ axes.

Some of the identified key roles of a balanced micro flora include: balanced mood (the gut is the largest hormone and neurotransmitter producing organ in the body, for example producing over 90% of serotonin (serotonin is also required for properly motility of the gut)), digestion of proteins and carbohydrates (helping us get more nutrients from our food), manufacture of vitamins and essential fatty acids, increase in the number of immune system cells, immune system tolerance, break down of bacterial toxins and detoxification and the conversion of specific plant compounds into anti-tumor and anti-inflammatory factors, as well as assisting with efficient weight management and energy production.

Birth type/time of weaning/length of breastfeeding, chronic antibiotic use, parasitic and/or yeast/fungal infections, food poisoning, poor food choices, recreational drug use, unidentified food sensitivities, lack of nutrient density and diversity, chronic stress, chronic use of medications and NSAIDs (e.g. ibuprofen), oral contraception, regular alcohol intake and a high toxic load are all known contributors to dysbiosis (imbalance of the gut micro flora). Recent research also specifically connects gluten related disorders (the umbrella term for coeliac disease, non-coeliac gluten/wheat sensitivity and wheat allergy) to the initiation of dysbiosis, neuroinflammation and the disruption of the gut/brain axis and the manifestation of anxiety and depression.

So what does this all mean? Look after your microbes and they will look after you. How can I do that? Lifestyle and diet are your key tools.

Is Sitting Bad For You?

We should all now be well aware of the fact that including regular activity into our lifestyles is supposed to be good for your health. The Government certainly continues to try and communicate that message to the population as a whole. However, a large body of recent research, now points to the fact that too much sitting can significantly raise the risk of premature death along with developing obesity, type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer; and here is the kicker EVEN if you exercise regularly. Exercising regularly (e.g. going to the gym or for a run) but sitting for the majority of the day still classifies you as having a ‘sedentary’ lifestyle. Most of us spend a great deal of our days sitting in cars, behind desks, on planes, trains and in front of the TV, with very little concern as to the long term effects on our health, especially if we consider ourselves to be ‘active’.

This effect was first officially observed in the 1950s when researchers found out that bus drivers (sitting all day) were twice as likely to die of a heart attack than their bus conductor colleagues (on their feet a lot of the time). The science is progressing all the time and currently there is no scientifically validated recommendation on just how long too long is when it comes to sitting. The current consensus is that ideally a short two minute break every 30 minutes will minimise the effect of sitting on one’s health, even if it involves no more than walking around the room, making a cup of tea or going over to speak with a colleague (standing up). There are a number of lifestyle choices that can make a significant difference to your overall activity levels during your day, helping you to mitigate the potential long term harm associated with a sedentary lifestyle.  I will be discussing specific strategies on how to reduce the detrimental effects of long term sitting in future posts.

For more information on his subject please have a look at the following NHS Live well article – http://tinyurl.com/k56dnwn