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It protects the inside of our body from the outside environment. The gut barrier is a single layer of cells thick and must allow the absorption of nutrients in while at the same time, preventing entry of bad bugs and toxins that can also be found in the gut. The cells that line the gut wall are held together by proteins called tight junctions. These tight junctions can open up and allow space between the cells to expand which improves the absorption of nutrients for a short while after we eat. If the tight junctions stay open for too long then unwelcome items may be permitted entry.
A signaling molecule called zonulin commands the tight junctions to open up. Zonulin is triggered by eating the food protein gluten, found in wheat, rye and barley. For some individuals consumption of gluten with subsequent triggering of zonulin and the opening of the tight junctions may allow too many unwanted molecules to gain entry to the body’s blood stream. This will result in an immune reaction mounted in the gut which can cause collateral damage to the gut wall.
Gut wall damage is referred to as a “leaky gut” and means more than just nutrients are permitted entry. 80% of the immune system is housed in and around the gut to help combat any foreign invaders that do gain entry. A leaky gut can allow large food proteins, toxins and bad bugs to enter the blood stream. This will trigger an immune reaction and if it becomes a chronic response the end result can be a loss of immune tolerance. This means that the immune system is more sensitive and the immune response is enhanced.
An enhanced immune reaction deploys antibodies to target foreign invaders and the more antibodies deployed the greater the risk of mistakes and molecular mimicry. Molecular mimicry occurs when antibodies tag more proteins than the original trigger and tag self-tissues. Once antibodies start tagging self-tissue, the first step to autoimmune disease development is initiated.
Dr Alessio Fasano MD and his research team discovered the molecule zonulin. He is a pediatric gastroenterologist and professor at Harvard Medical School. He believes to develop an autoimmune disease an individual must have 3 things: a genetic predisposition, a trigger and a leaky gut. If we repair a leaky gut and remove triggers we can protect against autoimmune development.
Immune tolerance is controlled by reducing immune triggers. An effective tool to minimize immune triggers in the gut is to ensure food proteins are broken down into small peptides – peptide sequences of 4 or less amino acids. This is achieved by proper digestion and requires hydrochloric acid (HCL) and digestive enzymes. The release of HCL from the stomach and pancreatic enzymes is reduced with sympathetic activity and the stress response. This is why stress reduction is paramount to gut health.
Stress and diet have the greatest impact on gut health. Lowering stress levels and stimulation of the “rest and digest” parasympathetic activity improves digestion. Hydrochloric acid HCL and digestive enzyme supplementation ensures that food proteins are broken down into peptides with 4 or less amino acids. Small food peptides can cross into the blood stream undetected by the immune system.
The removal of food triggers like gluten and any cross reactive foods like dairy will calm the immune system. Lectins found in grains, legumes and night shade vegetables are “sticky” molecules that can bind with other molecules transforming them into something unrecognized by the immune system. Foods high in lectins should be removed in the presence of a leaky gut. Foods like nut and seeds, while very nutrient dense can be hard on the gut wall; they are hard to digest because they contain digestive enzyme inhibitors. These digestive inhibitors will mess with our digestive enzymes.
Functional Medicine provides a 5R Framework for Restoration of Gut Health
Remove any problem foods. Remove alcohol as it destroys the protective gut mucous membrane.
Replace HCL and digestive enzymes. You can also take a tablespoon of Apple Cider Vinegar for maintenance.
Re-inoculate with pre and probiotics.
Repair the gut wall with the aid of vitamins and minerals that support the immune system. L-Glutamine supports gut cells.
Re-balance lifestyle with stress reduction, improved sleep and exercise.
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