What do you know about auto-immune diseases? How many can you name? Have you been diagnosed by your doctor with an auto-immune disease or disorder? Over 23.5 million Americans have been diagnosed with at least one auto-immune disease.
Auto-immune disease is defined as a disease associated with the production of antibodies directed against one’s own tissues.
Auto-immune diseases and disorders seem to be growing in both numbers and frequency, yet there is still quite a lot not known about them. The purpose of this article is to answer some common questions about them and to help you understand some of the causes, treatments, and long-term prognosis for someone suffering from one or more of these conditions.
According to the American Autoimmune Related Disease Association (AARDA), the number of auto-immune diseases, including disorders associated with them, tops 100. Some of the more well-known diseases include Type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, lupus, Crohn’s disease and thyroid diseases Graves’ and Hashimoto’s.
Of the 100+ auto-immune diseases and disorders listed some are extremely rare, such as Evan’s syndrome (in which red and white blood cells, and/or platelets are destroyed by the immune system) and Susac’s syndrome (which appears to affect the brain as indicated by personality changes, headaches, hearing loss, and impaired vision, although the etiology is unknown). Disorders such as Restless Leg Syndrome and Narcolepsy also appear on AARDA’s list and although the cause of these is not known, they are sometimes associated with other auto-immune diseases.
Overall, little is known about auto-immune disorders. In general, what is known is that the immune system has stopped functioning properly. White blood cells make up the bulk of our immune system. White blood cells, called leukocytes seek out and destroy pathogens that enter our body. There are many different types of leukocytes, each with its own specific function.
One type of leukocyte is the lymphocyte; it is part of the adaptive immune system. The lymphocytes are responsible for identifying, destroying, and remembering a specific invader/pathogen/antigen. Once the pathogen is defeated, antibodies are created to help the body quickly identify the pathogen if it should ever return so that it can be quickly destroyed.
Friend or Foe?
Your immune system never sleeps and is continually keeping you safe from all manner of micro-organisms that you come into contact with every day. It also identifies and destroys abnormal human cells. The abnormal cells could have damaged DNA or have been infected by a micro-organism.
Millions of times every day your immune system functions properly. So, what happens to cause the immune system to turn on its own “healthy” tissues? Of course, that’s the question science is still trying to answer, but there are some things that science is starting to figure out.
In some cases, such as with Type 1 diabetes, the disease seems to start with an infection somewhere in the body. Sometimes, when the immune system has a huge response to an infection it seems to mistake certain other cells in the body as an invader or defective human cells. In the case of Type 1 diabetes, pancreas cells are attacked by the immune system resulting in decreased insulin production or complete cessation.
The role that genetics plays in disease is fascinating, to say the least. The presence of certain genes or gene variations can help us to determine how the body (including the immune system) is going to react to a given set of conditions.
Within our DNA strings there are approximately 20,000 genes. Not all of these genes are active at the same time. Somewhere within those DNA strings are instructions on which genes to turn on or off, and when.
Since your body is continually seeking homeostasis, it is continually reacting to everything going on in and around you. That means that our environment plays a very large role in our health, including which genes will be active.
Included in our environment is the food we eat and water we drink, the air we breathe, and things we touch; all of which may contain unhealthy components we call toxins. Stress is also a major factor in health since one its main byproducts is an excess of waste products that have to be dealt with. Stress can come from external sources via life circumstances (work or home environment), or from within, including sickness and lack of sleep.
This may help to explain why some people develop certain diseases while others do not. The presence of genes associated with a particular disease in a person’s DNA does not automatically mean that they will develop that disease. Conditions within the body determine whether the gene will be activated.
More Than a Gut Feeling
Several interesting studies have revealed links between gut health and the onset of auto-immune disorders, and lends credence to the statement that 70 percent of the immune system resides in the intestines (which is in the form of lymphoid tissue).
The processes that take place in the intestinal tract are so complex that scientists are still discovering them. Located in the intestines are millions of microorganisms whose role it is to break down the food we eat into nutrients the body can use. In a healthy system, there is a wide variety of different bacteria. Each type or strain of bacteria performs a different function.
Some produce vitamin K2, some help with synthesizing B vitamins, and certain others promote the production of serotonin. Recently, individual strains of these bacteria are being associated with particular health conditions. These microbiota play an important role in mental health, bone health, and brain health, to name a few.
The reasons they play such an integral part in health may well have to do with not only making certain micronutrients available, but also the function they play in inflammation and immune response. While this field of study is still in its infancy, initial findings are proving what Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine have known for thousands of years—proper gut health is critical for good health and longevity.
Studies have revealed that some types of T cells (immune system leukocytes) are inflammatory, others are anti-inflammatory, and some are regulatory. This revelation forms the basis for studies involving the presence or absence of certain strains of bacteria in the intestines of test subjects.
Although most studies are performed on animals, certain correlations can be made to human cases of auto-immune disease. To better understand the connection of gut health and disease, the current state of intestinal micro-organisms in patients with auto-immune disease is evaluated to see what bacteria is present and, perhaps even more important, what bacteria is absent.
