Understanding Autoimmunity: When Your Body Turns Against You
By Diana Milling • June 28, 2016
Many are familiar with the term autoimmunity and likely know someone affected by an autoimmune disorder. With more than 24 million Americans suffering from autoimmune conditions, it makes it the third largest class of illness in the United States. So why are we seeing autoimmune diseases increase at such dramatic rates?
Inflammation as a Key Player
This is due in part to a deeper understanding that many autoimmune diseases share a common thread – inflammation. Auto-immune conditions are connected by one central biochemical process: a runaway immune response also known as systemic inflammation that results in your body attacking its own tissues. (i)
Inflammation is getting a lot of buzz these days but it’s important to distinguish between good and bad inflammation.
Inflammation “is essential for our health and safety, yet when unregulated and undisciplined, it can be a potent and unrelenting negative force on our cellular health.” (ii)
When we have a cut, bruise or injury, our body responds by telling our immune system to activate certain proteins and chemicals to heal that tissue. The affected area becomes red, inflamed and warm to the touch. Our body has the innate ability to heal itself and creates the appropriate response to do so.
In a healthy state, our immune system is able to turn on and off this type of acute response in an orchestrated fashion. It recognizes, remembers and attacks viruses, bacteria, cancer cells and other foreign invaders. On the other hand, when chronic or persistent inflammation is present, we start to lay the groundwork for potential illness. This is often what triggers our immune system to have an inappropriate response. A defective immune system cannot identify self from non-self and starts to attack the host by directing antibodies against its own tissues.
Prolonged inflammation causes cytotoxic cells to direct self-antigens in our body’s organs and tissues. This causes disease processes that are autoimmune in nature. Examples of these diseases include: rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative colitis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, lupus, psoriasis, even Type I diabetes and allergies. The list goes on and on.
What kickstarts this dysregulation and what are some things that can be done to keep our immune systems functioning properly? The diagram below depicts the many variables that can start to wreak havoc on our immune systems.
As Naturopathic Doctors we are trained to address the underlying causes of illness. Genetic predisposition, environmental triggers, inflammation and a compromised GI tract are all contributors to autoimmune diseases.
A Leaky Gut
The term leaky gut refers to a damaged intestinal lining. In a healthy individual, the villi in the intestines have nicely shaped finger like projections. When the intestinal lining becomes compromised, these projections start to flatten.
The intestinal wall contains cellular connections called tight junctions. In their natural state, these junctions remain compact to form an impermeable barrier designed to keep toxins and other substances from getting into our bloodstream. If we are eating foods that aggravate our GI tract, have been infected by a virus or bacteria, or have been taking pharmaceuticals such as antibiotics, these tight junctions become compromised making our intestinal lining porous or “leaky”
When this happens, substances that should not cross this barrier such as bacteria, viruses, and certain proteins from foods enter into our bloodstream. This signals our immune T helper cells to get into fight mode. Our immune system becomes upregulated to protect us against what it sees as foreign invaders. If our bodies remain in this upregulated state for a prolonged period of time, our immune system goes into overdrive leaving it susceptible to dysregulation. Our immune systems become confused so to speak and our own organs can get caught in the crossfire. An attack starts to happen to our own joints, muscles, skin, brain, gut and thyroid.
Prevention and Nutritional Supplements to Boost Immune Health
The goal is to rebalance the immune system and remove aggravating factors
- Treat/remove chronic infections such as Candida (yeast), Streptococcus thermophilus (commonly found in yogurt), other bacteria, viruses, Lymes
- Avoid heavy metals, plastics (BPA), pesticides, herbicides
- Avoid tobacco, alcohol, limit caffeine intake
- Make sure to get plenty of exercise, get outdoors at least 30min/day
- Sleep hygiene, chronic insomnia is a predisposing factor
- Lower stress, negative emotions, steroids, hormone imbalances
- Incorporate deep breathing, mediation or yoga
- Clean up your diet and fix your gut, address any food intolerances or sensitivities. More often than not, gluten needs to be completely avoided.
Supplementation (note should be prescribed & monitored by a trained health care professional)
- Omega-3 fatty acids found in all cold water fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel, halibut) sea vegetables, dark leafy greens
- Oleic acids found in cold or expeller pressed extra virgin olive oil (coconut oil, whole nuts, seeds, ripe olives)
- Spirulina/Chlorella- these nutrient dense greens are rich antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and enzymes needed to aid in detoxification
- Glutathione – acts as an antioxidant and is essential for balancing Th1 and Th2 immune states
- Probiotics – essential for not only healthy digestion but for immunue support as 80% of our immune system is in our gut
- Digestive Enzymes – help to break up protein and usuable amino acids to aid in proper digestion
- B Vitamins – support hydrochloric acid production and support the nervous system
- Magnesium – calms nerves and anxiety, relieves muscle aches & spasms, relieves constipation
- Quercetin – can reduce immune complexes which cause antibody production
- Vit D – often deficient levels are seen in autoimmune processes
Early prevention is key to avoid the onset of any autoimmune disease. As discussed, this can be done by dampening inflammation and removing underlying obstacles to health. The body strives to be in state of homeostasis and if provided a supportive environment it will do just what its designed to do … heal itself!
- Hyman, M (2015, November) How to stop attacking yourself: 9 steps to heal autoimmune Disease. Retrieved from http://drhyman.com/blog/2010/07/30/how-to-stop-attacking-yourself-9-steps-to-heal-autoimmune-disease/
- Resnick, S (2015, April) Inflammation I: An Introduction to Immune Function. Retrieved from http://www.chattanoogafunctionalmedicine.com/blog/inflammation-i-an-introduction-to-immune-function
- Fasano, A. “Leaky gut and autoimmune diseases.” Clin Rev Allergy Immunol. 2012 Feb;42(1):71-8.
- Fasano A, Shea-Donohue. “Mechanisms of disease: the role of intestinal barrier function in the pathogenesis of gastrointestinal autimmune diseases.” Nat Clin Pract Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2005 Sep;2(9):416-22. Print
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Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health practitioners with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.