It is your immune system’s job to protect you from aggressors that might harm your health…but what if your immune system becomes a threat? This is exactly the case in autoimmune disease, where the immune system begins to destroy your body’s own tissues, such as the gut in Celiac disease, the joints in rheumatoid arthritis, or the pancreas in type one diabetes.
Autoimmunity arises out of a complex interaction between our genetics and our environment, and it’s risen dramatically over the past 30 years1-5. In fact, each year in Canada, autoimmune diseases increase by over 7%1. Over 23 million Americans have autoimmune diseases, which is almost double the number of Americans living with cancer5. So why is this occurring? We don’t know for sure, however, as these diseases appear to mimic recent shifts in lifestyle over the past thirty years, it would appear that diet, the built environment and stress all play a role, as does detrimental changes in our gut bacteria1-3.
Striking the Right Balance in the Gut
The connection between the gut microbiota and immune function has been well established; so, could gut bacteria also impact autoimmunity? Early research suggests yes.
Part of this connection is something widely described as the hygiene hypothesis2,3. As standards of sanitation and cleanliness rise, exposure to microbes and infections decrease; however, it is thought that this decrease may cause the immune system to be over-reactive2,3. While it’s been established that normal exposure to environmental microbes educates the immune system so that it performs appropriately, chronic infection with microbes more common in our past, such as helminths, is associated with increased immune tolerance and decreased autoimmunity3.
Alongside fewer infections, our modern lifestyle tends to predispose us to dysbiosis, an imbalance of the gut bacteria which can lead to an inflammatory state – and autoimmunity is associated with dybiosis2,4,7. Here, we see the interplay between nutrition and the gut microbiota; diet is a strong modulator of the gut microbiota for better or for worse2. For example, in one study, a high fiber diet appeared protective against multiple sclerosis – given that fiber feeds bacteria in the colon, we would expect this effect is moderated by the gut microbiota2.
Unraveling the Connection between Bacteria and the Immune System
Researchers have found that substances produced by bacteria can mimic substances produced by the body, such as the pancreas. With trillions of bacteria living in your gut, your immune system and gut microbiota need a way of communicating with each other to ensure tolerance. In doing so, the immune system knows how to recognize bacterial-associated patterns – and it’s possible that the immune system can learn to recognize these patterns as beneficial or harmful and likewise, the patterns on your own cells that these bacterial patterns mimic2,6. We see that certain species of bacteria – and the absence of certain species - are strongly associated with autoimmunity, such as Prevotella copri in Rheumatoid Arthritis5.
While we have more to learn, it seems clear that gut bacteria are important to the autoimmunity story – so, could probiotics be an effective stand-in for the normal functions of the gut microbiota? What we do know is that probiotics help improve many of the factors associated with autoimmunity such as gut barrier dysfunction, gut infection, and inflammation. So while we wait on disease-specific research to be published, probiotics may still be a wise part of your lifestyle foundation in autoimmunity.
Supporting Immune Health Everyday
As the research progresses, one thing is clear: maintaining, or restoring, a healthy gut microbiota is important for supporting immune function as part of a healthy lifestyle5. Start by eating a wide variety of unprocessed high fiber plant foods such as vegetables, legumes, and seeds. These foods help nourish the immune system directly with phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals while feeding beneficial bacteria in the gut4. We also need to move our bodies more, as moderate exercise is a positive pressure on our immune system that helps it thrive and helps reduce stress. Sleep is a critical time of growth and repair and needs to be re-prioritized in our daily lives. And finally, taking a clinical strength probiotic such as Bio-K+ helps reinforce your gut bacteria so that it can more effectively support your immune system.
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- Lerner, Aaron, Patricia Jeremias, and Torsten Matthias. "The world incidence and prevalence of autoimmune diseases is increasing." Int J Celiac Dis4 (2015): 151-5.
- Manzel, Arndt et al. “Role of "Western diet" in inflammatory autoimmune diseases” Current allergy and asthma reportsvol. 14,1 (2014): 404.
- Rook, Graham AW. "Hygiene hypothesis and autoimmune diseases." Clinical reviews in allergy & immunology42.1 (2012): 5-15.
- Carding, Simon et al. “Dysbiosis of the gut microbiota in disease” Microbial ecology in health and diseasevol. 26 26191. 2 Feb. 2015, doi:10.3402/mehd.v26.26191
- Campbell, Andrew W. “Autoimmunity and the gut” Autoimmune diseasesvol. 2014 (2014): 152428.
- Nanjundappa, Roopa Hebbandi, et al. "A gut microbial mimic that hijacks diabetogenic autoreactivity to suppress colitis." Cell171.3 (2017): 655-667.
- de Oliveira, Gislane Lelis Vilela et al. “Intestinal dysbiosis and probiotic applications in autoimmune diseases” Immunologyvol. 152,1 (2017): 1-12.
- Liu, Yuying et al. “Probiotics in Autoimmune and Inflammatory Disorders” Nutrientsvol. 10,10 1537. 18 Oct. 2018, doi:10.3390/nu10101537
- Shen, Zhao-Hua et al. “Relationship between intestinal microbiota and ulcerative colitis: Mechanisms and clinical application of probiotics and fecal microbiota transplantation”World journal of gastroenterologyvol. 24,1 (2018): 5-14.