How Stress, Gut Health and Autoimmunity Are All Connected

gut health

The immune system is a complex defense structure. Research has come a long way in understanding many of the mysteries surrounding autoimmunity and the 100-plus diseases that fall under its umbrella. However, there are still plenty of questions that remain. Over 50 million people in the United States are estimated to have an autoimmune disease, yet the cause of many of them are unclear, according to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA). But recently, researchers have discovered a significant link between stress, gut health and autoimmune reactivity, often leading to the onset of particular autoimmune diseases.

In our gut, the intestines are host to gut microbiota, which is the term for the microbe population that aids in proper digestion, barrier function and healthy immunity. Healthy intestinal walls allow water and nutrients to enter into the bloodstream, while keeping harmful bacteria and toxins out. What medical researchers have known is that when these walls or barriers are weakened, harmful bacterial toxins can “leak” through. This well-researched condition is referred to as leaky gut syndrome. But one of the mysteries that remained was related to the cause of the breakdown in the intestinal walls.

New studies have revealed that imbalances in the gut microbiota can trigger an autoimmune response through a chain of events whereby stress exposure alters our gut bacteria, resulting in changes to immune cells which lead to a higher risk of an autoimmune reaction. Specific microbes in the gut pump out protein molecules that mimic a human protein, causing the human defense system to turn on its own cells by mistake, contributing to autoimmune dysregulation.

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It’s no secret that stress breaks us down emotionally, mentally and physically. Obvious indicators include exhaustion, lack of motivation, changes in appetite and digestive symptoms, including diarrhea and vomiting. But here is what we don’t see: stress can make the intestinal barrier weaker, thus allowing bacteria to leak out and enter the body through the bloodstream and even reaching organs.

Further studies on the link between stress and the breakdown of the intestinal barrier have focused on the different types of bacteria that trigger the autoimmune response. While there are quite a few different bacteria, the commonality is that they all respond to stress by increasing the number of effector T cells, immune cells that play a role in autoimmunity. Over time, this ongoing “cross-reactive” response leads to tissue damage and chronic disease. Among the autoimmune diseases that are triggered by this link are:

Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
Rheumatoid Arthritis
Ulcerative Colitis
Systematic Lupus
Autoimmune Liver Disease
Antiphospholipid Syndrome

It is not easy to identify when there may be a breach in our intestinal lining, leading to “leaky gut” or ultimately autoimmune reactivity. However, if you are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above, you should not ignore the warning signs. Instead, consider seeking medical advice and testing. One screening offered by Cyrex Laboratories, the Array 2 – Intestinal Antigenic Permeability Screen, is a groundbreaking test designed to measure intestinal permeability to large molecules that inflame the immune system and identify the damaging route through the intestinal barrier.

Ongoing intestinal discomfort and digestion problems should not be ignored. One of the main things we can all do for our health is to manage our stress. Remembering to stop and take a deep breath during moments of stress can help prevent a gut reaction. Another is to be proactive with our health, which includes eating right, resting well, exercising and getting regular medical checkups. Taking initiative with your health and not ignoring signs of illness could help prevent an autoimmune condition diagnosis down the line.

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Dr. Chad Larson, NMD, DC, CCN, CSCS, Advisor and Consultant on Clinical Consulting Team for Cyrex Laboratories. Dr. Larson holds a Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine degree from Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine and a Doctor of Chiropractic degree from Southern California University of Health Sciences. He is a Certified Clinical Nutritionist and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. He particularly pursues advanced developments in the fields of endocrinology, orthopedics, sports medicine, and environmentally-induced chronic disease.

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