A lot of people come into my treatment room asking which diet plan is best. “Should I follow a paleo diet?” “Should I do Keto?” “How about the Mediterranean diet?” These are common questions, but there is really no one diet that is right for every person. All three of these diets—paleo, keto, Mediterranean—are all good ways of eating healthy. However, the most important thing to understand is that food is not neutral; it’s either going to be anti-inflammatory or pro-inflammatory, and the triggers differ from person to person.
Gluten is a classic example of a food trigger for autoimmunity. The vast majority of people have some degree of reactivity to gluten. And because so many people consume so much gluten every day, there’s a high probability they’re having an immune reaction to gluten without even realizing it, possibly attributing their symptoms to other things or just accepting them. The reality is that they most likely have developed “leaky gut syndrome”, or intestinal permeability. Some of the more typical symptoms of leaky gut include:
- Brain fog
- Digestive problems or discomfort
- Skin problems
- Mood swings
So what is leaky gut, and what causes it? Intestinal permeability, more commonly referred to as leaky gut, occurs when the gut’s barrier system has been breached. There are a number of things that can cause leaky gut, such as prolonged or repeated use of medications including antibiotics, NSAIDs and antacids (whether prescription or OTC), food allergies, chronic stress, inflammation, yeast overgrowth, parasites, pesticides, and more.
By far the most common food source causing leaky gut is gluten, but other inflammatory foods like dairy, alcohol, and sugars are also high on the list. Once the gut barrier has been breached, everything from endotoxins and bacteria to heavy metals and environmental pollutants to move into the body’s circulatory system. Think of the gut barrier like a window screen in your home that’s meant to prevent unwanted outdoor invaders like mosquitoes from getting into your home. If the screen is weakened and develops holes, mosquitoes and other pests will breach that barrier and cause damage.
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The same type of thing is happening in your body when your gut barrier is breached and unwanted particles and toxins are allowed to circulate freely throughout your body where they don’t belong, causing the immune system to view them as foreign invaders and repeatedly attack them. The immune system’s heightened state of alert creates a constant state of inflammation, overstressing the immune system, which can then inaccurately attack healthy tissues. This is the beginning of autoimmunity.
In some cases, like with someone who has Hashimoto’s thyroid, there may even be a cross-reaction, which is when the immune system can’t differentiate between gluten and thyroid. When that happens, the immune system reacts to gluten, which causes inflammation, and then the immune system goes on to attack the thyroid.
There are a number of foods that more commonly trigger immune reactions, although gluten is by far the highest on the list. Some other typical culprits are:
- Tree nuts
Here again, different foods can cause immune reactions in different people, and the type of reactions can also differ from person to person. Keep in mind that any food, however seemingly safe, can trigger an immune reaction if a person has become sensitive to it at some point.
New food sensitivities can develop as a result of leaky gut—when food particles move through a permeable gut barrier and into circulation, the immune system will recognize those particles as “unfriendly invaders” and attack them, creating a reaction against that food. So every time that food is eaten, it activates the immune system which creates inflammation and causes the body to launch an inflammatory “attack” response. In addition, these “invaders” can also bind to different organs and tissues; when the immune system sees that those tissues and organs now look different or recognizes the familiar “invader” attached to them, it will attack the tissues or organs themselves, which also leads to autoimmunity.
It’s important to note that while autoimmunity cannot be cured, it can be better managed to control progression. At that point the goal is to calm down the body’s aggressive immune response as one autoimmune expression generally begets another. At the same time, we want to heal the intestinal permeability known as leaky gut. A number of things can be taken into consideration and corrected, including diet, stress levels, potential infections, and so forth. Once gut health has been restored and inflammation has been reduced, many patients experience fewer food sensitivities or have a better sense of what is the primary culprit.