By Gina Heath, INHC
Today there are over 100 diagnosed autoimmune disorders. In the past 50 years, the incidence of autoimmune diseases has not only doubled, but tripled (1). Year after year there continues to be a sharp rise in these disorders making it a modern epidemic. Forecasts don’t show hopeful improvements. In the coming 20 years it is predicted that there will be an alarming increase in autoimmune and auto-inflammatory diseases (2).
When one thinks of Hypothyroidism, Hyperthyroidism, Hashimoto’s, Diabetes, Fibromyalgia, Rheumatoid Arthritis or any one of the autoimmune conditions, one rarely ever thinks of food as being one of the root causes. We have to wonder, could this epidemic be due to fake foods, environmental toxins, and stress?
As with any autoimmune disorder, the body is treating something endemic to the body as a foreign invader, resulting in an attack mode. This can be human tissue, cells, major organs, the digestive system or even glands. Why does the immune system attack the body? The human body is not a dumb machine. The body is always trying to adapt to the environment that the body is living in, while always putting survival of the body first.
When we look up the definition of autoimmune, it reads, the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s own tissues (3). But is the body really attacking its own body by mistake? With this premise, the remedy might be to suppress the immune system. This prevents the body’s immune system from attacking foreign invaders to the body. Instead, it is crucial to go downstream to identify the true root causes of why the immune system is truly attacking the body.
The Role of Food
As we go downstream together let’s take a stop at FOOD. Food should provide the body with the necessary nutrients needed for energy, detoxification, cell support, and prevention of dis-ease in the body. Let’s consider the following notion. What if a particular food isn’t real food because it is made up of preservatives, artificial colors and flavors, GMOs, chemicals to extend shelf life, antibiotics due to concentrated operations, and synthetic hormones to speed up growth for quicker and higher profits. Can this really be food to nourish and support our body?
With all of this in our food system, there is no question as to why our powerful protective immune system would go into attack mode and react, as it should, as an army of defense and invade to protect the body as it is designed to do. But, then there are those foods that are only single ingredients, not processed, without preservatives, but instead certified organic that can also create a food sensitivity. Why would the immune system attack these foods as well? One can begin to wonder what is going on with the body and if it is all in our head. Your immune system has not gone haywire, it is not broken, but instead, it is doing exactly what it is meant to do.
The foreign invaders today are not the invaders our ancestors had!
We are all unique and with different nutritional needs. One person’s food is another person’s poison. One type of food can nourish someone by giving them energy while it may leave another person feeling drained and with an onset of symptoms. One food example is a cucumber. Cucumbers are mostly water and keep you hydrated. They are cooling and great to eat during the warmer months. They contain Vitamins A, B, and C along with minerals such as magnesium and potassium.
Cucumbers can stabilize blood sugar and flush out toxins. With all these benefits, how can anyone turn away cucumbers? For some, eating cucumbers can cause bloating, gassiness, itchy skin, swelling or hives around the mouth. If you have an allergy to ragweed, cucumbers may also cause an allergy due to cross-reactivity. Bananas, chamomile tea, melons, and sunflower seeds also fall into this ragweed cross-reactivity group.
Nightshades can impair gut function. In the case of autoimmune, they should be eliminated for four weeks then reintroduced back in one at a time to monitor any new symptoms. Nightshades include eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, and white potatoes which are high in lectins. Other foods include nuts, seeds, and legumes. Lectins have been shown to cause intestinal permeability which can be a trigger for autoimmune conditions. They can also be inflammatory to the body, and as with any autoimmune disorder, reducing inflammation is a key puzzle piece.
Raw cruciferous vegetables, known as goitrogens, can also be inflammatory and suppress thyroid function. These include arugula, bok choy, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, Chinese broccoli, Chinese cabbage, collard greens, horseradish, kale, kohlrabi, mustard greens, radishes, rutabaga, and turnips. Due to their high nutrient levels, including antioxidants, these can be eaten if prepared correctly. Cooking or steaming these cruciferous vegetables reduces these effects, including fermentation. If you want to consume these raw, it is best to eat in small amounts.
If someone had a thyroid disorder and was eating handfuls of raw cruciferous vegetables daily versus another person who was only eating these cooked or fermented, they would have different effects in terms of supporting thyroid function.
No one way of eating works for everyone is the whole premise of bio-individuality. It is a crucial piece of education with my clients. By empowering them on what foods support their unique body, they are provided with the information for sustained energy and optimal health while being free from symptoms and discomforts related to specific foods.
Allergens vs. Sensitivities
The most common food allergens today are:
- Tree nuts
- Wheat /Gluten
Signs of a food sensitivity or allergy include:
- Autoimmune disorders
- Abdominal pain
- Bloating, gas or constipation
- Rapid heart rate or palpitations
- Food cravings
- Heartburn and indigestion
- Itchy and watery eyes
- Joint pain
- Moodiness, brain fog, and headaches
- Nausea and vomiting
- Neurological disorders (migraines, ADD, and ADHD)
- Respiratory (asthma, chronic cough, and nasal congestion)
- Skin rashes, eczema, acne, and rosacea
- Swelling around face, lips, mouth, and throat
- Tingling or itching in the mouth
Some symptoms can appear hours or even several days after consumption, leaving you unaware that a particular food may be the cause of a food sensitivity. This can also trigger an IgG delayed response where the immune system reacts and creates IgG antibodies against that particular food. There can be a greater chance of food sensitivities when the same foods are eaten daily, especially at each mealtime.
