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Treating the Root Cause of Autoimmunity

Close up view of a biological virus.
Naturopathic Doctor, Licensed Acupuncturist

A healthy immune system is critical for optimal wellness. However, with increasing environmental, economical, and dietary stressors put on our immune system, it is no surprise the prevalence of autoimmune disorders has tripled in the last fifty years making autoimmune disorders the third leading chronic illness in the United States. The National Institutes of Health estimates that between 14 and 22 million people in the United States have an autoimmune disease—the most common being systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), multiple sclerosis (MS), type 1 diabetes, thyroid disorders (Graves and Hashimoto), myasthenia gravis, scleroderma, and rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

The common etiology of all autoimmune disorders is chronic inflammation. This results in an overwhelmed immune system, which leads to immune dysfunction and the inability of the body’s defense system to recognize self from non-self. This means your body starts seeing its own tissues as foreign and attacks the tissues like they are the common cold virus. This results in even more inflammation, and your body becomes stuck in a vicious dysfunctional cycle.

Current conventional treatments focus on symptom suppression using nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, steroids, or immune modulating drugs. The problem with these pharmaceutical treatments is they severely depress an already depressed immune system. This results in unpleasant and often debilitating side effects including, but not limited to, infections, blood sugar dysregulation, weight gain, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, gastrointestinal dysfunction, muscle pain, and fatigue. Despite this long list of side effects, people may experience only moderate relief from their symptoms or may often experience no relief at all.

There are many multifactorial causes of inflammation in the body including environmental triggers, dietary influences, intestinal permeability, social/psychological stressors, infections, hormonal imbalances, and genetic susceptibility. By understanding the impact they each have on our body we can successfully integrative a treatment approach which restores your body’s natural balance and it’s innate ability to heal itself.

Environmental Exposure

Environmental exposure to and accumulation of heavy metals, pesticides, flame retardants, plasticizers, and solvents that we are exposed to through air, water, and food play a prevalent role in autoimmunity. These toxic chemicals and metals alter the body’s immune responses toward allergy and autoimmunity (attacking the body’s own tissues) and away from their natural role to act as surveillance against infections or foreign substances. The first step we can take to protect ourselves from inflammation caused by environmental triggers is to stop or limit our exposure. For more information about this, refer to my blog post Avoiding Toxins and Stopping Exposure: http://balancedmedicineclinic.com/avoiding-toxins-stopping-exposure/. The second step is to help our body detoxify and eliminate toxins in order to decrease its overall burden. For more information about this refer to my blog post Detoxification-Why It Is Important: http://balancedmedicineclinic.com/detoxification-why-it-is-important/.

Dietary Influences 

Dietary influences play a huge role in autoimmunity because diet is a repetitive, daily occurrence. The pro-inflammatory effects of diet such as food allergies, food intolerances and nutrient deficiencies can shift the body towards chronic systemic inflammation putting incredible strain on the body’s immune system. Inversely, an anti-inflammatory diet can help the body shift towards repair—lessening the load on the immune system. To protect yourself from inflammation due to dietary influences, you first need to determine if you have any food allergies and/or intolerances through laboratory testing and/or an elimination/challenge food plan. Nutrient deficiencies should also be tested to insure your body has the cofactors it needs for critical cellular functions for proper immune system function. Common deficiencies include vitamin D, B12, zinc, potassium, and magnesium because inflammation is metabolically demanding and readily depletes these nutrients. Once food triggers are recognized, a more individualized food plan and adequate nutrient supplementation can be determined and implemented.

Intestinal Permeability

Intestinal permeability is often referred to as a “leaky gut”. This means there is some level of inflammation happening in the digestive tract. The lining of the intestines is like a cheese cloth allowing nutrients to pass through to the blood stream where they can readily be used by your body while keeping large foreign particles and waste in the digestive tract to be eliminated. When we ingest inflammatory foods or pesticides, the lining of the intestines gets torn, allowing larger particles and waste to get into the blood stream. Once these particles are floating around in the blood, the body recognizes them as foreign, and creates antibodies against them inciting an immune reaction and inflammatory cascade. This increased inflammation tears the lining of the intestines even more and once again creates a vicious cycle of inflammation. Food triggers can vary from individual to individual; however, there are common inflammatory foods such as sugar, corn, soy, gluten and dairy. Healing intestinal permeability includes eliminating food triggers, decreasing intestinal inflammation, repairing the intestinal lining, and establishing a healthy microbiome by utilizing diet, lifestyle and nutraceuticals.

Stress 

Stress is the perception of threat to physiological or psychological well-being. The body’s response to stress is to elevate pro-inflammatory protein messengers called cytokines. Chronic stress leads to chronic low grade inflammation, which contributes to cellar dysfunction and immune dysregulation. In studies, laughter has been shown to actually decrease pro-inflammatory cytokines. Think of making time for hobbies, music, dancing, and cultivating meaningful relationships as important to your immune health has vitamin C and Echinacea. Studies have also shown that imbalance in the body’s autonomic nervous system towards sympathetic dominance “fight or flight” leads to a shift in the body’s adaptive immune response towards allergies and autoimmunity. Priority should be placed on mindfulness, meditation, prayer and breath work. “In a world full of doing, doing, doing, it’s important to take a moment to just breathe, to just be.” -Unknown

Microbial Infections

Chronic microbial infections are common. These infections can lead to chronic low grade inflammation, which results in an exhausted, overworked immune system. Microbial infections of viruses, bacteria and parasites have tissue damaging and disease promoting effects. They incite an immune response which causes increased inflammation in the body. Chronic stimulation of the immune system can result in the body’s inability to differentiate self from non-self, contributing to cellular dysfunction and immune dysregulation. Blood and stool tests are used to determine underlying microbial infections and can help guide adequate treatments in order to eliminate infections.

Hormones 

Hormone imbalances can promote or impede the genesis and perpetuation of inflammation and autoimmunity. Autoimmunity is more prevalent in females, which could be contributed to the pro-inflammatory effects of estrogen. Elevated estrogen and lower testosterone and DHEA levels are common trends in autoimmunity. Assessment of sex hormones, including estrogens and estrogen metabolites, progesterone, DHEA-sulfate, free and total testosterone, and prolactin are important in an autoimmune workup. Therapeutic correction of hormone imbalances can have profound anti-inflammatory benefits. Restoring proper hormone balance can lessen the inflammatory burden on the body and help decrease immune response.

Genetics

Genetic susceptibility to autoimmunity is influenced by factors such as chromosomal mutations as well as epigenetic alterations. These altered patterns of genetic expression explain why one individual’s immune system starts attacking self when exposed to environmental or food triggers and another individual’s immune system has more tolerance. Despite individual vulnerability, the same treatment principles apply when addressing the root cause of autoimmunity.

In conclusion, autoimmune disorders can be some of the most challenging illnesses to treat, and disease progression can be complex and dangerous. By addressing these underlying factors to autoimmunity we can treat the root cause of chronic inflammation and prevent a dysfunctional immune system. Following an integrative treatment approach which focuses on the root cause of the illness, removes obstacles to healing, promotes your body’s innate ability to heal itself, and optimizes wellness is an effective, appropriate approach to autoimmune disorders.
Image © Qimono, available under Creative Commons CCO.

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