Autoimmunity is a bit more complex than you might think. If you’re reading this you probably already have at least a little bit of an idea of what an autoimmune disease is: It’s when your body attacks itself. Unfortunately, that’s drastically oversimplifying the problem. There are little-known underlying causes of autoimmunity and much more complicated descriptions of what it really is.
Now — I’m not going to make it as complicated as it could be because it could be really complicated to explain. I’ll do my best to describe the things that you want to hear about autoimmunity in a way that you want to hear it. Let’s get started with the basics:
- What is an autoimmune disease?
- What causes autoimmune diseases?
- What can you do to reduce autoimmunity?
Table of Contents
What is autoimmunity, really?
As early as the beginning of the 20th-century scientists and doctors had such little knowledge about autoimmunity that they firmly believed that it either, 1. Did not exist, or 2. Could not develop to the point of becoming a full-on disease. Surprisingly, the modern understanding of autoimmune diseases did not become widely-spread until the 1950’s.
Understanding Autoimmune Disease
Like we’ve said before, in the simplest terms, autoimmunity is when your body’s cells attack friendly cells that shouldn’t be attacked. Your body is failing to recognize it’s own cells properly and identifies them as “intruders” that must be destroyed. To some degree, immune systems appear in every complex life form. In order for the immune system to function properly, though, it needs to be able to know which cells to destroy and which to let live.
One of the main components of the immune system in humans is the antibody. Antibodies are very specialized cell-killers; each antibody has but one purpose — to mark a single type of intruder to be killed by another white blood cell. For example, when you get a cold, your body produces antibodies which are specialized to kill only the bacteria that cause that cold. You would probably never get sick again from that same cold because now your body has defenders against it. However, once the bacteria that caused your cold mutates into a new disease, your old antibodies aren’t programmed to kill the new disease — and are therefore useless.
When autoimmunity starts in your body, your body is failing to determine which cell it should destroy, and it starts to develop antibodies which are directed to kill “self” cells. These antibodies are called autoantibodies.
Autoimmune diseases affect some 50 million Americans and there are over 80 different diseases that involve some level of autoimmunity. Some examples of autoimmune related diseases are as follows:
- Celiac disease
- Diabetes (Type 1)
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
- Systemic Lupus Erythematosus
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Graves Disease
- Reactive Arthritis
- Inflammatory bowel disease
Alright, so now we know what autoimmunity is (hopefully), so let’s get to our next topic.
What Causes Autoimmune Disease?
A Leaky Gut
Many of these diseases, like diabetes, arthritis, and thyroiditis, are closely associated with inflammation. This might seem like I’m going off topic, but I assure you I am not. Many new studies have been done linking autoimmunity to inflammation. Just where does this inflammation come from? Your gut.
An unhealthy gut leads to a scarcely spoken condition called leaky gut. Leaky gut is when toxins from your intestines that should have stayed in your intestines — start to leak into your bloodstream. When there is such a high volume of toxins and bacteria leaking into your bloodstream, your body throws the immune system into hyper overdrive. Essentially you start to form antibodies to kill too many things to try and defend yourself against what’s actually harmful.
It might be surprising for you to know that about 80% of your immune system is housed in your gut. If you really think about it, though, it makes sense — right? Your intestines are where all the nasty bacteria and toxins are.
A leaky gut is finally becoming recognized in studies to not just be related to a healthy gut in some mysterious way, but it is being proven that if you have an autoimmune disease your gut is already leaky.
Toxins and Infections
Beyond the toxins that your leaky gut is already pouring into your bloodstream if you have autoimmunity, other outside toxins may also be to blame. Unfortunately, we are almost surely being exposed to some level of toxins every day just from the meat we buy at a local grocery store. One main culprit of dangerous toxins that lead to autoimmunity is fish. Fish can contain mercury which is involved in many cases of autoimmunity and it is toxic (and can even deadly) to humans.
If your house or apartment has problems with mold, don’t treat it like it’s no big deal. Certain household molds produce mycotoxins which set out to mess up your immune system, sometimes causing it to attack itself. On the other hand, getting infections from bacteria or viruses such as herpes, mono, and E. Coli can also contribute to autoimmunity.
Stress is a natural response to things like injury, infections, and emotional trauma. In the case of physical injury, stress increases inflammation in the area in question and actually can provide help to the healing process. However, chronic stress is the kind of stress we are dealing with today. Work, family, and physical pressures keep our body in a constant state of stress. This type of stress maintains a level of inflammation in the body that is unnatural. The related inflammation damages the immune system and can actually contribute to autoimmunity.
If you don’t already know you are “gluten intolerant” you might not think of gluten as anything diabolical or dangerous. Unfortunately, gluten signals the release of zonulin, which controls the tight junctions in your intestines and signals them to “open wide” and let the junctions in your gut to release the toxins into your bloodstream. It sounds a little unbelievable that something as simple as bread Can cause autoimmunity and an unhealthy gut, but if you don’t believe me, take a look at this scientific journal concerning zonulin.
Genetics and Gender
Here are some more unbelievable stats when it comes to autoimmunity:
- About 75% of people who suffer from autoimmunity are women
- The incidence of Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis (an autoimmune disease) for women to men, is 10 to 1
- The incidence of Graves disease is 7 to 1 for women against men
- The incidence for systemic lupus is 9 to 1
- Rheumatoid arthritis is 5 to 2
These stats are pretty striking when it comes to women and autoimmune disease, but if you take into consideration genetics, you can understand why. Some studies are starting to uncover that certain autoimmune diseases could be the result of a malfunction in the X chromosome. Since men have only one X chromosome and women have two, it makes sense why they are suffering through more autoimmunity than men.
