“All disease begins in the gut.” - Hippocrates
Your gut is where all the diseases begin because your digestive tract is where your immune system lives. This also means that health begins in the gut. When you have a healthy gut, you have a strong immune system.
The health of our immune system is important all the time but is especially important during a global pandemic.
So what exactly is “the gut,” and what can we do to support gut health for a strong immune system?
The intestinal mucosal barrier, aka “The Gut”
The mucosal barrier is the lining of the digestive tract that starts at your mouth and extends to your anus. “Mucosa” is the moist, inner lining that creates a barrier of mucus between the contents of the digestive tract and the bloodstream.
When there is any loss of function in the mucosal barrier in the stomach or intestines, it can cause a host of issues like poor nutrient absorption, subsequent fatigue, and worse.
The digestive tract mucosal barrier is like a second skin. It facilitates digestion and assimilation, and it should not permit large or offensive particles, such as pathogens, antigens, immune complexes – into the bloodstream. It’s critical for digestion, energy production, and immune function.
Within the digestive tract mucosal barrier, we have a single layer of cells called enterocytes held together very closely. Within the enterocytes, there are finger-like projections called villi, on which there are microvilli. On the microvilli are the cells that take up nutrients, called goblet cells and epithelial cells. These cells stay together closely.
The mucosal barrier is a barrier in two ways.
1 - It provides a physical barrier between what we consume and the bloodstream.
It runs literally from the mouth to the anus and operates like an inside-out barrier. The barrier comes into contact with everything we drink and ingest, as well as viruses and bacteria. It protects our bodies from any pathogens, toxins coming in, or anything that doesn’t belong in our bloodstreams. Our skin does this too on the outside of our bodies.
The mucosal barrier is where breakdown and absorption occur. It takes what we eat and breaks our food down into particles small enough to be absorbed by the microvilli and then into the bloodstream to be used by the body.
There are enzymes within the mucosal barrier responsible for breaking particles down chemically and then transporting them through the bloodstream. Anything that isn’t a nutrient or is too large should not be able to get through. In this first sense, it’s a physical barrier.
2 - It provides a chemical barrier as well.
The mucosal barrier is a line of defense, and a compound called Secretory ImmunoglobulinA – aka Secretory IgA or SigA is a key immune system ingredient.
80% of the immune system is in the gut. If you think of the acid in your stomach – it doesn’t just break food down; it also is protective in that it kills unhealthy bacteria or pathogens there in the stomach so that they don’t get into the rest of the system.
That’s what SIgA does in the mucosal barrier – it’s chemical protection.
It is important to note that stress suppresses immune function: elevated cortisol from the fight-flight-freeze stress response suppresses the production and secretion of immunoglobulins. Secretion of SigA stops when you’re experiencing a physiological stress response.
So if you are experiencing mental or emotional stress, that will suppress immune function.
But if you’re cooler than the flip side of a pillow with no mental or emotional stress, but you have an internal stressor such as a GI pathogen, food sensitivity, high level of toxicity, infection, or inflammation. The immunoglobulin production will decrease, thus suppressing your immune system.
Factors that damage the mucosal lining
Multiple lifestyle factors either strengthen or damage the intestinal mucosal barrier.
Factors that damage the mucosal lining include:
- poor dietary choices,
- pathogens and bacterial imbalance
- exposure to toxins,
- synthetic foods and preservatives,
- pharmaceutical medications,
- and mental and emotional stress.
All of these sources of physiological and psychological stress can damage gut structure and function. And when the gut structure is damaged, the immune system suffers.
Common Gut Health Issues
One of the ways in which the gut can begin to dysfunctional is that those tight junctions loosen up and the gut is now “permeable.”
Tight junctions prevent the passage of molecules through the space between the cells – inflammatory particles and toxins cause the junctions to loosen.
Now, the toxic load and larger particles “leak” into general circulation, which causes an immune response in the bloodstream. It creates a pro-inflammatory, pre-disease state in the body. Over time, a damaged mucosal barrier can cause issues; like fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and hormone imbalance.
If this goes on for too long, the body can develop autoimmunity, where the immune system starts attacking the body itself. Because it can’t distinguish between an alien trigger and the body’s tissue – the immune system becomes hypersensitive.
Food sensitivity is when a food or food chemical causes an immune or inflammatory response in the body. If you’re sensitive to food, it will trigger an inflammatory response that could be one of the underlying stressors causing symptoms, either right in the gut or elsewhere in your body. I want to clarify food sensitivity isn’t a histamine response or an allergic reaction. This reaction is simply an inflammatory response. It is still unfortunate and simply not as acutely dramatic.