Stated in a report published in the Science Direct Journal in August 2017 entitled Human Gut-Derived Commensal Bacteria Suppress CNS Inflammatory and Demyelinating Disease, “The increased prevalence of inflammatory diseases in developed countries has been attributed to an altered gut microbiome that is characteristically linked with the disease state.”
Quoted from the report, The Gut Microbiome Shapes Intestinal Immune Responses During Health and Disease, published in Nature Reviews Immunology in May 2009, “Astonishingly, the immune disorders for which incidences have increased in ‘Western’ countries all seem to involve reduced TReg-cell activity. It has been shown in animal models and some human studies that deficiencies in TReg-cell populations or function underlie asthma, IBD, rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis.” Meaning less regulatory action among the immune system’s T inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cells.
What these reports are implicating is that in more modernized countries the rate of auto-immune diseases is higher than in other countries. This increase became apparent around the time of World War II and that rate continues to grow every year.
Clearly, the connection between systemic inflammation and auto-immune disease is being affirmed and reaffirmed in clinical studies. And what is being discovered is that the natural process of inflammation is largely contributed to in the gut through T cell regulation which appears to be modulated by specific types of bacteria.
Studies show that an imbalance of bacteria in the intestines (between good bacteria and bad bacteria) can cause systemic inflammation. Causes for microbial imbalance in the gut include antibiotics, western diet, lifestyle, dehydration, and environmental factors.
An imbalance of bacteria in the intestines can lead to digestive disorders such as gas, bloating, indigestion and acid reflux, leaky gut, malnutrition, headaches, low energy, weight gain, and a host of other symptoms.
Key Strategies for Reducing Inflammation
Keeping the proper balance of good bacteria with bad bacteria can be difficult since today’s lifestyle promotes eating highly processed and sugary foods, eating on the run, high stress levels, exposure to toxins such as pesticides and environmental contaminants, hygiene practices that discourage exposure to necessary bacteria while leaving us vulnerable to harmful bacteria, and inadequate hydration.
With a willingness to make a few simple changes, most of these destructive practices can be overcome. Including more whole foods, foods that are not processed, eaten at regularly scheduled times when you can sit down and enjoy your food is a great place to start. Increasing your intake of pure filtered water will also help immensely; 2 to 3 liters per day is ideal.
Reducing stress is also important. Meditation and certain breathing techniques, as well as increasing movement throughout the day are great ways to help you relax more and stress less. Being around animals and nature will enhance your ability to relax.
Greening your home by removing chemicals in favor of more natural cleaning products, air fresheners, and personal care products will have a positive effect on yours, your family’s, and your pets’ health. The chemicals contained in common household products have a wide range of damaging health effects; some are hormone disrupting and even carcinogenic.
Lastly, I recommend taking a good quality probiotic every day. Probiotics are the beneficial bacteria that live in your intestines. Without the right kinds of microbes in your intestines disease would proliferate, quality of life would suffer, and your chances of dying prematurely increase dramatically.
I mention them last because while their role in our health is huge, they are very easy to kill off, unlike the bad bacteria. Stress, pesticides, and other contaminants are particularly damaging to the good bacteria. Processed foods cause these friendly flora to starve to death while at the same time feeding the bad bacteria, causing twice the damage twice as fast.
Antibiotics kill both the good and the bad bacteria, however the bad bacteria recover quickly and can overtake the intestinal microbiome causing an overgrowth of candida, or other noxious bacteria. Their overgrowth can cause a variety of digestive issues such as diarrhea, constipation, gas and bloating while contributing to a host of other health issues. Re-establishing colonies of good bacteria is critically important.
Due to all these factors, I recommend taking some form of good quality probiotic every day. The choices of products available can make choosing the right product daunting, however it is important that you get started. Largely, when it comes to supplements, you get what you pay for; do not settle for the cheapest you can find. Do some research to find out which products have been proven to be most effective.
I like refrigerated probiotics, but a new line of shelf stabilized products is emerging. And while certain strains of bacteria are recommended for certain conditions, ultimately you will need to see which works best for you. Most people benefit from rotating the products they are taking to get different strains every few months. Be sure to read the labels to find out what the bottle contains; most products contain multiple strains of bacteria.
For every one of these areas in which you are willing to make changes you are investing in yourself, and the long-term prognosis gets better and better. Since the heart of auto-immune disease is inflammation, reducing it by living more holistically will reduce your symptoms, if not put the disease in remission.
Many people have experienced a lessening or even complete loss of symptoms, raising their quality of life to a point that they thought they could never achieve. The advantage of reducing systemic inflammation through natural means and methods is that your body responds by coming back into balance which has a positive effect on weight, cholesterol, heart disease, certain brain disorders, and many more conditions.
Always talk to your doctor about changes to diet and lifestyle that you want to make, and continue to take all prescribed medication until your doctor tells you otherwise.
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