If you’re suffering from autoimmunity, then you might think all this information is interesting but is it really helpful? Probably not. So let’s move on to the question that you really want to be answered.
What can you do to help reduce autoimmunity?
There are a lot of voices out there saying they have a way to reduce autoimmunity. So let us organize these voices into an understandable condensed version.
Traditional treatments for autoimmunity include immune system suppressors, anti-inflammatory medicines, or palliative treatments (which means basically they just focus on removing the pain without focusing on the condition).
The purpose of immune system suppressors is to limit the amount of damage your immune system will cause to your body; there is an extreme risk, though, alongside this type of treatment. When you suppress your entire immune system to defend it against itself, you leave your body open to other dangerous illnesses. In a short-sighted way, suppressing your immune system will alleviate your systems.
Dealing with inflammation is a very important aspect of truly treating (and even curing) your autoimmune disease. However, using medications to temporarily reduce inflammation is kind of like slapping a soggy band-aid over a wound. Maybe it helps to lessen the bleeding for a little while, but it doesn’t help in the long run. Treating inflammation as a symptom helps in the short run; however, it’s more important to treat the cause of your inflammation.
Palliative treatment may be necessary for many painful cases of autoimmune disease. It can be very painful to endure some treatments and diseases and pain management is an important part of recovery. On the other hand, if you heavily rely on pain management to the point that you are no longer bothered by your pain, it may lull you into apathy concerning your condition. I have seen this many times in my practice, patients with severe knee pain will be very good about caring for their joints until they are high on pain medications. Once they feel no more pain you would find them being far more active in activities that are unhealthy for their joints.
To review: It is very important to use palliative treatment in conjunction with other treatments that are focused on the source of the problem.
Improving your nutrition is one of the best ways to deal with autoimmunity. This seems like it’s hard to believe, but like I said earlier, good health starts with your gut. For this reason, the foods and supplements that we take into our body (and therefore intestines) are directly correlated with our autoimmune health. There are many foods you can take to reduce autoimmune response. Some things you can do are:
Pay Attention to Vitamin Intake
Important vitamins for autoimmune health are vitamin D, vitamin C, magnesium, and vitamin B. Vitamin D is a huge immune system regulator. It contributes to a healthy immune system, and with proper intake, you will see a marked improvement in autoimmunity. In order to increase your vitamin D levels you should make sure you get a good amount of sun exposure daily. Alternatively, you can find a high-quality vitamin D3 supplement.
If you want to increase your magnesium and B vitamin levels you can consume dark leafy greens or broccoli. You can also find supplements that have both vitamin B and magnesium.
Vitamin C is good for immune health for a different reason: It encourages bowel movements. Why is this important? Moving your bowels consistently when you are tackling an autoimmune disease can flush out toxins that would have otherwise leaked into your bloodstream from your leaky gut and caused inflammation, which, in turn, would have increased an autoimmune response.
Consume Probiotic Foods
Consuming foods with probiotics regulate your gut flora and encourage healthy bacteria to colonize your gut and assist in the destruction of bad bacteria before it causes an autoimmune response and inflammation. For someone with an unhealthy gut (which means anyone with an autoimmune disease), introducing probiotics into your gut is an important part of recovery. This is because your gut is probably overrun with bad bacteria that are perpetually damaging your digestive tract. As you take medications, make bowel movements, or disturb your gut in any other way, you should constantly be reintroducing good bacteria through probiotic foods.
Some foods you can eat that have probiotic properties are dark leafy-greens, kimchi, certain yogurts, miso soup, and sauerkraut. You can find more information on probiotic foods here.
Consume Anti-Inflammatory Foods
Since the gut houses so much of your immune system, and inflammation is at the root of autoimmune disease, it’s important to avoid foods that cause inflammation and consume foods that reduce it. Some foods that reduce inflammation are olive oil, leafy greens (again), almonds, walnuts, healthy fats (like you find in fish), tomatoes, and some fruits like blueberries strawberries and cherries. Find more information on fighting inflammation through food here.
Take the Right Supplements
Supplements can be beneficial for you if you are suffering from autoimmunity. Like we already mentioned, some vitamin supplements can be helpful in different ways — like vitamin C moving your bowels. Also, you can take probiotic supplements to improve your gut flora.
Treat Toxins and Diseases
Earlier, we mentioned that certain toxins like that of molds can contribute to your autoimmunity. Carefully remove any toxins from your living space and diet. One good way to do this is to avoid fish that are known to have mercury such as shark and some tuna. You should also avoid red meat injected with chemicals and hormones.
Manage Your Stress
Since stress is something that can dampen your immune system, increase inflammation, and encourage autoimmunity, it’s important to remove any extra stress from your life. Practice deep relaxation, breathing techniques, get a massage, anything that can relieve stress. Another thing you can do is make a concerted effort to get good sleep every night. A proper amount of sleep during the night can do a lot to alleviate persistent stress.
Autoimmune disease affects millions of Americans. It’s important to know exactly what autoimmunity is, what causes it, and how you can stop it completely. Obviously, it might not be possible to completely cure every case of serious autoimmune diseases, but by following the recommendations above, you can at least manage it more efficiently.
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By Dr. Alex Jimenez
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