Preventing Autoimmune Disease
What Goes Wrong?
Your immune system’s job is to fight invaders. The healthy immune system knows what is ‘You’ and what is not, and it attacks what is not. So if it ‘sees’ a virus it recognises it as a foreign body not ‘You’ and implements an inflammatory response to destroy the virus. Your immune system does the same to bacteria, cancer and any other foreign body.
It is vital that you maintain a healthy immune system. The cells of your immune system are your white blood cells and the most common place to find white blood cells is in your gut. The reason the majority of white blood cells are found in your gut is because your gut wall is the link between the outside world and the inside world.
This content is intended to be educational; it should not be construed as medical advice. If you have a medical concern you should consult an appropriately licensed physician or health care worker.
You are not You!
Approximately 300 trillion bacterial cells live in your gut. In fact 9 out of 10 cells in your body are not yours, that is, they do not have your DNA. Most of these are bacteria that work symbiotically with the systems in your body to create a balanced healthy environment. The white blood cells in your gut are designed to attack all bacteria and yet most of your healthy bacteria live in your gut. The reason there isn’t an ‘all out war’ is because of the gut barrier, which is a layer of mucous that separates white blood cells from the bacterial cells. This layer of mucous is secreted by the gut wall and interestingly the gut wall cells are fed by the waste products of the healthy bacteria.
Feeding Your Gut Microbes
In simple terms we can break down the food we eat into four components:
Our healthy gut bacteria do not live off carbohydrate, protein or fat, instead they live off fibre. It is hardly surprising that in the western world today most people have starving gut bacteria. Our dietary level of fibre from plants, vegetables, fruit, seeds, nuts and legumes is far less than it used to be. When our bacteria starve, as a last resort, they eat the only energy source available and that is the mucous layer in your gut. When the mucous layer breaks down, the immune system comes into contact with the gut bacteria and attacks them. The inflammatory process that ensues causes pro-inflammatory chemicals to be produced, which get into our bloodstream and travel around our body. This inflammation that is now globally throughout our body is called systemic inflammation. Systemic inflammation is now seen as an important causative factor in many chronic diseases of the western world especially autoimmune disease.
Autoimmune disease occurs when the army of white blood cells have been fighting for so long they get exhausted, confused and they forget what is you and what is not you, and so they attack your joints in rheumatoid arthritis, your skin in psoriasis, or your nerve sheaths as in multiple sclerosis. To maintain a healthy immune system you need to maintain a healthy gut barrier and healthy gut bacteria. Firstly you need to reduce anything that can destroy the mucous layer in your gut and that includes sugar, alcohol and in many cases some of the proteins within wheat that break down the mucous layer.
Secondly you need to limit unnecessary use of antibiotics. Antibiotics destroy the gut bacteria allowing pathogenic ‘bad’ bacteria to grow.
Probiotics and fermented foods can greatly enhance the variety and health of gut bacteria. Having healthy gut bacteria is one thing, keeping them healthy requires us to deliver nutrients to them in the form of fibre. Different strains of bacteria eat different forms of fibre and so a good recommendation is to have a variety of vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts and whole grains.
Other tips to maintain your healthy immune system
- Don’t smoke.
- Exercise regularly.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Control your blood pressure.
- If you drink alcohol, drink only in moderation.
- Get adequate sleep.
Supplements that may help your immune system
Experts have long known that vitamin A plays a role in fighting infection and maintaining mucosal surfaces by influencing certain subcategories of T cells and B cells and cytokines. Vitamin A deficiency is associated with impaired immunity and increased risk of infectious disease.
Vitamin D is involved in turning on many of the genes needed for healthy immune function.
Zinc is a trace element essential for cells of the immune system, and zinc deficiency affects the ability of T cells and other immune cells to function as they should. Caution: while it’s important to have sufficient zinc in your diet (15–25 mg per day), too much zinc can inhibit the function of the immune system.