In a recent study published in PLOS ONE, researchers at Lund University in Sweden have shown a connection between increased permeability of the intestines and multiple sclerosis (MS). The theory that so-called “leaky gut syndrome” plays a part in MS has been gaining popularity in the MS research community for the past several years.
Shahram Lavasani, Ph.D., one of the study authors, told Healthline that this connection has been a focus of his research for more than a decade. “Back then, the scientists and professionals did not believe in involvement of the gastrointestinal tract in development of ‘extraintestinal’ autoimmune diseases,” he said.
According to Lavasani, the gut was only considered important for the development of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
Lavasani and his colleagues had already demonstrated in earlier work that probiotic bacteria can offer a certain amount of protection against MS. This led them to wonder if the intestinal barrier is affected in MS patients.
Into the Bowels of Science
The team set out to show that increased permeability of the intestines is at work in MS. “Leaky gut,” characterized by a loosening of the structure of the intestines, allows harmful substances like toxins, microbes, and waste to pass out of the intestines and into the body cavity. It is not a widely accepted diagnosis, but the researchers are interested in exploring it further.
They studied intestinal tissue from mice infected with an MS-like disease and were surprised by what they found. Not only was a leaky gut involved, but there was also increased inflammation in the mice's intestinal mucous membranes even before they showed symptoms of MS. Inflammation plays a major role in MS, as inflammatory T-cells attack the protective myelin coating of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.
After the mice were infected with the disease, the researchers noticed structural changes in the membranes of their small intestines and an increase in inflammatory T-cells. At the same time, they noticed a drop in the number of T-cells that regulate the immune response. Those changes are commonly seen in IBD patients, but until recently hadn’t been considered part of the process in anything other than gastrointestinal diseases.
Not only was this inflammatory response seen in the mice, but it also appeared to increase as MS progressed. With both conditions contributing to rising inflammation, it can fuel a vicious cycle.
“This research is fascinating,” said Sarah Ballantyne, Ph.D. (aka The Paleo Mom), author of “The Paleo Approach,” in an interview with Healthline. “It takes our understanding of the role leaky gut plays in the development of autoimmune disease to a whole new level.”
Ballantyne speculates that perhaps MS is causing leaky gut syndrome, not the other way around. “This research shows something altogether more intriguing: that once the immune system develops the ability to attack tissues of the body, the gut is the first victim,” she said. “Rather than a leaky gut causing the dysfunctional immune system that leads to autoimmune disease, it might just be the other way around.”
If a leaky gut contributes to MS, the question is, can the gut be healed — and the course of the disease be altered — by making the right food choices?
Good Diet Choices Can Halt Leaky Gut
The team at Lund isn’t the only group who believe that leaky gut is a major contributing factor in MS — or that the foods we eat might affect the disease process. Besides Ballantyne, another notable supporter is Dr. Terry Wahls, author of “The Wahls Protocol” and a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa.
Wahls, herself diagnosed with MS in 2000, spent time confined to a wheelchair because of the disease. She devised the “Wahls Protocol” diet to address leaky gut and has seen dramatic improvement in her condition, inspiring many others with MS to adopt the diet. She is currently conducting multiple studies addressing the role of diet in MS.
“More studies are finding that increased intestinal permeability or 'leaky gut' has a role in the development of multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune disorders,” said Wahls in an interview with Healthline. “Healing the gut, restoring normal intestinal permeability, will require increased attention to diet quality and food choices.”
Ballantyne has spent years deciphering research papers on leaky gut and crafting her own diet to conquer it. She has written several books on the subject and “The Paleo Approach Cookbook” is her most recent. In it, she shares recipes without foods that contribute to leaky gut, while making use of foods that promote good intestinal health.
Whether a dysfunctional immune system causes leaky gut or it’s the other way around, addressing diet and lifestyle are both beneficial, Ballantyne said, because they both help regulate the immune system and restore a healthy gut.
According to Ballantyne, a diet that addresses leaky gut syndrome is “a powerful ally in the fight against autoimmune disease.”