Autoimmune conditions can seem like biology’s ultimate betrayal: The immune system, which we count on for defense against disease, turns against us in a concentrated attack. Consequences can range from mild to life-threatening, but in general, autoimmune diseases are characterized by flare-ups of inflammation and progressive destruction of cells, tissues, and organs—along with pain, fatigue, and a host of other debilitating symptoms.
There are more than 100 autoimmune conditions that strike different parts of the body. Type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis are among the more prevalent. Some autoimmune conditions cause progressive destruction, while others flare up and die down, usually in response to specific pro-inflammatory triggers. Despite their diversity, they all share a common trait: Immune cells mistake native tissue for foreign invaders and launch an attack.
But why? To date, researchers don’t completely understand the mechanisms. However, we are well acquainted with the scope of the problem. The National Institutes of Health estimates that more than 24 million Americans suffer from autoimmune disorders, though that figure may be low. Still, by any measure, autoimmunity is a growing epidemic—and the conventional medical community seems to be at a loss for safe and effective long-term solutions.
However, that doesn’t mean we’re stranded. There are a number of integrative strategies that can help reduce inflammatory flare-ups, modulate and balance immune response, support organ function, and improve quality of life for those struggling with an autoimmune disease.
There’s increasing evidence that chronic exposure to pesticides, heavy metals, and other toxins raises the risk for developing or triggering autoimmune disorders. For example, both lupus and rheumatoid arthritis have been linked to pesticides and other environmental toxins. Dioxins, hydrocarbons, heavy metals, and other pollutants have also been linked to autoimmune conditions. Studies show that even low doses may cause damage on the cellular level due to oxidative stress and the inflammation which follows, disrupting cell and organ function—particularly in people who are more sensitive.
This brings us to the widespread theory that genetics play a role as well; it has often been said, “Our genetics are the gun and the environment pulls the trigger.” In other words, overexposure to toxins may be triggering more autoimmune responses in people with genetic sensitivities. Everyone has small “typos” in their genetic code. If this occurs with a gene coding for enzymes involved in detoxification, it makes it more difficult for the body to get rid of toxins.
Another contributor may be our microbiota: the bacteria that colonize our digestive tracts and play numerous roles in health and disease. Newer research has shown that one consequence of the Western diet is a loss of healthy bacterial balance, which may adversely affect our immune systems. One study found that the bacterium P. copri is far more prevalent in people with rheumatoid arthritis.
Why are Women at Higher Risk?
Did you know 1 in 12 women will develop an autoimmune disorder—compared with only 1 in 20 men? Why is that?
As with any gender differential, the first suspect is always hormones. Many toxins mimic sex hormones or bind to estrogen receptors, which disrupts hormonal metabolism. We also know that the endocrine system is closely connected with both the neurological and the immune systems. Certain hormonal imbalances can trigger domino effects throughout the body.
Toxins stored in fat may also be a factor, since women tend to have higher percentages of body fat than men. Numerous environmental toxins are lipid-soluble and stored in fat cells.
Lifestyle, particularly stress and energy expenditure, can play significant roles in autoimmune disease as well. Women often balance demanding careers with being primary caregivers, in addition to other responsibilities. This can raise the potential for burnout and spike inflammatory stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Furthermore, mainstream media blasts women with unrealistic ideals, and studies have demonstrated that this barrage of messaging can contribute to low self-esteem and excessive self-criticism.
In terms of mind-body relationships, patterns of negative self-talk are shown to have measurable physiological consequences. Could autoimmunity—when the body literally attacks itself—be one of the potential end results in susceptible individuals? It’s simply conjecture at this point, but perhaps future research will help clarify some of these factors. For now, taking time for self-care is one of the most important things anyone can do for his or her health.
Because Western medicine has yet to determine the causes of autoimmune disease, we must settle for managing the symptoms. Most strategies seek to control inflammation and suppress the immune system.
From a holistic standpoint, we must take what we know about autoimmunity and adjust our lifestyles accordingly. I recommend starting with an anti-inflammatory diet: organic foods to minimize toxins, including lean proteins, fruits, and vegetables. Stay away from processed foods, pro-inflammatory fats and oils like partially hydrogenated oils and margarine, alcohol, caffeine, gluten, and sugar. I strongly recommend cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, chard, kale, and cabbage, which not only help keep hormones in balance, but also detoxify the body.
It’s also critical to support our microbiota. That means including cultured foods in our diets, such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and miso. These traditional foods support balance in our gut bacteria, which will in turn help balance the immune system and control inflammation. A high-quality probiotic supplement is also important for reintroducing healthy bacteria, as well as a prebiotic supplement such as FOS (fructooligosaccharides), which feeds the good bacteria.
Autoimmune disorders can be uniquely individual, so be sure to identify any food sensitivities or allergies which can trigger inflammation and damage the intestines, possibly leading to leaky gut syndrome. A leaky gut means that large food particles can cross the intestinal barrier, firing up your immune system as it attempts to deal with a foreign invader.
An immune response that’s always on overdrive may contribute to a “misinformed” immune system that doesn’t easily recognize friend from foe. Many autoimmune conditions have additional allergenic triggers such as dust, mold, mites, etc. It’s important to figure out which factors can trigger a flare-up.
Stress and Lifestyle
As we accept that autoimmune conditions result from biological imbalances, we must adjust our lives to restore that balance. First and foremost, we need to get good quality sleep—without it, we’re much more vulnerable to immune problems. Stick to a consistent bedtime and avoid devices and bright lights late at night, which inhibit melatonin—a powerful anti-inflammatory hormone critical for reparative sleep and healthy circadian rhythms, among other processes.
Meditation is a proven way to reduce stress and the associated inflammatory hormones. I also recommend yoga, t’ai chi, and qigong. Gentle, moderate exercise in general is important because it controls stress hormones and helps the body detoxify.
Immune and Anti-Inflammation Approaches
Medicinal mushrooms are a great way to support the immune system, but they’re often misunderstood. It may seem counterintuitive to use an immune supplement for an overactive immune disorder, but medicinal mushrooms are much more nuanced. They don’t boost immunity so much as optimize and balance it. In other words, they can help modulate immune response. In addition, they’re great detoxifiers with anti-inflammatory actions.
Another excellent detoxifier is modified citrus pectin (MCP), made from citrus peels. MCP gently removes a variety of toxic compounds and heavy metals. It’s also a powerful anti-inflammatory that works by blocking the harmful effects of galectin-3. Elevated levels of galectin-3 in the circulation fuel chronic inflammation and fibrosis, as well as cancer, heart disease, and numerous other inflammatory conditions.
At Amitabha Medical Clinic, we’re pioneering a new approach to reduce inflammation-promoting factors—including galectin-3—in the circulation. The method is therapeutic apheresis: a procedure which filters blood to remove harmful inflammatory proteins. This novel treatment is showing success in a number of degenerative conditions, including autoimmune disease, cancer, and others.
Unfortunately, there are no magic bullets for autoimmune disorders. I encourage anyone struggling with one of these potentially debilitating diseases to pay close attention to diet, surrounding environments, and mental well-being. Autoimmunity is a tough road, but with the right anti-inflammatory approaches and compassionate self-care, you can manage your condition and support overall health in the process.
By Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAC