Think of your immune system as a well-orchestrated team that works to protect you against viruses, bacteria, and infections. A healthy immune army works synergistically to identify and destroy any potentially damaging foreign invaders.
Sometimes, though, your immune system becomes confused or overzealous and begins attacking your own body. That’s what happens with autoimmune disease, where your immune cells mistakenly target and attack the body’s healthy tissue.
With autoimmune disease, nearly any organ can fall victim to your immune system’s mistaken attack, including your heart, brain, lungs, and digestive system.
Altogether over 80 autoimmune-related conditions exist. Some of the most common ones include:
- Multiple sclerosis (MS) – where your immune system attacks myelin, a protective sheath around nerve fibers and speeds the transmission of nerve signals. This disorder of the nervous system is characterized by weakness, numbness, a loss of muscle coordination, and problems with vision, speech, and bladder control.
- Type 1 diabetes – where your immune system attacks the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas and destroys them. The pancreas then produces little or no insulin.
- Rheumatoid arthritis – where your immune system attacks the linings of the joints, leading to joint pain, stiffness, swelling, and destruction.
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) – disorders that cause irritation and ulcers in the gastrointestinal tract, including ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
- Hashimoto’s – where your immune system attacks the thyroid, leading to inflammation and inhibiting thyroid hormone production.
Among their damage, these chronic, debilitating diseases create high medical costs and reduce quality of life.
Autoimmune diseases are the third most common category of disease in America, right after cancer and heart disease. They impact about five to eight percent of the population, with nearly 79 percent of cases being female.
We aren’t entirely sure why women have higher rates of autoimmune disease. Researchers speculate they have a more vigorous immune response and increased antibody production, although autoimmune diseases in men are often more severe.
Unfortunately, autoimmune symptoms are initially nonspecific. They include fatigue, low-grade fevers, aches, and pains.
Many patients are only diagnosed with an autoimmune disease after they become weak and unable to function normally. That vagueness makes determining the onset of the disease and its possible triggers difficult.
To make matters more confusing, autoimmune diseases are usually multifactorial, meaning more than one culprit contributes to the disease. They also often coexist, so a person with one autoimmune disease is more likely to get another.
While genetics account for about 30 percent of all autoimmune diseases, environmental factors (including toxic chemicals, diet, gut dysbiosis or imbalances, and infections) account for the remaining 70 percent.
That’s actually good news: By making the right dietary and lifestyle modifications, you have a lot of power to prevent autoimmune diseases or reduce the impact of their symptoms.
What Influences Autoimmune Diseases?
Isolating one culprit with autoimmune diseases is often impossible, but we can connect the dots and determine clues about their etiology.
Autoimmune diseases often result from the perfect storm of factors including chronic inflammation, oxidative stress, gut dysbiosis, a poor diet, and environmental pollution.
Environmental factors that can promote autoimmune disease include climate, stress, occupation, cigarette smoking, alcohol abuse, and diet.
Researchers find our Western diet – high in sugar, fat, salt, and really, everything – often contributes to autoimmune disease.
Air pollution could also affect autoimmune disease in multiple ways, including inflammatory mediators within the lungs that create a systemic impact including oxidative stress, or an imbalance between oxidants or free radicals and antioxidants.
Oxidative stress can result in dysfunction of mitochondria, the energy-producing organelles within most cells. In fact, oxidative stress is a major contributing factor for development of mitochondrial dysfunction.
Cumulatively, environmental toxins – everything from the air we breathe to the food we eat to the water we drink – can have a wide-ranging impact including inflammation, oxidative stress, and mitochondrial dysfunction. A toxic overload stresses the liver, and chronic stress can lead to adrenal fatigue.
Gut health also contributes to autoimmune diseases. Emerging research shows that dysbiosis (gut imbalances) can contribute to both intestinal autoimmune diseases including Crohn’s disease and non-intestinal autoimmune diseases such as psoriasis.
While the path isn’t always linear, environmental triggers including pollution and a bad diet can adversely impact gut flora, leading to dysbiosis.
Dysbiosis creates other gut problems, including intestinal permeability (more often called leaky gut).
With leaky gut, things not intended to get through your gut wall do, putting your immune system in overdrive, creating or exacerbating inflammation, and contributing to development of autoimmune disease.
Among the culprits that create a leaky gut include food sensitivities like gluten, chronic stress, and environmental pollution.
So do antibiotics, which create significant imbalances in gut flora that allows growth of pathogenic bacteria that increases the risk for infection. Antibiotics absolutely can save lives, however, some doctors argue they are overprescribed and are concerned about antibiotics that kill everything: pathogens (the bad guys) but also healthy flora. (Always consult with your doctor about any medications you take, have been recommended to take, or about any changes you might consider to your medical regimens. And, please, do not ever self-diagnose your need or lack of need for any medication.)
An emerging paradigm shows that along with genes and environmental triggers, leaky gut is a massive trigger for autoimmune disease. That makes sense when you consider over 70 percent of the immune system lies in the gut. A sick gut means a faulty immune system.
With these and other triggers that often overlap, you can understand how diagnosing autoimmune diseases and develop an ideal treatment program can baffle experts.
Doctors and specialists often treat autoimmune diseases by managing the overactive immune response and lowering inflammation with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and immune-suppressing drugs.