As a preventative measure, it is best to rotate foods while avoiding eating the same food every day. Eating by season which involves rotating the foods eaten by season can be an added measure to prevent a possibility of food sensitivities. An IgE allergy comes on much more sudden and can include breathing difficulty, severe swelling or anaphylactic shock requiring medication.
When your immune cells attack food particles, you have what’s called food sensitivity. Knowing what foods fall into this category and what foods support your body can be a true personal transformation. Wellness is multi-dimensional, and one area to consider is a food sensitivity test. Due to the many different pathways in our system, no food sensitivity test is 100% accurate. Another result factor may be if an individual has eliminated a particular food such as gluten or dairy for months or years. When testing these foods, they can result in a false negative reaction. However, when reintroduced, an onset of symptoms can be created. With autoimmune, having a food sensitivity test can be a good baseline in determining which foods are creating a response.
Stress and Digestion
Then there are those groups of individuals that skip breakfast altogether or grab a caffeinated drink to push them through the morning, while creating stress on the thyroid, including the adrenals. When we take a look at our entire day, we can introduce food sensitivities, food allergies, toxins, chemicals, dysbiosis, pathogens, and even parasites. All of this creates stress, inflammation, and an autoimmune response in the body.
By now, you can start to see the interconnectedness of stress and the thyroid. But, we still have to go even further downstream to the GUT to get to the root cause. Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine (460-370 B.C.), made the statement, “All disease begins in the gut.” The gut, also known as the second brain, houses the more scientific term known as the Enteric Nervous System. It is the key controller of the gastrointestinal system, including the key component in wellness.
Food, nutrients, stress, and environmental toxins all play a role in the health of the gut. When the body is experiencing symptoms to include brain fog, joint pain, headaches, skin rashes, rapid heart rate, migraines, hyperactivity, muscle aches and pains, these signs can be due to food sensitivities, dysbiosis (overgrowth of bacteria), imbalance of bacteria, parasites, low stomach acid, low digestive enzymes, and even intestinal permeability, otherwise known as leaky gut.
A low stomach acid environment is more likely to create food sensitivities or allergies. Adequate levels of strong stomach acid are needed to break down foods, especially protein. Protein can be thought of as a ball of yarn, twisted and almost entangled. Stomach acid breaks down proteins as scissors would break up a ball of yarn by cutting it into pieces. If proteins are not broken up, mal-digested food is left in the gastrointestinal tract. This sets up the immune system to target and attack those foods as foreign invaders. If the immune system is already in a state of hyperreactivity, this will only set the system off to a higher level of reaction.
Prescription and over the counter NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) can contribute to low stomach acid, also known as hypochlorhydria (4). Aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin), and Naproxen (Aleve) are just a few of the anti-inflammatory pain relievers. Other contributors to low stomach acid include, poor eating hygiene, such as drinking large amounts of liquid during a meal. Acid-suppressing medications, a sympathetic nervous system state, hypothyroidism, hypoadrenalism, taking too many mineral supplements, SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), antibiotics, H-pylori infection, and elevated autoimmune antibodies are additional pieces.
One may think of leaky gut as the GI (gastrointestinal) system lining full of holes. Instead, the lining has gaps where the villi lining was once covered with tight junctions. This prevents food particles from passing through the GI and into the bloodstream. The best way I have found to explain this to my clients in a learning style has been to take remnant samples of rugs. The first sample has fibers that are constructed very tight and close together, otherwise known as tight junctions between the cell linings in the digestive tract. If you were to place a marble on this type of rug, it would sit right on top. The tight fibers would prevent the marble from falling through and passing to the other side. The villi respond in this same manner when it comes to food traveling down a healthy GI tract.
For the second remnant sample, it’s a shag rug. These fibers are very loose, not tightly woven and can easily be separated. That same marble placed on top would now fall through the fibers instead of sitting right on top. Once it falls through, it will be lost and difficult to see within the fibers. Leaky gut would perform in this same manner while allowing food particles to pass through the loose villi and finding its way into the bloodstream. This sets off the immune system into attack mode for those food particles.
When an individual with intestinal permeability eats the same food, such as gluten, at each meal, the immune system is in a constant state of attack on those food particles. But, as previously mentioned, the body is not a dumb machine. It is a complex regulatory mechanism. If the molecular structure of a particular food particle resembles any tissue or cells within the body, the immune system will attack these as well. This is the dynamics with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, where the thyroid antibodies, Thyroid Peroxidase Antibodies (TPOAb) and Thyroglobulin Antibodies (TgAb), are elevated due to the immune system creating antibodies against one’s own thyroid.
