Some basics about the autoimmune system
This is certainly an oversimplification, but the immune system is the collection of cells, tissues, and molecules that protects the body from numerous pathogenic microbes and toxins in our environment. This defense against microbes has been divided into two general types of reactions: reactions of innate immunity and reactions of adaptive or acquired immunity, with the innate being our first line of defense.
The gut, for example, is lined with thousands of species of bacteria—100 trillion bacteria in the gut, and obviously, the innate immune cells are not reacting. It is lined with the typical molecular structures, but it doesn’t react. Well, they’re not reacting, not because they are ignorant, but because they actually are choosing not to react. So, they see the stranger, but they’re also looking for some other signal that damage is occurring, and in the absence of that damage, no response. Again, that tells us that the innate immune system’s job is to look for something bad going on, is to look for the presence of strangers and to look for evidence of damage. If you have damage and strangers together, that means the tissue is being injured. So, the two main jobs of the innate immune system are to defend the body against something foreign that’s potentially destructive and then to repair that damage.
The adaptive immune system, on the other hand, is called into action against pathogens that are able to evade or overcome innate immune defenses.
What causes autoimmunity?
In an effort to keep this very simple, when in fact, it can be quite complex. Most of the time our immune system is there to help us such as to fight infections, cancer cells, and such, but sometimes things can go awry and lead to miscommunications in the body.
An autoimmune disease develops when your immune system, which defends your body against disease, decides your healthy cells are foreign. As a result, your immune system attacks healthy body cells. Depending on the type, an autoimmune disease can affect one or many different types of body tissue. Autoimmune processes can have various results, for example, destruction of a specific type of cells, or stimulation of an organ into excessive growth, or interference with the organ’s function. For instance Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis attacks the thyroid gland, Addison’s disease affects the adrenal glands, and Type 1 Diabetes attacks the pancreas.
The immune system normally can distinguish “self” from “non-self.” Some lymphocytes are capable of reacting against self, resulting in an autoimmune reaction; they just normally don’t. Autoimmune diseases occur when there is some interruption of the usual control process, allowing lymphocytes to avoid suppression, or when there is an alteration in some body tissue so that it is no longer recognized as “self” and is thus attacked. The exact mechanisms causing these changes are not completely understood. It is theorized that the inflammation initiated by toxic or infectious agents somehow provokes in the body a “sensitization” (autoimmune reaction) in the involved tissues. This may trigger our immune system to view normal cells as dangerous invaders.
Autoimmune disorders can have multi facets or multiple triggers. They can include poor diet, an unhealthy gut, hormones, toxins, infections, and stress. Toxins can be not only heavy metals such as aluminum, nickel, and mercury but also mycotoxins like mold and even medications.
There are more than 80 types of autoimmune disorders. It is not uncommon for a patient to have more than one autoimmune disorder.
How are autoimmune diseases treated?
Currently in allopathic medicine, the mindset is to suppress the immune system. This is often done with some pretty intense medications. Unfortunately, with medications usually come some unintended consequences and side-effects. When the immune system is suppressed to avoid the autoimmune reaction, it also has the effect of disabling the body from being able to fight other illnesses and disease, opening us up to even greater risks.
In functional medicine, we try to get to the root of the problem, to find the cause of the miscommunications in the body resulting in the autoimmune response. I guess you would say we are suppressing the immune system, too, only we’re doing it through decreasing the stimulation on the immune system. We investigate the patient’s status as a whole, not just as separate organ systems. We know that the circulatory system is not independent of the respiratory system or the reproductive system. Everything works synergistically together. We will often see where cholesterol is treated with statin drugs without regard to the fact that we are now obliterating the sex hormones, because cholesterol is the building block for our hormones.
Some of the autoimmune triggers are an unhealthy gut, poor diet, hormone imbalance, toxins, infections, and stress, these are the very foundation to a healthy immune system. Each of these needs to be addressed to have optimal health.
Is one of trigger more important than another?
It really depends on the individual patient, how sick they are, how long they have been ill, and even how much effort they are willing to apply to getting well. While each system is important, there are some easier places to begin addressing and much can be done simultaneously.
For instance, if we do not clean up the diet, it will be virtually impossible to heal the gut lining. Without a healthy gut, it will be difficult to rid ourselves of the toxins. So, no, they are all important ingredients in a recipe for health.
Suffering from unexplained symptoms? What should a person look for and how might it be treated?
Omega Health & Wellness first recommendation is to find a functional medicine practitioner. It might be a chiropractor, a nutritionist, an acupuncturist, or a medical or osteopathic physician.
If you have been experiencing fatigue, unexplained weight loss or weight gain, brain fog, pain not due to injury, mood swings, stomach or digestive problems, skin issues, really anything that stays with you for more than a few weeks, an evaluation might be in order. Like with any disease, the earlier it is detected, the less long term damage and usually the easier it becomes to manage it and/or cure it.
We would suggest you start journaling. It is often hard to remember when things began, what was going on in our lives at that time, when we had good days, when we had bad days. The details are very helpful for the practitioner to help figure things out. If the practitioner is not interested in your story and does not have adequate time to spend with you, you need to seek a different practitioner.
