Autoimmune Gastritis: An In-Depth Look At Overcoming This Chronic Condition From A Functional Medicine Perspective

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We have an autoimmune problem. With over 24 million Americans diagnosed with an autoimmune condition and millions more struggling with autoimmune-related symptoms, autoimmunity is rapidly becoming one of society’s most common health problems. (1)

In my telehealth functional medicine clinic, I spend my days consulting people around the world on their health. But for many people with autoimmunity, it can be difficult to get answers to their health questions and even get a diagnosis of what’s going on.

One of the most overlooked autoimmune cases I see is autoimmune gastritis. With symptoms that can mirror indigestion or aren’t related to digestion at all, it can be difficult to pinpoint without a little digging.

Let’s dive in and learn more about what autoimmune gastritis is, symptoms, and treatment options so you can regain the thriving health you deserve.

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What is autoimmune gastritis?

Gastritis is a general term for a group of conditions that are characterized by inflammation in the stomach lining. While gastritis can be caused by a variety of factors, it ultimately comes down to something either damaging or weakening your protective stomach lining leading to inflammation. Autoimmune gastritis in particular happens when your body attacks the cells in your stomach lining leading to the breakdown of the protective barrier and further inflammation.

You can either have acute gastritis, where symptoms appear suddenly and disappear over time, or chronic gastritis where symptoms develop slowly over a period of time. Autoimmune gastritis is typically chronic and erosive in nature whereas some acute gastritis conditions can be non-erosive and don’t lead to breakdown of the stomach lining.

Causes of autoimmune gastritis

While we know that autoimmune gastritis is a result of your body attacking its own cells, a lot of triggers for non-autoimmune gastritis can still further perpetuate symptoms of autoimmune gastritis, chronic inflammation, and the breakdown of your stomach lining.

  • Bacterial infections: Studies have shown that H.pylori infections are the main cause of chronic gastritis as it directly attacks the stomach lining (2)
  • Alcohol: Since it is inflammatory in nature, too much alcohol can breakdown stomach lining
  • Medications: NSAIDs like ibuprofen are notorious for being hard on your stomach lining.
  • Chronic stress: Stress is a perpetuator of inflammation. And because of your gut-brain connection, what you are going through emotionally can affect your stomach lining as well

Even though gastritis is not contagious in of itself, the H. pylori bacteria is easily transmitted. But as long as you practice good hygiene habits like washing your hands and proper food handling, you dramatically cut your risk.

What autoimmune conditions cause gastritis?

It’s also been shown that people with other autoimmune disorders are more likely to also have autoimmune gastritis - specifically if you have Hashimoto’s disease, Crohn's disease, type 1 diabetes, or celiac disease.

Researchers aren’t sure yet what causes autoimmune conditions, but the primary theories include a genetic weakness being triggered by an immune system response to toxins; food proteins like gluten and casein leaking into the bloodstream through a compromised gut lining; or chronic viral, bacterial, yeast, or parasite infections. All of these involve out-of-control inflammation which is an immune system trigger. This inflammatory-immune response can both cause and increase intestinal permeability or leaky gut syndrome, further perpetuating the inflammatory-immune cycle. (3)

Symptoms of autoimmune gastritis

Acute and chronic gastritis symptoms can often get confused with indigestion as they both can have almost identical symptoms including:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Bloating
  • Burning pain/indigestion

Some other symptoms can include loss of appetite, stomach ulcers, and trouble gaining weight.

However, not everyone with gastritis has symptoms. In fact, autoimmune gastritis in particular can manifest in multiple areas of your body. When you consider that poor gut health and chronic inflammation are the basis for a variety of health problems, it makes sense that symptoms don’t have to be isolated to your gut.

Risks of autoimmune gastritis

It’s important to address autoimmune gastritis because it can lead to even more serious health concerns if left untreated.

     1. Pernicious anemia

In order to make red blood cells, your body needs enough vitamin B12. However, autoimmune gastritis can inhibit your body’s absorption of B12, leading to pernicious anemia. 

     2. Anemia

If H.pylori is also a factor in your autoimmune gastritis, it can lead to anemia. This is because H.pylori can cause stomach ulcers and bleeding in your stomach, lowering your red blood cell levels.

     3. Stomach cancer

Autoimmune gastritis and H.pylori induced gastritis can cause growths in your stomach lining that increase your risk of developing stomach cancer.

Is autoimmune gastritis life threatening?

If left unchecked, autoimmune gastritis can be debilitating and lead to life-threatening illness like cancer. But thankfully, that isn’t the reality for the majority of the population with this condition if you pay attention to your health and take the steps to incorporate the right healing tools.

How is autoimmune gastritis diagnosed?

If you suspect that you have autoimmune gastritis, a functional medicine practitioner will be able to determine with more accuracy through various tests.

     1. Breath test

An H.pylori breath test can give insight as to whether or not you are likely infected with this bacteria. A doctor will have you ingest a small amount of urea then exhale into a bag. Since H.pylori changes urea into carbon dioxide, this test looks for an increase in carbon dioxide from your breath.

