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Have you heard of this term? It is used in the field of immunology to describe the co-existence that occurs between your immune cells and all other cells in your body. The immune system is tasked with the job of identifying pathogens from the outside world, but in order to do that, it must have the capacity to distinguish self from non-self. In other words, in order to do its job, the immune system knows the difference between cells that are part of the body and cells that are not part of the body.
If its ability to discern is disrupted, the immune system may confuse its own tissues with cells from outside the body. If self-cells are labeled as invaders, the immune system intelligently (but mistakenly) attacks those self-cells to protect the rest of the system from the believed invader. This is the case with autoimmunity and the term ‘loss of self tolerance’ is often used to describe the transition point where the immune system enters a confused state and mistakenly tags its own tissue as non-self.
The boundary between self and non-self
A large part of the immune system is located on the internal surface of the digestive tract. This boundary is a permeable membrane where the body touches the outside world. It is the site where nutrients from food are absorbed from the outside world into the body and where toxins from the body are excreted into the outside world. In other words, the boundary is the place where things are exchanged with our environment.
As you can imagine, if the immune systems must determine self from non-self, the boundaries keep the immune system busy with surveillance in case any non-self cells or proteins sneak in with the nutrients. The body works very hard in maintaining the integrity of this boundary because if it breaks, the immune system gets flooded with non-self cells it must chase down, label and remove.
Another term immunologists use to discuss how autoimmunity begins and persists is the term ‘leaky gut’. If the boundary of the intestines is compromised and cells or proteins from the outside world get into the body, the immune system gets activated as it identifies, rounds up and eliminates the outsiders. This is the job of the immune system and it is more than capable of doing this job from time to time.
The trouble occurs when the boundary is consistently broken forcing the immune system to be in a constant activation state as it attempts to keep self-cells safe and non-self cells outside the body. If this state goes on long enough or the barrier break is big enough, the immune system in its haste to re-establish border control might accidentally label self-tissue for removal as it rushes to remount order. Not only does the immune system fix the boundary break, but it also keeps a lifetime log of system invaders so it can more efficiently recognize and eliminate them in the future. This incredibly intelligent system works beautifully most of the time, but becomes the problem when the self tissue cell gets filed into immune system memory as ‘invader.’ This is the connection between leaky gut and autoimmune disease.
Surface of leaky gut and loss of tolerance
There are many environmental triggers that can break the intestinal boundary leading to the initiation and continuation of autoimmune disease. Gluten, NSAIDs, alcohol, stress and food sensitivities can all open the intestinal lining. Once again, it is not about the single breach in the lining – this occurs naturally from time to time. It is the chronic boundary break that is often behind autoimmune initiation and progression. Beginning with simply a whole foods gluten free diet is often a great place to start. Many blogs out there focus on this topic.
I want to be very clear with my words here. I believe part of the problem in medicine right now is that patients give their power to doctors to tell them what is wrong. This is a very dangerous form of relating. I do not want to continue this pattern with people. I am here to tell you that you know more about why you are sick than you think you do. My hope is that I can empower you to listen to your own experience and be part of your own path toward healing. Below are the areas I have identified in my own process that I hope might shed some light as you begin to identify and uncover your own path toward healing. Read my words and see how they sit with you. If they do not sit in you as true, please feel free to not absorb them. I trust your capacity to discern what feels like truth and what doesn’t. Ok, let’s proceed.
When I hear self-tolerance and breaking of intestinal boundaries, I can’t help but go to a different place than simply food allergies and wonder if self love, self knowledge and maintaining boundaries to meet our own needs is the deeper lesson at hand.
Do you have self-tolerance?
The most critical part of my own healing journey was learning to not only tolerate myself, but to love myself. I can’t help but read studies that talk about immune system tolerance and wonder how the person inside treats him or herself. We know from the field of psycho-neuro-immunology that the psyche directly influences the state of the immune system. In other words, your mindset and the way you talk to yourself influences the behavior of your immune system.
In the years leading up to my autoimmune diagnosis, I was in a chronic state of self-judgment and even self-attack and can’t help but wonder if this lack of my own self-tolerance was the precursor to my immune systems lack of self-tolerance. Do you see the relationship? For me this has been and still is a daily practice of noticing how I respond to the world. After a lot of self-witnessing, I don't believe I control the first impulse that arises in me that is critical, but I do control how I respond to that initial response.
It is so easy for me to criticize myself and then to criticize myself for criticizing. Do you see how it spirals? My current intention with this practice is not around creating an environment where internal criticism doesn’t occur, but to recover quickly and return to self kindness when I do.
Begin to notice how you talk to yourself. When something goes wrong or a mistake is made, what do you tell yourself? Do you criticize yourself for criticizing? I wonder what it would be like for you to not only tolerate yourself, but to love yourself. You are teaching your immune system to do the same.
Do you know yourself?
The immune system must recognize all the parts of itself. If we have hidden aspects or unacknowledged parts of ourselves, does this lack of self -knowledge create immune confusion? When I first got sick, I became acutely aware that I had been suppressing and ignoring an entire aspect of myself. I had been praised my whole life for very masculine characteristics. I have an incredibly analytical mind that can easily grasp new concepts and linear ways of knowing. I am sharp, to the point, love movement and have a tremendous capacity for productivity and getting things done. But all that motion and doing and striving to be enough left me depleted, exhausted, sick and wondering how I would make it through life.
When I started to sit with myself daily and get to know myself better, there was a radical returning home to my feminine aspect. Over time, as I sat with myself, I learned so much from this quieter voice. She taught me the power of softness, the necessity for rest and rejuvenation, the need for community and deep connection, the power of my intuitive sense, the joy that comes from sitting and listening to my body and opened a whole new way of being I had forgotten. She taught me how to dance in this life. In the process I spent a long time believing my masculine side was the problem, but have come to see that true power is the relationship and embodiment of both of these of these aspects.
Do you know the parts of yourself that have laid dormant for some time now that are calling to be embodied and heard?
Do you break your own boundaries?
When I read about leaky gut and how the breaking of the intestinal boundary is a precursor to autoimmunity, it makes me wonder about relationship boundaries. Another big part of my process was learning to listen to what I need and ask for what I need. I spent the first three years doing this self-work outside of a relationship. Because I had cultivated a daily practice of listening to myself, I got better and better at identifying when my body was asking for rest, when it was asking for movement, when it was asking for a certain type of food, when it was thirsty, when it needed to journal, etc.
I had a brilliant mentor at one time say - Jane, your job inside your body is one of caretaker. Your body has needs and it is your job to listen to and meet those needs. I think the challenge for me was how to take this understanding into a relationship. I struggled (and often still do) with voicing my needs to my partner and would feel guilty for being so “needy”. I found that when I ignored my own needs, my critical voice would often arise. What I want to connect is that leaky gut is the breaking of our physical boundary, but ignoring our needs or not voicing them in partnership is another way our boundaries get broken. I can't help but wonder if this subtle pattern is part of AI initiation and progression.
Do you know what you need from day to day? Are you brave enough to tell your partner what you need to take care of yourself? Do you trust they can hear and respect your needs?
How is your daily practice of sitting quietly with yourself? I just took a weekend course on a body listening technique called Focusing, which further reinforced my belief that body awareness and our capacity to listen is one of the most empowering skills to possess.