You have an Autoimmune Disease. Now what?
Autoimmune disease is all too common in developed countries today. In fact, when you Google “autoimmune disease”, a handy list of the most common autoimmune diseases appear on the right side of the screen. There were 11 of them starting with Rheumatoid Arthritis and ending with Temporal Arteritis and things like Multiple Sclerosis and Ankylosing Spondylitis somewhere in the middle. Unfortunately, a list of eleven hardly scratches the surface of this quickly emerging issue called autoimmunity. There are probably over 100 types of named autoimmune disorders as of this writing.
Upon first glance, each condition on that short list appeared to have its roots in a different area of the body. Yet they all have one thing in common: that “autoimmune” label. So I want to explore what autoimmune disease actually means.
What is autoimmune disease?
The National Library of Medicine’s Medline Plus Medical Encyclopedia says that
An autoimmune disorder occurs when the body’s immune system attacks and destroys healthy body tissue by mistake.
By mistake? Hmm.
If you know me, you know I can’t accept that this “mistake” just happens for no specific reason. No, the body responds to certain conditions; to certain stimuli. If it is making a mistake, we surely must be able to do something about that by changing the conditions or removing the stimuli. Wouldn’t that make sense?
Before I get further into my take on that, let’s talk a bit about what is actually happening when the body’s immune system attacks itself, as it does in the case of autoimmune disease. I’ll start with a couple of important definitions: Antigens and Antibodies.
Some immune system basics: Antigens and Antibodies
An antigen is a substance that your body doesn’t recognize. It’s essentially a foreign invader from the outside – like a chemical, a virus or even pollen, or it could be something that already resides in the body. Either way, the antigen signals our immune system to mount an attack and fight off the foreign substance.
Once the immune system has detected the antigen and is triggered to fight, it produces antibodies against that antigen. Each antibody is a unique protein designed to destroy a specific antigen. It’s a brilliant system that works really well except when antibodies are produced to defend against healthy tissue mistaken for a dangerous foreign invader. That’s what happens with an autoimmune disease.
So how can healthy tissue be mistaken for a foreign invader?
Some people have a genetic predisposition to autoimmune disease due to specific gene complexes called HLAs or Human Leucocyte Antigens. We all have them, but not everybody has the same types, and not all types increase the potential for autoimmunity. Here’s what they do: These HLAs create proteins that sit on cell walls to help the immune system distinguish between foreign invaders that should be attacked and harmless tissue that poses no threat. But even if you have a certain type of HLA that predisposes you to autoimmunity, you may never show symptoms of an autoimmune disorder.
It takes a “trigger”.
Researchers believe that either internal or external environmental stimuli actually “trigger” disease and the corresponding symptoms. So yes, there are many people out there who are predisposed to autoimmune disease because of a certain HLA, but because there has been no “trigger”, they likely never even know of their predisposition and remain healthy, without symptoms.
Some potential causes or triggers of an autoimmune response.
Inflammation is a big one. Don’t get me wrong though, inflammation is a very good thing during short-term emergencies like when we cut a finger or burn our hand. This type of inflammation is called “acute” inflammation and is a normal, healthy, biological response that protects the body from something that’s harmful or irritating. It’s that redness, heat, pain and maybe swelling that actually represents the beginning of the healing process.
It’s’ when inflammation becomes chronic or goes on over a long period of time that it’s not good. In fact, chronic inflammation will break the body down because it’s trying to heal while the destructive irritant is still there. In this scenario, tissues become damaged to the point that the cells begin to change thanks to oxidative stress and free radical production, and disease sets in. (Check out Dr. Andrew Weil’s explanation of oxidative damage here) So what happens is these once-healthy cells (damaged proteins) begin to resemble foreign invaders, which in turn triggers an attack by the immune system.
The Gut. Our digestive system may very well be the biggest offender when it comes to the development of autoimmune diseasen. It’s not uncommon for stress and diet to compromise the health of the gut, which contributes to a condition called “Leaky Gut” (see my article on leaky gut HERE). With leaky gut, undigested particles of food find their way through the intestinal wall and out into the bloodstream where they don’t belong. With loads of immune cells located right in that vicinity, they react as though these food particles are bad guys. In fact, the molecular structure of undigested proteins often resembles the molecular structure of healthy tissue – for instance gluten and thyroid tissue share a similar molecular structure – so if antibodies are produced to attack gluten, guess what – those same antibodies may attack the thyroid (as in Hashimoto’s Disease).
Could it be the bacteria? I’m a big proponent of the importance of a healthy balance of bacteria, or flora, in the gut. In fact, I’ve written many articles on that very subject (check out my articles on gut health here). When it comes to autoimmune issues, the specific strains of bacteria that inhabit the gut (collectively called the “microbiome”) can potentially be the cause and the effect. For instance, it’s been determined that certain antigens and immune responses actually alter the gut microbiome, leaving us with more unhealthy than healthy bacteria. And because some strains of bacteria are known to protect us from very specific immune responses, while others do not, we could also find ourselves missing some of the most important, health-boosting strains.
That’s not all. An unhealthy balance of gut bacteria (more bad guys than good guys), can lead to the leaky gut condition described earlier. Leaky gut will not only create a major compromise to digestion by allowing undigested food to escape through the intestinal wall, but will also impair the absorption of the nutrients necessary to keep us, and our immune system, working correctly.
And last, but far from least, there’s STRESS.
As I’ve mentioned countless times in other articles, stress is EVIL!! Ongoing stress, even at low levels, triggers our adrenal glands (the glands responsible for producing the hormones that are meant to help us handle stress in a healthy manner) to produce cortisol. Cortisol is really good, and necessary, to help us escape from a threat. But when its production is being triggered 24/7 our immune system becomes impaired. And when the immune system becomes impaired, well that’s when mistakes happen, like attacks on our own healthy tissue.
The bottom line.
It’s probably apparent by now that autoimmune disease is not caused by one specific thing, but has more to do with the overall load on our body, including emotional and physical stress, environment, gut health, and inflammation. Remember, there is a link between every system of the body and immune function, including the limbic system (this controls our emotions) so don’t discount the role of the mind in the scope of autoimmunity.
So your best bet when dealing with autoimmunity is to start by building up the health of your gut. You can simultaneously address inflammation through the elimination of pro-inflammatory foods (like grains and dairy and even nightshade veggies like peppers), through deep breathing and mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation, and supplementation with targeted nutrients specific to your area of concern.
It’s super important to keep in mind that, although there are many steps you can take that will begin to balance your body and help it work as it was meant to, every person presents a very different and unique situation leading up to dis-ease and autoimmunity. Be sure to consult with a trusted naturopathic physician or holistic practitioner to determine and address your specific and very unique needs. You can schedule a free 15-minute phone session with me here. But most of all, don’t ever lose hope because the body can be quite an amazing thing when given the tools it needs to heal.
Best of health,
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