Start healing while waiting to be evaluated
We would suggest eating a Paleo diet, free of grains, especially gluten. Eating organic, whole foods, will help to avoid the GMO’s (genetically altered foods) and harmful pesticides. Avoiding processed foods, limit dairy intake. Eliminating sugars, including artificial sweeteners from diet. We recommend trying to source meat and eggs from farms allowing the cattle and chickens to roam, feeding them non-GMO feed, avoiding antibiotic and steroid use in the animals. Eating quality fish not farm raised. Cutting the most common food offenders, gluten being number one. A person does not have to be full-blown Celiac, have those particular antibodies, to be harmed by gluten. The majority of people do not tolerate gluten. It is highly inflammatory and damaging to the gut. Corn is another bad one. We can have intolerances to foods that do not show up for up to 3 days, so it is very hard to put our finger on our offending foods, but an elimination diet can help. Make every effort to get 8-12 servings of vegetables (especially green, leafy veggies and lots of bright colors) and 2-3 fruits a day. Variety truly is the spice of life.
We would then recommend trying to improve the gut flora through the use of digestive enzymes, good quality, broad spectrum probiotics. Avoid antibiotics and opt for herbs instead to strengthen the immune system. Herbs such as Pau D’arco and Goldenseal are great to fight infections. Raw honey and coconut oil have great healing properties. Garlic and ginseng have shown to also be beneficial.
We would recommend ensuring you are getting the proper nutrients and supplementation to support the detox pathways, such as Vitamin D3, with K and A, Methylated B Vitamins, high quality Omega, 3’s (plant and marine based), herbs that help clear the liver, such as milk thistle. Protandium is a natural supplement that upregulates Glutathione in the brain by 300%. This is the granddaddy antioxidant enzyme in the brain. First and foremost, we would trying to get nutrients through food sources, then looking to quality supplements.
Adequate sleep is important for the body to heal and replenish, we recommend getting 8 hours of sleep in a dark room. Also avoid eating within 2 hours of going to bed. The body produces the majority, (90%) of its human growth hormone (our repair hormone) at night, but the body can only produce insulin or human growth hormone one at a time and insulin always wins. Sleep is also important in stress management.
Stress management techniques such as stretching, breathing, meditating, and EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) a type of meridian tapping, working on similar principles to acupuncture are all helpful was to manage stress.
While aging is unavoidable and the associated hormonal declines, some of that can be negated through proper diet, rest, and exercise, but it might be necessary to get replenishment through bio-identical hormone therapy treatment.
Reducing the risk of autoimmune disease
We are hearing more and more about leaky gut. If we do nothing else, then we should try to have a healthy gut. Inflammation is implicated not only in autoimmunity but all of our chronic disease and illness. We should avoid it at all costs. The number one way to do that is guard your gut. Our gut was once referred to as our second brain, many now joke that perhaps it is our first. It really is more important to the functioning of our actual brain.
It has been estimated that 80-90% of our immune system is in the gut. That is a difficult figure to validate. I do think we can see that the intestinal tract and all our mucosa is extremely important in proper immune function. The whole gut lining would cover the surface area of a tennis court. It mediates what gets in and what stays out. When we traumatize those junctions, we are asking for trouble.
How much role do genes or inheritance play in autoimmune disorders?
Genetics are often considered very important in the role of autoimmunity. But in reality it has been found to be only about 25% or one quarter of the problem. We generally need to have the proper environment within the body for these genes to express themselves. If someone is eating a clean, healthy diet, addressing all deficiencies, exercising regularly, avoiding toxins such as antibiotics, keeping their hormones balanced, getting adequate quality rest, and using stress management techniques, they are far less likely to have inflammation and autoimmune dysregulation even if they have genetic tendencies.
Who is affected by autoimmunity?
Anyone can be affected. Approximately 50 million Americans or 20% of the population suffer from autoimmune diseases. Women are at greater risk, perhaps in part because of the greater hormonal fluctuations experienced by women or our lower resistance to infections. Some estimates suggest that 75% of those affected are women, yet it is rarely discussed as a women’s health issue. Some diseases such as lupus are almost solely women. It is often hard to get a diagnosis of an autoimmune disease because it often affects what seems to be otherwise healthy women in their childbearing years.
Earlier we mentioned food intolerances, is this the same as food allergies?
There are several levels of food sensitivities and intolerances. Food sensitivity is when you feel worse when you eat the food and you feel better when you don’t. There are some tests that can try to identify food sensitivities, but they are not perfect. Let’s start with what is a food allergy.
Food allergy is classically defined by—you go to an allergist and they test you. They do skin testing or they do this IgE testing to see whether or not you have a reaction. True food allergies cause hives and sniffles, and your throat might swell and close—the true reactions that are visible. You eat the food, you have a visible reaction, and the allergist can test you and prove that you’re allergic, and that’s classic food allergy.
There is special testing that can help isolate patients’ food intolerances or sensitivities, but they can be expensive. And so, that’s where the classic functional medicine elimination diets sort of shine. The classic five are gluten, dairy, soy, corn, eggs—and the full-detox elimination diet includes other things like peanuts, shellfish, and of course, it’s caffeine and sugar. Stay off of all these foods for three, preferably for four weeks. This aids the body to quiet down, and most people start feeling better.
The most important part of this and where we collect the data is part two. Removing the foods is one thing, but you have to introduce the foods one at a time very slowly. Antigen responses can be delayed up to 72 hours, making it quite difficult to pinpoint. Introduce the food no sooner than every four days, preferably a week apart. This will give yourself a chance to trigger a reaction to that food. We often tell our clients they might not be sure that they feel better, but they are going to know if any of those foods trigger a reaction in part two.