Natural Treatment for Autoimmune Disease
We have seen a real increase over the past few decades in a host of diseases that are often called diseases of affluence. These degenerative diseases are on the rise include heart disease, cancer and a category known as autoimmune diseases.
Autoimmune diseases are a broad category that share a common immune dysfunction – essentially when the body attacks itself. In autoimmune diseases, the body fails to recognise itself correctly and starts to see its own tissues or cells as foreign it begins to attack the tissue as if it is a foreign invader. Immune cells, called antibodies, are created against our own tissue and launch an attack which destroys and damages the tissue.
Autoimmune diseases can affect many different parts of the body and there are thought to be more than 80 known autoimmune disorders. For example in rheumatoid arthritis the antibodies are directed against the joints causing inflammation, pain and loss of mobility. In Hashimotos or Graves disease the body makes antibodies against a person’s thyroid causing an overactive or underactive thyroid disorder. Other autoimmune diseases include inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis and Crohns diease), lupus, multiple sclerosis and type 1 diabetes. All autoimmune diseases result in destruction of tissue which leads to loss of function over time. Some people can get more than one autoimmune disease.
General symptoms of autoimmune disease may include fatigue, malaise and low grade fevers. Symptoms of autoimmune diseases can come and go with some cases going in to remission for years. Many patients report increased stress as a prelude to developing an autoimmune disease or as a flare up of existing autoimmune disorder. This can seem odd as we know that stress normally has a negative effect on the immune system as increased levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, has an immune suppressant effect. So this reveals the complexity of the immune system – a system that has a delicate balance that can be easily upset. Interestingly, many women find that their autoimmune disease goes into remission while they are pregnant as the immune system normally is mildly suppressed during pregnancy.
Causes of Autoimmune Disease
The exact cause of autoimmunity is not known, but there are some theories as to why the immune system becomes aberrant. Other than stress, mentioned above, other triggers known to stimulate autoimmune disease can be infections – in this case the immune system gets a workout and the heightened activity appears to increase certain immune cells that can cause autoimmunity. Research has shown that viruses are behind many autoimmune disorders, with different potential actions such as molecular mimicry, bystander activation and the persistence of a virus that leads to high antibody levels. Multiple sclerosis, myocarditis and diabetes are three immune-medicated diseases often linked with virus infections. Allergies are another possible cause of autoimmune diseases. There is much research being done to identify possible allergens that can mimic our own body cells. For example some allergens have a very close resemblance to our own cells. The immune cells constantly circulate looking for the allergens but when they find the similar looking body cells they can attack these by mistake.
Treatments for Autoimmune Disease
Conventional treatments for autoimmune disease include suppressing the immune system with drugs (such as steroids) or it may require replacing a hormone or substance that has become deficient. For example in Type I diabetes, destruction of the pancreas impedes the output of insulin so the patient is required to inject insulin to maintain health. In Hashimotos disease, patients need to have thyroid hormone as the destruction of the thyroid tissue decreases the output of this essential hormone.
Naturopathic treatments assess the whole person and tries to identify imbalances that can cause dysfunction. Reducing the allergenic load of a patient can calm the immune response and may bring about a reduction in the symptoms of some types of autoimmunity. Assessment of an individual’s diet and digestive health is a very important component of managing autoimmune diseases. Removing potential food allergens and following an anti-inflammatory diet can definitely help some autoimmune diseases. Vitamin D deficiency has now been linked with a range of autoimmune diseases as the nutrient interacts with our genes and modulates our immunity. Many patients I have seen with autoimmune disease are very deficient in this important nutrient and correcting deficiency is essential.
Other nutrients such as omega 3 fats and certain herbs can bring about a reduction in inflammation and pain in some patients. There is often a mistaken belief that immune boosting herbs such as Echinacea should not be used in autoimmunity. This is incorrect, as many of the immune supportive herbs actually work to normalise and modulate immune function rather than stimulate it per se. For example in cases where the immunity is overstimulated the herbs can help to calm the response and in cases where the immune system is underactive the herbs can stimulate a normal response.
Other herbs such as Hemidesmus have more of an immune suppressant action. I have used immune modulating herbs many times with good outcomes in patients with autoimmunity. Consulting with a professional naturopath or herbalist is always the best way to get the right formula matched to your individual case.
Hopefully, more research in the future will uncover the causes behind autoimmunity and bring about increased understanding, improved prevention and better treatments.