     2. Antibody test

A predictive autoimmunity blood test allows us to see whether there is any abnormal immune response against certain parts of the body. For autoimmune gastritis we’d want to look for parietal cell antigens, which are associated with gastric autoimmunity.

     3. Inflammation labs

These blood tests look for elevated levels of inflammatory proteins like C-reactive protein (CRP) and IL-6.

     4. Stool tests

This looks for the presence of H.pylori in your stool.

Depending on your results of these tests, you may also be recommended to go in for an endoscopy to have a more up close and personal look at what is going on beneath the surface. To be clear, functional labs like this are not used to diagnose autoimmune diseases, which is still done in the mainstream medical setting. However, it can give us an accurate and educated assumption as to whether or not autoimmune gastritis is likely part of your health case. 

Treatment options

Even if you are diagnosed with autoimmune gastritis there are a variety of treatment options to consider. In conventional medicine the most popular treatments for acute, general, and autoimmune gastritis include:

  • Antibiotics: fights off H.pylori infections
  • Histamine (H2) blockers: reduces stomach acid
  • Proton pump inhibitors: reduces stomach acid and soothes ulcers
  • Antacids: reduces stomach acid and soothes inflammation

Treatment will ultimately depend on your specific cause as some of these options work to kill off gastritis-inducing bacteria while others work to alleviate inflammation and indigestion-like symptoms.

Can autoimmune gastritis be reversed?

In the case of autoimmune gastritis, conventional treatments act more like a bandaid for symptoms rather than a true treatment for the root cause. That’s where functional medicine comes in.

By taking a look at your labs and a complete health history - including diet and lifestyle assessments - we can better determine what is triggering your autoimmune gastritis and come up with a plan to address it naturally. In my telehealth functional medicine clinic, I often find that when these wellness tools are implemented on a consistent basis, people are able to find relief and even achieve remission.

A functional medicine approach to autoimmune gastritis aims to lower inflammation in the gut and repair any sort of damage to the stomach lining. Here are just a few things we commonly address in functional medicine:

     1. Diet

Human genes haven’t yet had the chance to adapt to the extreme changes in our food supply, and this mismatch between modern food and ancient human biochemistry has, according to many experts, greatly contributed to the rise of autoimmune disease.

An elimination diet can be a great first step to understand what foods are triggering inflammation in your body while leaning into anti-inflammatory, gut-healing foods like bone broth, sauerkraut, and other probiotic-rich foods.

     2. Stress

Research has found that chronic mental stress can be a trigger for autoimmune diseases. Stress management techniques like deep breathing and meditation can help to reverse the stress response. (4)

     3. Toxin exposure

Studies have shown that toxins play a role in autoimmune cases. Switching to non-toxic products as much as possible and getting diagnostic testing from a functional medicine practitioner can help determine your level of toxin exposure and reduce your toxic load.

     4. Gut health

Since all of the above-mentioned triggers can lead to damage to the stomach lining (better known as leaky gut syndrome), and further perpetuate autoimmune gastritis, poor gut health can be considered a casual trigger, as well as a symptom, of an autoimmune gastritis. Taking steps to repair the gut can therefore help to avoid triggering flares as well as help to reverse the autoimmune response and get your body out of the inflammation-autoimmune-leaky gut loop.

When to seek medical attention

If you are experiencing symptoms of indigestion - don’t panic. Indigestion is common and goes away relatively quickly on its own but if your symptoms continue to persist, make an appointment with your doctor to determine if gastritis might be the cause.

But if you do experience any one of these more extreme symptoms, call your doctor immediately.

  • Black stool
  • Bloody stool
  • Vomiting blood
  • Fatigue
  • Chronic GERD
  • Rapid weight loss

Next Steps

A word of assurance - gastritis and autoimmune gastritis are generally treatable conditions when addressed in a timely fashion. Most people are able to live a relatively symptom-free life with monitoring and implementation of natural healing tools. 

If you think autoimmune gastritis could be a factor in your health case and you want to know for sure, schedule a telehealth consultation and start the journey toward better health today.

As one of the first functional medicine telehealth clinics in the world, we provide webcam health consultations for people around the globe.

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References:

  1. Autoimmune Association. June 14 2022. https://autoimmune.org/resource-center/about-autoimmunity/
  2. Smyk, Daniel S et al. “Helicobacter pylori and autoimmune disease: cause or bystander.” World journal of gastroenterology vol. 20,3 (2014): 613-29. doi:10.3748/wjg.v20.i3.613
  3. Fasano, Alessio. “Zonulin, regulation of tight junctions, and autoimmune diseases.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences vol. 1258,1 (2012): 25-33. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2012.06538.x
  4. Ljudmila Stojanovich, Dragomir Marisavljevich, Stress as a trigger of autoimmune disease, Autoimmunity Reviews, Volume 7, Issue 3, 2008. Pages 209-213, ISSN 1568-9972, doi.org/10.1016/j.autrev.2007.11.007.

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BY DR. WILL COLE

Evidence-based reviewed article

Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.