Leaky Gut and the Autoimmune Thyroid Connection
Published October 14 2012
Updated October 17 2014
Leaky gut syndrome is a condition where the lining of the intestines is compromised. Normally the cells of the intestine are held together by tight junctions and prevent larger substances (proteins, bacteria, etc.) from passing through. But when someone has a “leaky gut”, these larger molecules can now pass through the intestinal wall, and thus go into the bloodstream, where they’re not supposed to be. The immune system sees these molecules as being foreign, and as a result an immune system response occurs, thus resulting in inflammation. This potentially can trigger an autoimmune response, thus resulting in a condition such as Graves’ Disease or Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.
Most people don’t realize this connection between the gastrointestinal tract and the immune system. And this is just another reason why it’s important to have a healthy gut, as if someone eats a lot of refined foods and sugars, or if they frequently consume foods they are allergic to, then over time this can potentially lead to a leaky gut. This process usually takes years to occur, and many times it’s accompanied by digestive symptoms, such as bloating, gas, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and other digestive symptoms. Food sensitivities are also commonly caused by a leaky gut, and so if someone begins developing an intolerance to numerous foods they were once able to eat, then this is a possible sign of a gut problem.
It’s important to understand that just because you don’t have any of these symptoms doesn’t mean your digestive system is in good health. Although symptoms can frequently be a good indicator of a gut problem, some people don’t experience these symptoms. For example, gluten is a common allergen, and even though I don’t think everyone needs to avoid gluten permanently, I do think it’s a good idea for most people to at least go on a gluten free trial. Many people who are gluten sensitive will feel significantly better from a symptomatic perspective when doing this. However, some people who are sensitive to gluten don’t experience any symptoms. But even if this is the case, consuming gluten will still have a negative effect on their gastrointestinal health, and can potentially lead to a condition such as leaky gut syndrome.
Other Factors Which Can Cause Leaky Gut Syndrome
While a poor diet can definitely lead to a leaky gut, there can be other factors which cause this condition. Chronic stress can affect the blood flow to the digestive system, and over a prolonged period of time this potentially can lead to leaky gut syndrome. Plus, chronic stress will decrease secretory IgA, which lines the gastrointestinal tract, and this can cause a leaky gut. Frequently it’s a combination of a poor diet and chronic stress that leads to this condition. Taking antibiotics will affect the integrity of the gut lining, plus these drugs will usually cause intestinal dybiosis (an imbalance of the gut flora), and thus can thus lead to leaky gut syndrome. NSAIDS can also cause problems with the gut. The frequent consumption of alcohol can also lead to leaky gut syndrome.
Infections in the gastrointestinal tract can also lead to leaky gut syndrome. An example is an infection with H. Pylori. And there other types of infections which can cause problems with the gut. Having parasites can damage the intestinal lining, thus resulting in leaky gut syndrome. And even exposure to certain toxins can potentially lead to a leaky gut. So as you can see, there are numerous factors which can lead to problems with the gut.
Leaky Gut Syndrome and Natural Treatment Methods
There really isn’t any effective conventional medical treatment for leaky gut syndrome. First of all, most medical doctors don’t even acknowledge leaky gut syndrome as being an actual condition. And so if someone is experiencing digestive symptoms like the ones I described before, their medical doctor will either recommend medication, or they might refer the person to a gastroenterologist, who probably will run the person through a series of different digestive tests. In a condition such as leaky gut syndrome, these tests are likely to come out negative, and so once again, the patient will frequently be told nothing is wrong, or perhaps they will be told to take some medication to manage the symptoms.
So a natural approach is almost always necessary to restore one’s gut health back to normal when dealing with leaky gut syndrome. And if someone has an autoimmune thyroid condition such as Graves’ Disease or Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, then it probably will be necessary to correct the gut problem in order to restore their thyroid health back to normal. And the reason is because their thyroid health is being compromised due to the autoimmune response, which in turn is being affected by the gut problem. So if the gut problem isn’t corrected, then the immune system will continue to react.
So how does one correct a leaky gut? Well, as usual I recommend consulting with a competent natural healthcare professional for some guidance. But without question it will all begin with one’s diet. So the person with leaky gut syndrome will need to eat well, probably will be told to avoid gluten and dairy, as well as any other common food allergens. Foods such as nuts, seeds, beans, and the nightshade vegetables have some health benefits, but they also can have a negative effect on gut health, and thus might need to be avoided for a period of time during the repair process. Stress management is extremely important as well. The person will need to avoid alcohol while their gut is healing, and if they have an infection that might be causing the leaky gut, then this will need to be addressed. I’ve discussed some of these factors more specifically in other articles.
Certain foods can be beneficial for healing the gut. For example, eating bone broth and fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kimchi can help heal the gut. I commonly recommend L-glutamine to help with gut repair, although other nutrients and herbs which can help include zinc, vitamin A, aloe vera, and slippery elm.
How Can One Determine If “Leaky Gut” Is The Problem?
It sometimes can be a challenge to determine whether someone has leaky gut syndrome. Besides looking at the person’s symptoms, there are a few tests which can help determine if someone has this condition. The classic way of finding this out is through a urine test, where someone drinks a solution consisting of mannitol and lactulose, and if high levels of lactulose are found in the urine sample then this supposedly confirms that the person has a leaky gut. I like to look at the Total Salivary IgA, also known as secretory IgA, as I mentioned earlier that this lines the gastrointestinal tract, and when this is depressed then this could indicate that someone has a leaky gut. The company Cyrex Labs has a blood test called the “Intestinal Antigenic Permeability Screen, which is a test for detecting increased intestinal permeability. This is perhaps the most accurate method of testing to see if someone has a leaky gut. It also can determine if someone has intestinal dysbiosis by measuring the antibodies associated with lipopolysaccharides, which are from gram negative bacteria. I have written a separate article on this entitled “What Are Lipopolysaccharides, And How Can The Affect Thyroid Health?“.
So hopefully you have a better understanding as to how a condition such as leaky gut syndrome can lead to an autoimmune thyroid condition. When someone has a leaky gut this will cause an immune system reaction, which can either directly cause a condition such as Graves’ Disease or Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, or it can exacerbate such a condition. As a result, anyone with an autoimmune thyroid condition who has a leaky gut needs to get this corrected in order to restore their health. And while you can do a lot on your own by eating well and managing your stress, since other factors can also be involved it is usually best to seek the advice of a natural healthcare practitioner.