Is there a connection between your autoimmune disease and your digestive health? Autoimmune Disease has become a major health problem. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates up to 23.5 million Americans suffer from autoimmune diseases and that the prevalence is rising. Others say that 50 million Americans suffer from various autoimmune diseases.
The NIH numbers only include 24 diseases. Researchers have identified 80-100 different autoimmune diseases and suspect at least 40 additional diseases of having an autoimmune basis. These diseases are chronic and can be life-threatening. Autoimmune disease is one of the top 10 leading causes of death in girls and women in all age groups up to 65 years of age. The number of people in the United States with: Autoimmune Diseases 23.5 M to 50M Cancer 9 M Hearth Disease 22 M Direct Health Care Costs for: Autoimmune Disease $100 billion Cancer $7 billion Heart/Stroke $200 billion (source: NIH, AHA).
The Relationship Between Autoimmune Diseases and Digestive Issues
According to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Women’s Health, autoimmune disease and disorders ranked #1 in a top ten list of most popular health topics requested by callers to the National Women’s Health Information Center. The National Institutes of Health estimates that nearly ¼ of us (about 70 million) suffer from digestive issues: gas, bloating, heartburn, diarrhea, constipation and nausea. In functional Medicine it is believed that although these symptoms may be displayed in your gut their effects are systemic and can affect the whole body.
Functional Medicine believes that the gut is the core of our health and that a healthy gut is essential to have a healthy body. A properly functioning digestive system (gut) is critical to good health. In fact, 60 to 80% of our immune system is located in our gut and 90% of our neurotransmitters (chemicals responsible for regulating mood) such as serotonin are made in our gut. Problems in our gastrointestinal (GI) tract can cause more than just stomach pain, gas, bloating or diarrhea; they can be the root cause of many chronic health problems. Gut imbalances and leaky gut are known links to hormonal imbalances and hundreds of autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and hashimoto’s thyroiditis, diabetes, chronic fatigue, diabetes, fibromyalgia, anxiety, depression, psoriasis, eczema and rosacea, just to name a few. So, the question becomes: how can the health of the gut be improved?
Essential Factors for Improving Gut Health
Two factors that are essential to proper digestion are digestive enzymes and stomach acid (HCL-Hydrochloric acid). Digestive enzymes help break down proteins and fats so they can be properly absorbed. HCL helps to break down protein into amino acids so that they can be absorbed in the small intestine. Amino acids are the building blocks for neurotransmitters, the chemicals in your brain that control your mood. There are 10 amino acids that are considered essential. This means that if you do not get them from your diet, your body cannot make them. So, if you experience anxiety, depression, irritability or any other mood imbalance, then you might be deficient in these amino acids and could benefit from replacing your stores of digestive enzymes and/or HCL.
Digestive enzymes are plant or microbial-based supplements that support the breakdown, absorption, and utilization of macronutrients. Taken with meals, they work with the body’s own reduced supply of enzymes to achieve maximum digestion and they support intestinal repair mechanisms. Digestive enzymes, as their name implies, help you break down food into smaller parts that can be absorbed, transported and utilized by every cell in your body. Digestive enzymes are extra-cellular—meaning, they are found outside your cells. You should be getting many enzymes from the foods you consume—primarily, raw foods. These directly help with your digestive process. The more raw foods you eat, the lower the burden on your body to produce the enzymes it needs, not only for digestion, but for nearly every physiological process. Whatever enzymes are not used up in digestion are then available to help with other important functions.
Micronutrients are absorbed into your bloodstream through millions of tiny villi in the wall of your gut. But what happens when this process goes awry? Diets that are heavy in cooked, processed, and sugar combined with the use of over the counter and pharmaceutical drugs such as antibiotics, deplete your body's ability to make enzymes. Eventually, the body starts to break down because the nutrients consumed aren’t being assimilated or used by the cells. Supplementing with digestive enzymes and HCL helps the digestive system to become more effective which results in healing.
Digestive Enzymes in Raw Food Diets
Enzymes’ protein structures are fragile. When something disrupts its structure, the enzyme loses its ability to perform. Heating your food above 116 degrees F renders most enzymes inactive. This is one of the reasons it's so important to eat your foods raw. Raw foods are enzyme-rich, and consuming them decreases your body's burden to produce its own enzymes.
The more food that you can eat raw, the better; that is why we teach that your diet should be 85% raw and 15% cooked.
While cooked food places a greater burden on your digestive system there are some benefits to this 15% cooked so we don’t want to avoid it. Just take a couple of digestive enzymes when you eat cooked food. In addition to heat, enzymes are also very sensitive to shifts in pH, which is why different enzymes work in different parts of your digestive tract, based on the pH each enzyme needs in order to function. Enzyme deficiency results in poor digestion and poor nutrient absorption. This creates a variety of gastrointestinal symptoms as discussed earlier but what is more important is that it creates chronic malabsorption, which can lead to a variety of illnesses.
Food for Thought
Think about it—if your body doesn't have the basic nutritional building blocks it needs, your health and ability to recover from illness will be compromised. We often say that the only way you can improve your health is to eat well enough so that all of the cells that are dying each day are replaced with stronger, healthier ones. That isn’t possible when someone cannot absorb or assimilate nutrients. Besides breaking down food, enzymes (particularly the proteases) can help with gut healing, controlling pathogens, and immune support. Your immune system begins in your gut—and if you have digestive issues, you know your immune system isn't functioning as well as it should be. Add to that, your capacity for enzyme production also declines with age. By the time you reach the age of 40 your enzyme production could be 25% lower than it was when you were a child. And by the time you are 70, you could be producing only 1/3 of the enzymes you actually need.
Enzymes are the life force for our body. If you know your immune system isn’t what it used to be, taking a digestive enzyme and maybe even hydrochloric acid, with every meal might just be the way that your body can finally “assimilate” and “use” the nutrition from the foods you eat. You really are not what you eat but what your body can actually use!
Still not convinced? Review this partial list of diseases you could be fighting off with a balanced raw food diet and the proper digestive enzymes. This list is provided by the Autoimmune Association, created to raise autoimmune awareness, advocacy, education, and research:
- Addison’s disease
- Alopecia areata
- Autoimmune aplastic anemia
- Autoimmune hepatitis
- Autoimmune inner ear disease (AIED)
- Autoimmune pancreatitis
- Autoimmune retinopathy
- Autoimmune thyroid disease
- Celiac disease
- Chronic fatigue syndrome**
- Crohn’s disease
- Congenital heart block
- Dermatitis herpetiformis
- Discoid lupus
- Graves’ disease
- Guillain-Barre syndrome
- Hashimoto’s encephalitis
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
- Herpes gestationis
- Interstitial cystitis
- Juvenile arthritis
- Juvenile diabetes (Type 1 diabetes)
- Kawasaki syndrome
- Lambert-Eaton syndrome
- Lupus (SLE)
- Lyme disease, chronic
- Meniere’s disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- Peripheral neuropathy
- Pernicious anemia
- Postmyocardial infarction syndrome
- Primary biliary cirrhosis
- Psoriatic arthritis
- Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis
- Raynauds phenomenon
- Reactive Arthritis
- Restless legs syndrome
- Rheumatic fever
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Sjogren’s syndrome
- Sperm & testicular autoimmunity
- Stiff person syndrome
- Type 1 diabetes
- Ulcerative colitis
- Undifferentiated connective tissue disease (UCTD)
- Wegener’s granulomatosis (now termed Granulomatosis with Polyangiitis (GPA)