by guest blogger Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, integrative medicine pioneer
Autoimmune (AI) disorders are among the most difficult diseases of our modern age, and their rates are skyrocketing. Beyond the life-sapping symptoms, there is the element of betrayal. Instead of defending the body, the immune system goes rogue, attacking joints, organs, and tissues—even the brain—causing inflammation and destruction.
There are more than 80 types of AI diseases, and in the U.S., as many as 23 million people—mostly women—suffer from an AI issue. These conditions often share vague symptoms, at least in the beginning: fatigue, mild fever, difficulty concentrating, allergies, unexplained pains. Misdiagnoses are extremely common, and all too often the disease is blamed on psychological factors. For many, a clear diagnosis comes only at the end of a long road of struggle and self-doubt.
And once diagnosed, treatment options are limited.
Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet for AI disorders. Most therapies are designed to control symptoms rather than address causes—because we still don’t conclusively know what those underlying causes are. Conventional treatments suppress flare-ups and include anti-inflammatory drugs, immune suppressors, and other medications—all of which can have significant side effects.
The good news is that a handful of holistic approaches can help manage these conditions and reduce the diseases’ severity and help control a rogue immune system, easing some of the discomfort.
What’s Happening to the Body?
On the simplest level, AI diseases can be viewed as the result of a communication breakdown. For some reason, immune cells lose the ability to differentiate between healthy tissue and disease-causing invaders in the body. In type 1 diabetes, for example, immune cells destroy pancreatic beta cells that produce insulin and keep blood sugar under control.
All AI conditions (Addison’s disease, lupus, celiac disease, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis, to name a few) share this theme of self-destruction. They’re all the result of attack on specific tissues by an out-of-control immune system.
Until recently, many scientists felt that AI disorders were caused entirely by genetics. However, continuing research is showing that the disease process is much more complex. The saying, “Genetics may be the gun, but it’s the environment that pulls the trigger” has gained a lot of traction in this field. For one thing, there is increasing evidence that chronic exposure to pesticides, heavy metals, and other toxins can increase a person’s risk of developing one of these disorders. An example: Lupus clusters have been observed in farmworkers heavily exposed to specific pesticides. Similar patterns have been seen in other instances of increased toxin exposure.
In general, there’s a growing belief among scientists and doctors that our accumulated exposure to toxins is sending the immune system into overdrive, particularly in sensitive individuals.
The Potential Role of Helpful Bacteria
Researchers have suspected that bacteria and other pathogens may also play a role in AI diseases. In some cases, an infection may start off with a normal immune response but escalate into an overreaction that becomes chronic. Other research is showing that bacteria found in the gut, our individual microbiome, may play a significant role in AI diseases.
We know that species of gut bacteria vary greatly between individuals, and even between cultures (pun intended). One study conducted by Harvard, Sloan-Kettering, and NYU showed an association between the bacterium Prevotella copri and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). The researchers found P. copri in 75 percent of stool samples from patients who had just been diagnosed with RA, but only in 21 percent of samples from healthy people. This is a fascinating area of research that may one day open the door to innovative forms of treatment.
A Gender Gap
Women are three times more likely to develop an AI condition, and women of childbearing age seem to be at particular risk. While, again, we don’t entirely understand the mechanisms involved, it’s suspected that hormonal influences play a role. Toxins are known to bind to estrogen receptors, and that can lead to hormonal dysregulation, which may fuel the reactions.
Stress is likely also a factor, as it triggers cascades of pro-inflammatory hormones. Women who are juggling career, family, and other responsibilities are particularly at risk for the type of chronic stress that keeps the body in overdrive mode, which in turn may contribute to AI conditions.
On a mind-body level, modern society pushes women to be more critical of themselves and to sacrifice their own needs. When viewed from a holistic perspective, this type of “self-sabotage” is similar to what’s happening on a cellular level in AI diseases. Being mindful of this burnout risk and taking time to practice loving self-care can benefit people struggling with AI conditions—both men and women.
Elements of an AI Management Plan
With limited conventional treatment options—none of which address root causes—a holistic approach is an important part of effective AI management. This includes diet, exercise, stress reduction, trigger avoidance, and targeted supplementation.