Food sensitivities can cause the gut lining to become permeable or “leaky,” but they can also be intestinal permeability.
For example, say an avocado protein passes through the mucosal barrier without being broken down. The body thinks, “Hey – what’s this?” and tags it and begins building antibodies against it.
Then the next time you eat it, the body recognizes it as something that’s a threat and responds to it as a threat. This action causes inflammation, which can cause the gut lining to be permeable. It can cause more food sensitivities because particles are leaking into the bloodstream before being broken down.
This process is how food sensitivities can be either the cause or can be caused by gut dysfunction.
Damage to microvilli and decrease nutrient-absorption
An inflammatory response in the gut can cause the lining of the gut to become damaged. It decreases the microvilli’s ability to break down and absorb nutrients. Which can lead to a leaky gut, impaired liver function, and reduced immunity.
This trigger-induced inflammation can damage the villi and microvilli in the mucosal barrier.
The villi and microvilli can shrink, which decreases their surface area and subsequent capacity for absorbing nutrients. This shrinkage causes nutrient deficiency, which can cause fatigue, weight gain, and other health issues since all of our cells need nutrients to function.
GI Pathogens and Bacterial Overgrowth
Pathogens similar to food sensitivities can be a starting trigger for gut issues, but not always. They can also be the result of gut issues.
When the environment is already ripe for infestation; and the gut weakens for some reason, it could make the gut an ideal environment for a pathogen to make its home and thrive there.
Remember, certain factors that damage the mucosal barrier in the digestive tract consist of pharmaceutical drugs, exposure to toxins, eating foods to which you’re sensitive, experiencing chronic or dysfunctional stress.
A healthy person with a healthy gut can fight off a pathogen.
But if the gut is already injured or inflamed or leaky, the pathogen will stay and breed. It’s a chicken and egg thing – pathogens and bacterial overgrowths can be either the cause or the effect.
Consider the Western medical model for treatment for a pathogen: a physician will prescribe an anti-parasitic, antibiotics, or the like to kill the pathogen. This pharmaceutical intervention could also harm the gut, thereby making it a better host environment for a pathogen. Perhaps the medication does eradicate the pathogen but doesn’t address the root cause of your issues. The root cause wasn’t the pathogen but was the set of factors that made your gut the perfect environment for the pathogen in the first place.
The functional investigation of the root cause is crucial and explains why our focus needs to pinpoint how to create a healthy environment.
Wellness is our goal, not just the treatment of sickness.
Action steps to support gut and immune health
1 - Investigate the root cause of your health issues. And then heal them!
As a Health Detective, I work to treat the causes of gut health issues, thereby helping my clients to strengthen their immune systems.
When you experience immune, gut health-related issues, or digestive issues, it is critical to investigate the HIDDEN stressors that may be the root cause of the dysfunction. Some symptoms are exhaustion, fatigue, sleep issues, emotional volatility, difficulty focusing, remembering, and chronic pain. These HIDDEN stressors include problems with your Hormone, Immune, Digestive, Detoxification, Energy production, and Neurological systems.
As a Health Detective, I run functional lab tests for my clients for a leaky gut test, a mediator-release food sensitivity test, and a GI pathogen screen. These and other functional lab tests give us valuable information about what may be causing the dysfunction. We can then design a corrective and preventive protocol for healing and long-term health.
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2 - Eat according to your Metabolic Type.
Eating the wrong foods for what your body needs are a significant contributor to mucosal barrier damage.
Mass nutritional media attempts to convince us that one diet is the best one for everyone. Should you be eating keto or paleo or vegetarian or low-carb or high-carb or 40-30-30 macro balance? There are so many “best” diets out there. And yet, none of them work for 100% of everyone.
Why? Because genetically and biochemically, every one of us has unique nutritional needs. There is no one best diet. And while there are certain universal nutritional truths, the Metabolic Typing Diet is the only one that accounts for a person’s biological needs as an individual. It is a clinical, scientific, integrated approach to the treatment and prevention of chronic and stress-related health disorders. This diet is towards building health and correcting patterns of biochemical imbalance that are the root of health problems.
I teach a workshop called Personalize Your Plate, during which I cover the Metabolic Typing Diet in depth. I would love to see you at that workshop – look for the next one on my workshops page at www.strengthandshieldcoaching.com/workshops-page/.
You can strengthen your immune system by supporting the health of your intestinal mucosal barrier. Not only will you improve your gut health and immune health, but you’ll improve your whole-body and whole-life health as well!
Optimal is possible!
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