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Gluten, the Gut Biome, & Ayurveda

posted Feb 24, 2013, 4:31 PM by Susan Bernhardt   [ updated Feb 24, 2013, 4:31 PM ]
The NY Times ran a piece today on links between the gut biome and celiac disease. Mounting research shows an association between the trillions of microbial partners who live in our guts and the functioning of our immune systems. Celiac disease, allergy, asthma, and possibly a host of other ailments may be tied to the colonies of creatures that populate our systems. The balance of power among these ecosystems appears to be critical to our health. For example, many people see the h. pylori bacterium as evil because they’ve learned, perhaps the hard way, that it can cause ulcers. But, don’t condemn h. pylori too quickly. It also appears to play a role in preventing asthma. For many of our gut partners, the question isn’t whether we want them at all but how we can keep the various components in balance.

As the NY Times article notes, what we are exposed to and what we eat affects the makeup of the gut biome and thus our health. As for exposure, the immune system actually needs to be exposed to microbes to build strength and guard against illness. If you want your kids to be healthy, let the dog lick their faces and send them out to play in the dirt. Regarding food, the article uses breast milk as an example – the particular sugars in breast milk selectively feed certain kinds of gut bacteria, including a kind that appears to protect the intestinal barrier and influence the immune system’s response to gluten. In other words, the little critters making up the biome need nourishment, and they get their nourishment from what we eat.

All of this is completely consistent with Ayurveda and may well explain why a number of Ayurveda practices work. Ayurveda has always held that digestion is at the root of health and disease. One saying is that if the diet is proper (and what that means will vary from person to person), medicine will not be needed, and if the diet is not proper, medicine will be of no use. According to Ayurveda, digestive symptoms, like gas and bloating, left unresolved can be the precursors to disease. So, disease prevention requires addressing digestion, and disease management likewise requires addressing digestion. Ayurveda therefore devotes major attention to digestion, looking not just at what we eat, but at many other factors that affect digestion such as when we eat, how we eat, fluid intake, and exercise. I haven’t seen a study on this, but it would not surprise me if digestive symptoms correlate with an out-of-balance gut biome. In other words, Ayurveda suggests the hypothesis that digestive symptoms may be a sign of a gut biome in need of balancing, with immune system dysfunction being a possible consequence of ignoring the signs.

Ayurvedic cleansing practices (pancha karma) directly address the digestive system and are seen as affecting various immune-related issues such as allergy and asthma. I used to have seasonal allergies as well as a pretty strong cat allergy. Now I don’t. I can be in a house with cats and even have a cat sit right up against me without getting an allergic reaction. The allergies went away after a couple of seasonal cleanses. Why? Among other things, the cleanses involved flushing out the GI tract and following very specific food guidelines. From an Ayurvedic viewpoint, ama (best translated as toxins) is being removed and the digestive system is being restored to proper function. In terms of modern gut biome language, my guess is that the flushing of the GI tract flushes out a large quantity of gut critters and the controlled diet affects the rebuilding of the gut biome colonies – in other words, the cleanses help put the gut biome ecosystems into a healthy balance that supports immune system function and other aspects of health. There are studies showing that Ayurvedic cleanses can decrease cholesterol and other cardiovascular risk factors, as well as heavy metals and pesticide residues stored in the body. I’d love to see a study as to whether the practices also affect the composition of the gut biome.