Autoimmune conditions affect over 50 million Americans, of whom about 75% are women. There is a good chance that you or someone you know may have an autoimmune disorder.
Autoimmunity occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys healthy body tissues. There are more than 80 different types of autoimmune disorders. They may affect any tissues or organs in the body, causing different types of symptoms from mild to severe.
The following are some of the more common autoimmune diseases:
- Addison’s disease (adrenal hormone insufficiency)
- Celiac disease (a reaction to gluten that causes damage to the lining of the small intestine)
- Diabetes type 1 (destruction of insulin-producing cells in the pancreas)
- Graves’ disease (overactive thyroid gland)
- Hashimoto’s disease (under active thyroid gland)
- Inflammatory bowel disease (inflammation of the colon and small intestine)
- Multiple sclerosis (destruction of protective coating around the nerves in the brain and spinal cord)
- Myasthenia gravis (muscle weakness and fatigue)
- Pernicious anemia (destruction of stomach cells that make intrinsic factor protein, leading to inability to absorb vitamin B12 and reduction in red blood cells)
- Psoriasis (red, irritated skin with thick, flaky, silver-white patches)
- Reactive arthritis (inflammation of joints, urethra, eyes, skin, and mucus membranes)
- Rheumatoid arthritis (inflammation of joints and surrounding tissues)
- Scleroderma (connective tissue disease that causes changes in skin, blood vessels, muscles, and internal organs)
- Sjogren’s syndrome (destruction of glands that make moisture, such as tears and saliva, may affect kidneys and lungs)
- Systemic lupus erythematosus (affects joints, skin, kidneys, heart, lungs, brain, and other organs)
- Vitiligo (white patches on the skin caused by loss of pigment)
What Causes Autoimmune Diseases?
There are many underlying factors that may cause autoimmune diseases. Certainly, genetics is a major consideration, however, not everyone who is predisposed with the genes will develop the diseases. In reality, the genes only get turned on when triggered, and here are some conditions that are most likely to induce the development of autoimmunity:
- Chronic inflammation tied to food sensitivities, in particular gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley). When you have any autoimmune conditions, by definition, you have leaky gut syndrome. When you have a leaky gut, tiny undigested food particles get through the gut wall into the bloodstream. The immune system recognizes them as foreign invaders and attacks them. In the process, it creates an inflammatory cascade throughout the body.
- Bacterial, viral and yeast infections. Hidden toxins from Candida, mycotoxins from mold, or a bout of illness caused by a virus such as the Esptein-Barr or the herpes simplex virus can trigger the onset of an autoimmune disease.
- Stress and trauma. Many people have noticed a direct link between a major stressful life event and the development of an autoimmune disease 6-12 months later. It is not surprising that our thoughts and feelings have a direct impact on the immune system.
- Toxic metal exposure. Studies show that exposure to toxic metals such as aluminum, arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury may be linked to the autoimmune process. The heavy metals induce the production of autoantibodies, which then create autoimmune diseases.
- Toxic chemical exposure. Toxins such as pesticides, solvents, industrial chemicals, even household cleaners and hair dyes have also been implicated in autoimmune diseases.
Common Signs And Symptoms Of Autoimmunity
The following is a list of common autoimmune disease symptoms. It may be hard to believe that these symptoms are in any way connected. However, if you are experiencing a combination of symptoms, you may have a higher chance of having an autoimmune disease.
- Extreme fatigue not alleviated by rest
- Muscle and joint pain
- Muscle weakness
- Swollen glands
- Susceptibility to infections
- Sleep disturbances
- Weight loss or gain
- Low blood sugar
- Blood pressure changes
- Candida yeast infections
- Allergies – food, chemical, and environmental
- Digestive problems
- Anxiety and depression
- Memory problems or brain fog
- Thyroid problems
- Recurrent headaches
- Low grade fevers
- Premenstrual syndrome
- Recurrent miscarriage
Conventional Treatment For Autoimmune Diseases
The goals of conventional treatment are to:
- Reduce symptoms
- Control the autoimmune process
- Maintain the body’s ability to fight disease
Which treatments are used depends on the specific disease and the symptoms. Some patients may need medications or supplements to replace a hormone or vitamin that the body is lacking. Examples include thyroid hormones, vitamins such as B12, or insulin injections. If the autoimmune disorder affects the blood, one may need blood transfusions.