An anti-inflammatory diet and lifestyle form the basic foundation for health—in AI disease, this approach is a must. The diet emphasizes organic produce and meats, lean protein, lots of vegetables, some brightly colored fruits, healthy fats, raw nuts and seeds, and unprocessed foods. I particularly recommend cruciferous vegetables, which when metabolized, produce a compound called DIM that helps maintain hormone balance. In addition, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, chard, kale, and cabbage are excellent detoxifiers. A recent study found that a drink made from broccoli sprouts helped remove the highly prevalent toxin, benzene, from the body.
Sugar is also inflammatory, so be sure to limit your intake of it as much as possible. The same is true of alcohol, caffeine, and gluten. Also, avoid processed foods, which tend to be full of inflammatory chemicals.
Addressing food sensitivities/allergies is also a must, as certain foods can be powerful inflammation triggers that damage the protective gut lining where much of our immune activity takes place. An elimination diet is a good first step, but this is a step best explored with a qualified healthcare provider.
It’s also a good idea to support your microbiota with fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi. These foods rich in nutrients, enzymes, and healthy bacteria help balance the immune system.
Sleep is another critical issue. Research continues to show the profound impact of restful sleep on all areas of health. Melatonin, the master sleep hormone produced in response to darkness, triggers a cascade of signals that influence neurological, hormonal, immune, cellular function, and more. It makes sense that when you are in tune with your natural circadian sleep/wake cycles that your body’s other systems are better able to maintain proper balance.
Meditation and meditative practices like yoga, tai chi, and qigong have shown benefit for sleep disturbances and have a favorable impact on the immune system. Since these practices lower inflammatory stress hormones, they can be a very effective part of a daily routine for managing an autoimmune condition.
In addition, I always urge my patients to identify and avoid personal inflammatory triggers that cause their symptoms to flare up. These can be highly individual: dust, molds, animals, certain foods, or a specific household product, for instance.
You may have heard that medicinal mushrooms are immune boosters, which is true. But that’s only part of the story. They actually seem to train the immune system to respond appropriately.
If all mushrooms did was gear up the immune system, it wouldn’t make sense to use them to combat an AI response. But mushrooms are more immune modulators than immune boosters. They can be useful both to accentuate an underactive immune response and to tamp down an overactive one. In other words, medicinal mushrooms have the innate ability to help the body find immune balance. In addition, reishi, coriolus, cordyceps, polyporus, agaricus, and others types of medicinal mushrooms can be quite helpful in any detoxification regimen, as their porous structures tend to absorb toxins.
Emerging research is identifying one of the most important botanicals for addressing numerous chronic, inflammatory conditions: modified citrus pectin (MCP), made from the pith (white inner portion) of citrus peels. MCP is a form of pectin that has been broken down into smaller particles to enable it to pass from the digestive system into the circulation and exert systemwide benefits.
For those suffering from AI conditions, MCP is an excellent detoxifier, gently removing heavy metals, dioxins, and a variety of other toxic compounds. MCP also serves another important function by deactivating a protein called galectin-3, which is often elevated in people with chronic inflammatory conditions, including AI diseases. By blocking harmful galectin-3 signals, MCP reduces inflammatory stimulation. Elevated galectin-3 has also been linked to cancer, cardiovascular disease, organ fibrosis and damage (a hallmark of AI diseases), and other pro-inflammatory conditions.
In addition to medicinal mushrooms and MCP, common herbs and spices can also help control inflammation. Ginger, rosemary, garlic, cayenne pepper, turmeric, and clove are just a few. These can be incorporated into meals or taken in supplement form, which provides more concentrated effects.
A Total Anti-inflammatory Toolkit
Many people with AI conditions have made significant improvements by taking the reins and committing to anti-inflammatory dietary changes, targeted supplements, and nourishing lifestyle practices. Each healthy modification adds to a more balanced life, bringing greater energy and stamina, and can bring us closer to the goal: an immune system that works for us, rather than against.
Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, integrates Western medicine with his extensive knowledge of traditional Chinese, Tibetan, ayurvedic, homeopathic, and complementary medical systems. With more than 25 years of clinical experience and research, Dr. Eliaz has a unique holistic approach to the relationship between health and disease, immune enhancement, detoxification, and cancer prevention and treatment. For more health and wellness information, visit dreliaz.org.