The Surprising Link Between Autoimmunity, Asthma, and Allergies
Lately, I’m seeing a lot of patients with asthma. As someone that sees a lot of autoimmune patients also suffering from other issues like allergies and asthma, that got me thinking about the connection between autoimmunity, asthma, and allergies. These three conditions often go hand in hand and a lot of people who have asthma also have an autoimmune disease. So what’s the common link? A breakdown in your body’s barriers. If you’ve got asthma chances are good that one of three barriers are weak: the lungs, sinuses, or even the gut. The same is true for people with autoimmune disease, who often suffer from breakdowns in one or more of these barriers.
I talked a lot about barriers in a previous blog post. If you want to know more about them and how they affect your health I recommend reading that post. In a nutshell, barriers protect you from harmful substances or allergens your body perceives as harmful.
In some cases, barriers can protect you from internal threats—for example, if your gut barrier is strong it will prevent undigested food particles from escaping into your systemic circulation and causing harm in your brain and body. In other cases, barriers like those found in your lungs and sinuses keep out things like pollen and other allergens.
Sending the Immune System Into Overdrive
When the lung and sinus barriers become leaky, especially the lung barrier, asthma is often the result. A leaky lung barrier leads to a heightened immune response. In that case, the lungs overreact to everything they’re exposed to in an attempt to protect you from even ordinary, harmless substances. This sets off an inflammatory response and leads to allergic asthma.
Lung and sinus barrier problems not only lead to asthma—in some people they can also trigger or worsen autoimmunity by causing your immune system to become hypersensitive. Exposure to environmental allergens or toxins contribute to the overall autoimmune process.
Although it’s counterintuitive, if you have asthma sometimes the problem isn’t the lung barrier. Instead, problems with your gut barrier may make you more vulnerable to pulmonary problems. In fact, there’s a surprisingly strong link between leaky gut and asthma.
Dig Down To the Root Causes
Whether a patient has asthma or autoimmunity, the solution is the same: I look for the factors that are causing stress in the patient’s body and weakening their barriers. Then I have the patient take steps to get rid of those factors. Here are four ways I eliminate the possible root causes of asthma and autoimmunity:
Eliminate Toxic Environmental Exposures
I recommend that patients with asthma avoid possible environmental triggers and reduce their total exposure load. I usually suggest:
- Installing air filters.
- Using a saline nasal wash.
- Stop using candles and air fresheners because synthetic fragrances are irritating to your sinuses and lungs.
- Watching out for perfumes and other scented items.
Identify Antioxidant and Nutrient Deficiencies
In some asthma and autoimmune patients, the trigger may be low levels of antioxidants like glutathione. It’s also possible vitamin D or other nutrient levels are low. Having a functional medicine provider order lab work to pinpoint nutrient deficiencies can go a long way in healing the lungs.
Eliminating Foods That Trigger Asthma
Diets loaded with sugar, pesticides, herbicides, and for many people gluten and grains only spell trouble for both your lungs and digestive tract. A poor diet is a huge source of stress and inflammation for your body whereas a gut-healing diet can make a huge difference in patients’ health. Eating the wrong types of food can weaken your gut barrier. In addition, food sensitivities or intolerances—even to what many would consider a healthy food—can aggravate the immune system and cause problems throughout the body including the lungs.
To identify troublemaker foods, I place patients on a tailored elimination diet. For 21 days, patients stop eating dairy, grains, nightshades, sugar, and processed foods. They then gradually introduce the foods back into their diet (one at a time) to see if any of the foods cause symptoms.
Stool Testing for Gut Barrier Health
I usually order stool tests on my patients with asthma, allergies, and/or autoimmune disorders. Since people with asthma are dealing with lung issues, this might seem odd at first glance. However, the lungs and the gut have an important connection, which scientists call the gut-lung axis.
Stool testing helps me find out if there are infections, inflammation, or poor immune defenses in the gut that might be spilling over and harming the lungs. Approximately 70% of the immune system resides in the gut. Whether it’s autoimmune disease, asthma, or allergies, the immune system is upset and misbehaving in all of these conditions. As a functional medicine practitioner, I am trying to figure out why the immune system is unhappy. The gut is a critical place for me to look for root causes. If there are problems in the gut, they can be triggering immune system problems throughout the body, including autoimmunity, allergies, or asthma.
One important marker I like on stool tests is short chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which are crucial for keeping the gut barrier healthy. SCFAs are made when friendly bacteria in your intestines ferment fiber. Good gut bacteria are vital for a healthy immune system and can tune the immune system, reducing asthma and allergies. In people with inflammation, SCFA levels are often low because these friendly bacteria aren’t doing their jobs properly. This can cause the immune system to overreact to harmless things and impact lung health. Researchers have found that dietary supplementation with SCFAs causes mice to be less likely to develop asthma because the SCFAs actually help immune cells work better. For a list of prebiotics that feed your good bacteria and boost your SCFAs, take a look at this blog.
Stool tests also measure fecal secretory IgA levels which can shed light on how well your gut barrier is functioning. Secretory immunoglobulin A (sIgA) is an antibody found primarily in mucosal linings. That means the lining of the mouth, entire gastrointestinal tract, lungs, vagina, uterus, and more. Secretory IgA protects us from harmful bacteria, parasites, yeast overgrowth, and allergens. I can work with you to order a test that measures sIgA and help you interpret the results in relation to your asthma and lung health. This is one of the best ways to heal your gut, lungs, and immune system.
Every Asthma and Autoimmune Patient Is Different
Not all of my asthma patients have problems with their gut barrier. Some people don’t react to any foods and their stool tests look normal. In these patients, the problem really may be the lung barrier. Instead of focusing heavily on diet and gut health, I work with them to reduce exposure to environmental toxins or identify nutrient deficiencies. Pinpointing the exact cause of asthma on your own can be overwhelming and confusing. That’s why it’s important to work with a functional medicine provider who is an allergy and asthma specialist.
An Important Step For Asthma Relief
Functional medicine providers like myself can help you identify the root cause of your asthma. You might be wondering: can you get rid of asthma? Many people with asthma have suffered with it their whole lives and think its incurable. But has any healthcare provider looked at your case with an eye for the root cause? The fact of the matter is you can find relief from many of your asthma symptoms and reduce their incidence when the underlying problems are addressed. At Caplan Health Institute we’ve had an excellent success rate with asthma patients. Get in touch with us today for an in-person or phone appointment. You’ll breathe easier knowing you took that first step.
Board Certified in Integrative Medicine
Certified Functional Medicine Practitioner
Institute for Functional Medicine Certified Practitioner