In addition, immunosuppressant medications may be prescribed to control or reduce the immune system’s response. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs may be used to suppress inflammation.
The outcome depends on the disease. Most autoimmune diseases are chronic and the medications only control the symptoms. Medications also have side effects and some can be severe.
How To Address The Root Causes Of Autoimmunity
If you have an autoimmune disease, the only way to stop and reverse your disease is to identify and address the underlying causes. The following are four plausible areas you should explore in your search for an effective, long-term solution to your health problems:
1. Go on an anti-inflammatory diet
- All reactive/sensitive foods are extremely inflammatory. Therefore, it is essential to remove them from your diet. For those with autoimmune diseases, the most likely culprits are gluten and dairy, followed by soy, corn, and eggs. If your symptoms improve after 3 months of eliminating these foods, for sure you have a sensitivity towards them and you need to stay on course, probably for the rest of your life.
- If you can afford to spend some extra money on blood tests, Cyrex Labs (available only in U.S. and Europe) offers a very sensitive test (Array 3) that measures antibody production against multiple gluten proteins and peptides. Likewise, ALCAT (available worldwide) has a Gut Health Profile (GHP) that screens for Celiac and gluten sensitivity using genetic, antibody, and cellular analysis.
- Clean up your diet by eliminating processed foods, added sugars, bad oils (all vegetable oils), artificial ingredients, caffeine, and alcohol. These foods do not benefit anyone, not to mention those with autoimmune conditions.
- Focus on whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, grass-fed meats, gluten-free grains, beans, legumes, and healthy oils (such as coconut oil, olive oil, grass-fed butter).
2. Check for gut infections
- Autoimmune diseases develop as a result of a malfunctioned immune system.
- 70-80% of our immune system lies in the gut because it is where we are constantly exposed to external elements when we eat and drink.
- For those with autoimmune diseases, it is rather common to find some form of parasite, bacteria, or yeast (such as Candida) infections in the gut. Gut infections cause inflammation and therefore, need to be addressed.
- Ask your healthcare practitioner for a stool test to check for any infections. Apart from using antibiotics and other drugs, anti-parasite, anti-bacterial, and anti-fungal herbs can also be used to eliminate such infections. They may take longer but are equally effective.
3. Repair and heal your gut
- Anytime you have an autoimmune disease, you have a leaky gut which results in inflammation in the body. That’s why you need to stop the inflammation by avoiding all your reactive foods and getting rid of any gut infections. You should also take a good omega-3 fish oil which has been proven in studies to reduce inflammation.
- You need to supplement with digestive enzymes and reinoculate your gut with probiotics (good bacteria) and prebiotics (food for the good bacteria, such as soluble fiber in vegetables and fruits).
- You also need to heal the gut lining. There are a number of gut healing supplements available on the market. Look for those that contain l-glutamine which promotes gut tissue repair, and some other beneficial ingredients such as deglycyrrhized licorice (DGL), slippery elm, n-acetyl-d-glucosamine, gamma oryzanol, and aloe vera. (For example, Support Mucosa from BioMatrix and G.I. Integrity from Pure Encapsulations.) Continue taking them for at least a year after going off your reactive foods.
4. Check for heavy metals
- Your brain is a primary target for heavy metals, which may result in many neurological symptoms. Heavy metals also target your kidneys, liver, heart, pituitary, thyroid glands, and other vital organs, and they tend to accumulate heavily in the intestinal wall.
- Ask your healthcare professional for a hair test to check for any accumulated heavy metals such as mercury, lead, arsenic, aluminum, and cadmium in the body. If so, there are herbs and supplements that will help the body to detox these harmful heavy metals.
- By very selective in the fish you eat. Larger fish live for a longer time and they absorb more mercury from the water they live in.
- Buy organic produce to avoid foods grown in soils that may be contaminated by heavy metals from fertilizers or other sources.
- Watch out for pollution in water and air as it is a major source of heavy metals.
- If you have silver-colored dental fillings, they are probably made with a mercury amalgam, which tends to break down over time. You should discuss with a “biological” dentist who is trained to safely remove mercury fillings.
- If you get a vaccine, such as a flu shot, ask for the mercury and aluminum-free version. They are usually available for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
- Watch out for old paint that contains lead.