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Are you more at risk of autoimmune disease if you’ve taken antibiotics? Research may support an essential link between gut health and autoimmune disease.
The risk of autoimmune disease is growing. In fact, in 2013 some the top-selling medications were those that helped control autoimmune disorders. (1)
Which drugs for autoimmune disease made the Top 10 for 2013?
With 40% of our nation’s top sellers treating autoimmune disease, researchers are scrambling to figure out how autoimmune disorders develop in the first place.
Antibiotics may make cells more susceptible to autoimmunity, especially when the body is already inflamed from an infection.
An autoimmune disease is characterized by a trigger-happy immune system that attacks normal tissue. The immune system attacks this tissue just like it would attack bacteria.
Why autoimmune disease occurs in some people and not others is a mystery.
Laurence Eisenlohr, a professor in the department of Microbiology and Immunology at Thomas Jefferson University, explains, “Often, the trigger happens years before the disease has been diagnosed." (2)
Although no one knows exactly what sets off the development of autoimmune disease, many speculate that infection is a major risk factor. You see, the immune system works according to a system of checks and balances. It doesn’t usually have the authority to destroy every threat it comes across. Studies have found that certain immune cells (the ones that are active when the body first faces infection) self-destruct within 24 hours. In other words, they have a very short lifespan. (3)
If these immune cells were not programmed to self-destruct within 24 hours, they could harm otherwise normal tissue—like what we see in autoimmune disease.
Professor Fabienne Mackay, head of the Monash Department of Immunology, explains that this is an entirely new way of looking at the immune system, "This says something important about our environment—pathogens are not always the enemy. They can also work hand in hand with our immune system to protect us against some immune diseases."
In a recent study, Professor Eisenlohr and his team revealed that some antibiotics—which include gentamicin (brand names Garamycin or Gentak)—can cause cells to introduce new proteins, confusing the immune system.
Antibiotics like gentamicin don’t just fight infection.
They may also change healthy cells. These changes make the cells more susceptible to autoimmunity, especially when the body is already inflamed from an infection. While researchers believe that some autoimmune disorders begin with infection, Professor Eisenlohr’s research shows that the antibiotics used to treat infection may also be part of the problem.
Antibiotics may not only change healthy cells, making them more susceptible to autoimmunity—they can wipe out good bacteria, encourage Candida overgrowth, and make the gut leaky.
Besides infection and antibiotics, scientists have also shown us that leaky gut might trigger autoimmune disease.
When the intestines are inflamed (from irritants like wheat gluten or Candida overgrowth), they become permeable or “leaky.”
The gut wall is a barrier system that protects the body. When this system fails, extra stress is put on the liver, and we see signs of inflammation throughout the body. When the gut is leaky, we also see an increase of outside proteins from food, as well as bacterial byproducts. The immune system reacts to these proteins in an attempt to protect the body.
Alessio Fasano at the University of Maryland School of Medicine argues that leaky gut is an important and often overlooked player in the development of autoimmune disease. (4) He explains that intestinal infection and exposure to gluten can make the gut leaky. (5) Dr. Fasano also points out that a number of autoimmune disorders have a relationship to leaky gut—including rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis!
The latest research on autoimmune disease points to multiple factors that may act as triggers.
Maintaining a healthy gut is key to reduce autoimmune symptoms:
Risk of autoimmune disease is growing. Autoimmune disease is caused by a reactive immune system that attacks healthy tissue, just as it would attack harmful bacteria. Though there is no known cause of autoimmune disease, many health professionals believe that infection could be to blame, in some cases.
Common antibiotics used to fight infection may alter healthy cells. This makes cells vulnerable to autoimmunity, especially as the body is burdened by inflammation from infection. Antibiotics used to treat infection may be a contributor to the autoimmunity epidemic. Antibiotics can also destroy friendly bacteria, trigger Candida overgrowth, and cause leaky gut.
There are 5 important ways to improve gut health and reduce autoimmune symptoms:
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