The Gut Impact: Autoimmune and Neuroimmune Diseases
There are a lot of autoimmune disorders. The common ones you hear about are lupus and rheumatoid arthritis and celiac disease. What you may not know is that some autoimmune diseases attack your brain and they are called neuroimmune or autoimmune neurological diseases.
Both autoimmune and neuroimmune diseases have a similar mechanism on how they affect your body and most of it originates in your gut. That’s often why people who have either form of immune disorder experience gut issues. That’s also why they often are told by their doctors the strict dietary measures they need to take to avoid flare-ups.
Here we will explore exactly how the gut has a hand in the severity of these diseases and what actions patients can take to better manage their symptoms.
What is an Autoimmune or Neuroimmune Disease?
Autoimmune diseases are diseases where the cells in your immune system mistakenly attack the healthy cells throughout your body.
Neuroimmune diseases happen when your immune cells attack your brain/nervous system cells (neurons).
These types of diseases happen when there is a kink in your immune system function. We will go into this in-depth in the next section but in short, your immune cells mistake your normal and healthy body tissues as invaders. There are a lot of different cells at play here but the main culprit in an autoimmune disorder is autoantibodies.
Anytime the prefix “auto-” is used in reference to the body it means ‘self’. So autoantibodies are antibodies that attack your body. They’re generally used as the determining factor when people are diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder. However, sometimes people have an autoimmune disorder but don’t have autoantibodies, and other times people have the autoantibodies but don’t show any symptoms of diseases.
These diseases are frustrating for both patients and doctors who want to help them. Similar to syndromes there isn’t a set rule across the board for everyone. There are just patterns that doctors can follow to hopefully come to a diagnosis and treatment plan.
How the Immune System Works
Your immune system is like a security system inside your body — think of it like ADT for your house.
You have specific cells that work like the alarms.
Antigens are what start the entire cascade. Antigens are tattle tale cells that when they come into contact with an invader they run to the T cells to let them know something is wrong.
Then the T cells stimulate plasma cells to make the B cells.
B cells then produce antibodies by recognizing the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecules.
There are many different B cell types and each one takes on a different invader.
Depending on what MHC molecules that are present, a different B cell will be paired with them from a T cell.
Each B cell type will then create the proper antibodies needed to attack the invaders.
This isn’t the only way the immune system works but it is the main one that seems to be affected by autoimmune disorders.
How the Gut Affects Immunity
In the gut, the immune response is regulated by IgA+ memory B cells and plasma cells that produce IgA antibodies. All of their actions take place in a nutrient-rich environment that houses gut bacteria known as the gut-associated lymphatic tissue (GALT).
This area of your gut is where good bacteria prevent bad bacteria from multiplying or escaping and affecting your body.
High-fat diets that are commonly seen in the Western world are really bad for the delicate balance in your gut. The high quantities of fat don’t allow for your B cells to mature, be produced, or carry out their tasks properly.
These diets are also low in dietary fiber and natural probiotics which are what help to nurture your gut bacteria and allow them to proliferate.
The dietary fiber is broken down by your bacteria allowing them to create more beneficial bacteria and release helpful products like short-chain fatty acids and other nutrients to their designated areas throughout the body. All of these things will affect the integrity of your gut health and your overall immune health.
The Gut in Autoimmune and Neuroimmune Disorders Specifically
Autoantibodies are the main way most autoimmune diseases are diagnosed. Sometimes they can be precursors to a diagnosis if someone isn’t experiencing symptoms yet.
However, the times where patients are symptomatic but don’t show up with autoantibodies on their tests make it a really frustrating time for them and their doctors.
Some autoimmune disorders are systemic so they attack your entire body without discrimination. Other autoimmune disorders attack specific organs, neuroimmune diseases are this type of autoimmune disorder.
Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
Multiple sclerosis is often thought of as a systemic disease since people who have it often have problems with walking during flare-ups. But the problem in multiple sclerosis is that the myelin sheath — the protective covering on the axon of your neurons — starts to deteriorate.
This causes problems with your neuronal messaging which doesn’t allow the messages your brain is communicating to the rest of your body to happen. In MS, the gut has an effect because the IgA and other Ig antibodies that are regulated in the GALT are what attack the myelin and the factors that help to create and maintain it.
Many dietary changes haven’t been proven to help with MS, however, intermittent fasting and the ketogenic diet seemed to be the most promising and effective.
Neuromyelitis Optica (NMO) or Devic’s Syndrome
Neuromyelitis Optica is an autoimmune disease that attacks your optic nerve (the nerve that goes from your eye to your brain to let it know what you’re seeing). This nerve gets inflamed and becomes painful when moving your eye and sometimes causes a loss of vision.
Along with optic nerve damage, this disease also presents with transverse myelitis. This means that on your spinal cord the myelin is damaged (like it is in MS) causing similar problems throughout the body.
It was found that there was a common bacterial disturbance across the board in patients with NMO. Clostridium perfringens were abnormally high in the guts of these patients indicating there may be a link to this particular bacteria strain and the origins of this disease.
Autoimmune Encephalitis (AE)
Autoimmune encephalitis is an autoimmune disorder that causes swelling of your brain. The excessive swelling causes memory loss, learning problems, and can lead to loss of consciousness or even comas.
AE is split up in several different ways depending on how it affects your body. Most times it is paraneoplastic, meaning there are neoplasms (cancerous tumors) throughout the body.
AE symptoms become more severe when patients consume high-sodium (salt) diets. So watching sodium intake is extremely important in AE patients.
All in all, your diet affects everything. While it may not completely cure or prevent any diseases the studies continually show how it does help to support your immune system and help with remission. Talking to your doctor about diet-specific changes you can make to help your fight against autoimmune diseases is crucial to the quality of life you can experience.
The gut is often referred to as the second brain so controlling your first brain with the second is a great route to improving everything especially when inflammation is at play.
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