We all get a bloated tummy or a bit of gas from time to time. Usually, we can put it down to something we’ve eaten, or simply eating too much! But if you’re affected by digestive symptoms every day with no apparent cause, it could be much more serious than just overindulgence.
Around five percent of people in Australia and New Zealand are affected by autoimmune diseases. This includes over 80 related disorders, including common disorders such as type 1 diabetes to the less common systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE).
There are also thousands who suffer from autoimmune gut conditions. These occur when your immune system mistakes your own cells for a foreign invader, and end up attacking your own tissues. This leads to serious inflammation and tissue damage.
Common autoimmune gut conditions
Coeliac disease affects around one in 70 Australians, which makes it one of the most common autoimmune diseases. However, it is difficult to recognize, and around 80% of cases are undiagnosed.
When someone with coeliac disease consumes gluten (the protein in wheat), their immune system reacts by attacking the cells lining their small intestine. These cells are called villi, and they play an important role in the absorption of nutrients in food. But when villi are damaged, your body is much less efficient at absorbing nutrients. The inflammation caused by the immune system reaction also leads to symptoms such as cramping, diarrhea, bloating, and other discomforts. Some people may also experience anemia, arthritis, and chronic fatigue.
There is no cure for coeliac disease, but it can be managed by sticking to a gluten-free diet.
Crohn’s disease is one of two serious digestive disorders collectively known as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), the other being ulcerative colitis. These are lifelong disorders that can present at any time during childhood or adulthood but are usually diagnosed in people between the ages of 15 and 35. Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis affect more than 80,000 Australians, and this rate is increasing every year.
Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the gastrointestinal tract from the mouth to the anus, while ulcerative colitis affects only the large bowel and the rectum. Like coeliac disease, Crohn’s occurs when immune cells attack the cells of the gastrointestinal tract. This can cause serious pain, diarrhea, fatigue, and even rectal bleeding.
Genes play a role in Crohn’s disease, along with other factors. The use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), antibiotics, and birth control pills and/or eating a high-fat diet may also increase your risk.
Ulcerative colitis (UC) occurs when your immune system attacking the cells lining the rectum and colon. The resulting damage causes ulcers to develop which can bleed and produce pus. Symptoms are similar to Crohn’s disease, which makes it difficult to diagnose. Ulcerative colitis can cause abdominal pain and diarrhea, but also anemia, rectal bleeding, and fatigue.
UC tends to rear its head when patients are in their 20s, 50s, or 60s. Strangely, it’s less common to be diagnosed in your thirties and forties.
Treatment for ulcerative colitis is the same as those for Crohn’s disease. Severe cases may lead to a colectomy, in which the colon is surgically removed.
What causes autoimmune gut conditions?
Recent research suggests that one of the triggers for autoimmune diseases may be a protein produced by common gut bacteria. This protein has been linked to the onset of diseases such as multiple sclerosis (MS), rheumatoid arthritis, and ulcerative colitis.
The study, from my old Uni, Queen’s University Belfast, found that some patients with autoimmune disorders have higher levels of a protein produced by the bacterial strain Bacteroides fragilis. It’s referred to as a ‘mimic’ protein because it produces molecules that look like a human protein. This causes the immune system to attack its own cells by mistake, which is typically how an autoimmune condition develops.
With this new finding, scientists are now hopeful they can detect the risk factors for an autoimmune condition before it can take hold. They are now working on developing a test that will be able to detect antibodies to this specific bacteria, and potentially provide insight into our predisposition to an autoimmune disease.
In the meantime, the best way to reduce your own risk of developing an autoimmune disease – or other digestive disorders – is to look after your gut! Your gut has a major influence on every other bodily system, which means it plays a central role in your overall health. Many of your symptoms can be traced back to your gut, which is why Hippocrates once said, ‘all disease begins in the gut’.
As a nutritionist and naturopath, I help my clients make positive changes to their lives by first improving their gut health. I start with a comprehensive consultation that covers all of the aspects of your health history, then I design a treatment plan that caters specifically to your needs.
If you want to know more about how I can help you improve your digestion, immune system, energy levels, hormonal balance and more, contact me here!