This can point to gluten where its protein structure resembles the protein structure of thyroid tissue. Other foods that have a similar structure to gluten include corn, dairy, millet, oats, grains, soy, and even yeast. When individuals remove gluten out of their diet, they may not feel completely better. Gluten then continues to be a part of the diet since symptoms did not improve. Instead, all foods that contain gluten need to be removed from the diet for symptom relief and healing of the gut lining. Even if you cheat and have one slice of pizza, the activation fires and stays on for up to six months.
The word ‘gluten’ does not appear on a food ingredient label. And, unfortunately, if there is a ‘gluten-free’ label, it can include those other sources of gluten just mentioned. Gluten, having a glue-like property, can also be found in rice flour, brown rice flour, and even corn flour. These all contain gluten. Gluten is a family of proteins. There can also be hidden sources of gluten such as in caramel color which can be made from barley. Beauty products for the body, including make-up, supplements, and even medications, can all contain gluten. The following link includes a comprehensive list of foods and products that contain gluten. Don’t forget to add to the list, corn, dairy, and grains which are also part of the gluten family of proteins.
In the body, there are memory B cells. These class of cells never forget. Memory B cells are not made to dairy or eggs, but you do make memory B cells to gluten. Once you’re introduced to gluten, the memory B cells are made and have been shown to never forget gluten. This memory becomes permanent. If you were to eliminate gluten for months or even years and then reintroduce it back into your diet, the memory B cells would recognize the gluten from back when it was in your diet. If you’ve ever had an immune reaction to gluten, you’re going to have memory B cells to gluten as well.
The most common protein that is not digested well from wheat is called alpha gliadin. Your immune system can make antibodies to fight this particular protein. When we think about thyroid tissue, it is made up of proteins and fats. Part of the thyroid’s protein structure mimics the protein structure of alpha gliadin. With gluten in our daily diet, even at every meal, we can add in intestinal permeability to the mix. This now sets up the perfect environment for an auto- immune dysfunction.
The immune system will fire and attack when any foods are eaten, where the body has created antibodies, including on human tissue resembling that food’s protein structure such as in the case of alpha gliadin. This is known as molecular mimicry; where the molecular structure of certain foods can mimic that of cells and tissue of the body.
This attack can also include, but not limited to tissue of the (5):
- Blood vessels
- Digestive System
German researchers published a 2014 study in Gastroenterology where within 5 minutes of exposure to food antigens, structural changes occurred in the intestinal lining (6). Epithelial gaps formed, resulting in leaks. The intervillous spaces widened and IELs (Intestinal intraepithelial lymphocytes) increased. An increased number of IELs is the earliest change following an introduction of gluten thus resulting in a gluten sensitivity (7). This increase also results in flattened villi and has been associated with autoimmune disorders, food intolerances, H-pylori (Helicobacter pylori) infection, viral infections, and parasites.
For the majority who have an autoimmune disorder, you can’t tell if your antibodies are elevated or not. However, gluten elimination is one of the most significant factors in getting thyroid antibodies to come down quickly.
For some, continuous exposure to gluten might not create the storm. Instead, you get a mercury overload from replacing old fillings, then you end a relationship or have a loved one pass away. And, finally, you get the Epstein-Barr virus, while this whole time continuing to eat gluten. These can be the triggers to set off intestinal permeability, inflammation and finally auto-immune markers.
It can never be understated that the immune system’s primary role is to protect the body. In addition to molecular mimicry, the ever so persistent immune system can wreak havoc on various tissues that are now homes to viruses such as the Epstein-Barr and chemicals such as Mercury. These threats can be proteins and foreign invaders from food, toxins, and bacteria. Now, if we go back to the definition of autoimmune where the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s own tissues, we have to ask ourselves, “is it really attacking its own body by mistake?”
Remember that the immune system’s primary role is to protect the body, and if there are viruses, chemicals, toxins or molecular mimicry being housed in the thyroid, the immune defenses are going to go after those foreign invaders. Whether these invaders are making a home in your thyroid, brain, muscles, nerves or joints, the immune system will go after them, too.
An imbalance in all of these areas can create a perfect storm for autoimmune dysfunction. Unfortunately, the majority of individuals who get treated for a thyroid disorder do not get full relief of their symptoms. Different stages of healing properties need to take place, and the order of operation is the most important factor.
All of these puzzle pieces need to be looked at, including conducting a health history and symptom questionnaire. These areas are the whole premise of Functional Medicine, addressing root causes rather than symptoms in order to restore and set the body back in balance. To fulfill this, it is also important to review with the individual, what their unique intuition is telling them as to what they believe is going on in their body. By now, you can see all the interconnectedness.
Thyroid disorders are not about the thyroid, but instead about the root causes that lead to thyroid dysregulation. The thyroid can perhaps be considered the human gland that is most sensitive to any demanding changes in the body. Communication from the body is always there. If we silence our surroundings, we can hear these cries instead of covering them.
- www.aarda.org; American Autoimmune Related Disease Association, Inc.