I have heard and read tidbits about the concept of the “leaky gut” for a while, especially in regards to autism, so it was with great interest that I read Dr. Alessio Fasano’s article, “The Leaky Gut and Autoimmune Diseases,” which was published in 2012. Dr. Fasano is one of the leading U.S. researchers of Celiac Disease and is the head of the Center for Celiac Disease Research at the University of Maryland. He was the first to report that 1 in 133 Americans are Celiacs (the majority of which have no idea). He will likely be one of the first to find a cure for us. And, as I recently learned by watching a recent televised interview, he is also very easy on the eyes…
Our digestive tracts are one of the largest immune organs in our body. The tissues of our small and large intestines act as a barrier to keep out proteins and other molecules which may be perceived by our bodies as being “foreign.” According to Dr. Fasano, increased intestinal permeability (or loss of the barrier function of our intestines) may play a role in the development of autoimmune diseases. In autoimmune diseases, our immune systems produce antibodies against our own tissues, called “autoantibodies.” For example, in Hashimoto’s Disease, the first autoimmune disease which I was diagnosed with, autoantibodies have attacked and destroyed my thyroid gland. In Celiac Disease, when our bodies are confronted with “foreign” proteins in gluten, such as gliadin, autoantibodies are formed which lead to an attack that may cause injury to many organs, including the intestines.
We all have “tight junctions” between the cells in the lining of our intestines. These tight junctions prevent the movement of “foreign” proteins to the layer of the intestines where the immune response occurs. Dr. Fasano has found that individuals with autoimmune diseases have increased levels of a molecule called zonulin in their intestines. Zonulin plays a role in making the intestinal tight junctions looser, and thus, “leakier.” Leaks between the tight junctions allow “foreign” proteins, i.e. gliadin, to sneak into the deeper layers of the intestine and for autoantibodies to be created. Dr. Fasano provides evidence that zonulin levels are increased in Celiac Disease as well as other autoimmune diseases, such as Type I Diabetes, Asthma, Multiple Sclerosis, and Inflammatory Bowel Disease.
Trials of a zonulin blocker, called Larazotide acetate, are currently underway. Thus far, patients with Celiac Disease who take this medication have much “tighter” junctions when ingesting gluten. While this would not be a cure for celiac disease, it would be a great way to prevent people on the GF diet from getting accidentally “glutened.” And if you are a Celiac or have a loved one who is a Celiac, you can understand how truly horrendous it is to get “glutened.” I am curious to see if research will show that increased zonulin levels lead to other food intolerances and sensitivities in those of us with Celiac disease. Since going gluten free I have also developed autoimmune/inflammatory symptoms after consuming foods with soy proteins as well as sulfites. I guess that time will tell. Until then I am patiently waiting….