Naturally Address Autoimmunity
While we understand how the immune system creates this injury, we still have a lot to learn about autoimmune disease. The leaky gut theory – where genetics, environmental triggers, and dysbiosis contribute to autoimmune diseases – has become more mainstream.
Putting together the pieces that contribute to autoimmune diseases also offers clues about how to manage these conditions.
One case study of a 34-year-old woman who visited chiropractic clinic with complaints of fatigue and inability to lose weight for two years was placed on an anti-inflammatory Paleolithic diet along with supplements and exercise and other lifestyle interventions.
Chronic fatigue has many symptoms of autoimmune diseases including inflammation, an immune response, and feeling tired often. Its multifactorial nature can make treating it a challenge.
Nonetheless, she succeeded. After 12 weeks, this patient had more energy and lost 15 pounds. Her adrenal, thyroid, and other measures fell within normal range.
This case is hardly unique, and highlights how working with your chiropractor or other healthcare professional can help you naturally manage autoimmune diseases.
These are not quick fixes, and sometimes require time to get results. However, I and many of my colleagues prefer to seek out approaches for individuals that get more to the root cause of their problems — rather than mask them.
These nine strategies provide impressive results:
1. Remove sugar and other food sensitivities.
Problem foods including gluten impact the gut wall, increasing your risk for leaky gut and other gut issues. A vicious cycle occurs as leaky gut keeps the immune system in overdrive and ramps up inflammation, exacerbating the symptoms of autoimmune disease. One of the best things you can do to heal your gut is to eliminate sugar, gluten, and other food sensitivities for at least three weeks and see if your symptoms improve.
2. Eat an anti-inflammatory diet rich in antioxidant foods.
A whole foods, nutrient-rich diet that includes wild-caught seafood and organic produce such as leafy and cruciferous vegetables as well as berries should be your food foundation for autoimmune support.
3. Get the right nutrient support.
Nutrients for autoimmune disease focus on immune support, reducing inflammation, improving antioxidants, and optimizing energy pathways. A full review is beyond this article’s scope, but a few supplements are worth mentioning.
- Vitamin D. Cross-sectional data suggest a potential role of vitamin D to prevent autoimmune disease. Researchers have explored vitamin D’s role in immunity and how deficiencies can adversely impact the immune system. To determine whether you have optimal levels, ask your doctor to include a 25-hydroxy vitamin D test.
- Fish oil. Clinical trials show that the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) can support inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. If you don’t regularly eat wild-caught seafood, consider a quality omega-3 fatty acid supplement.
- Curcumin. Research shows the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits of this active compound found in the spice turmeric can support autoimmune and other conditions.
4. Eat more fermented and cultured foods.
Prebiotics and probiotics can help reduce intestinal permeability. In fact, researchers call them “cost-effective treatment options for people with autoimmune diseases in the foreseeable future.” If you aren’t regularly eating foods rich in probiotics and prebiotics (the food that probiotics feed on) such as kimchi and dandelion greens (most of us aren’t), consider taking a quality supplement that provides therapeutic doses of these good gut flora.
5. Heal the gut.
Creating the right gut-flora balance and healing gut disorders like leaky gut require time and the right nutrients. L-glutamine, for instance, is the preferred fuel for the small intestine. Among its duties, this hardworking amino acid regulates tight junctions and suppresses pro-inflammatory signaling pathways to protect the gut wall. Work with a chiropractor, nutritionist or other functional medicine practitioner for a customized gut-healing protocol that incorporates the right nutrients based on your needs.
6. Support your detoxification pathways.
Optimizing liver health requires minimizing toxic exposure and providing the right nutrients to support this hardworking organ. Foods that can assist with detoxification include cruciferous vegetables, berries, garlic, and spices like turmeric. Supporting your detoxification pathways also requires optimizing antioxidants like glutathione through precursors including grass-fed whey protein and N-acetyl-cysteine. At least twice a year, consider working with a professional who can incorporate a professionally designed plan for enhanced detoxification.
7. Get quality sleep.
One animal study found that sleep deprivation could create an earlier onset of systemic lupus erythematosus. Among its benefits, quality sleep – eight or so hours of quality, uninterrupted sleep nightly – helps reduce inflammation, support immunity, and optimize energy levels: All crucial aspects to reduce the symptoms of autoimmune disease.
8. Find an exercise plan that works for you.
“Physical activity and autoimmune diseases: Get moving and manage the disease” is the title of one review that argues physical activity decreases fatigue, enhances mood, supports immune function, and improves quality of life in people with autoimmune diseases. Your move-more strategy might be weight resistance, brisk walking, high-intensity interval training, or group sports. Find what you’ll commit to regularly and make it a priority.
9. Manage stress levels.
Among its havoc, chronic stress impacts your already-overtaxed adrenal glands. Researchers find people exposed to a stress-related disorder had a subsequently increased risk for autoimmune disease. Chronic stress can also adversely impact the immune system. Whether you prefer meditation, yoga, deep breathing, or laughing with a friend, find something that de-stresses you and make it a priority.
Addressing the underlying drivers of autoimmune disease (and there are typically several) provides a powerfully effective foundation for healing. These strategies take time, but reducing or eliminating the debilitating symptoms of autoimmune disease creates a happier, healthy life free of pain.