Over 23 million Americans have been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. These are conditions in which the immune system mistakes the body as “foreign” and attacks it. Examples are celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), Hashimoto’s and Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, lupus, and Sjogren’s. There is no clear answer as to how the immune system becomes programmed to attack the body. As these diseases are on the rise, it is essential to find and treat their causes, barring genetics. Research shows that food sensitivities, chronic infections, vitamin D deficiency, hormones, and environmental toxins are causes of autoimmunity.
Over 70% of our entire immune system lies in the GI tract! Many correlations exist between GI dysfunction and autoimmunity. Food sensitivities are one example. Food intolerance occurs when there is an immune response to specific food proteins. It can occur up to 72 hours after eating that food, much later than a food allergy. The GI tract is very specific about what is absorbed into the blood. If inflamed, the gut has increased permeability, and large food particles slip into the blood. The immune system flags these foods to destroy them. Over time, and with repeated exposure to that food, the immune system confuses healthy body tissue with the offending food. It then attacks the body, thinking it’s destroying the food protein, and an autoimmune response is born.
So what causes food sensitivities? They can be due to low stomach acid or digestive enzymes, decreased gut motility, lack of good gut flora, yeast and bacteria overgrowth, early introduction of food to infants, transmission of food proteins in breast milk, early cessation of breastfeeding, vaccination reactions, frequent antibiotic use, alcohol abuse, liver overload, and chronic NSAID (e.g. Aspirin), and steroid use. Additionally, emotional imbalances can be causative. Stress raises cortisol, and cortisol directly decreases the protective mucous lining of the GI tract and our immune system living in it.
Bacteria and viruses are associated with autoimmune diseases. Many chronic bacterial and parasitic infections can reside in the gut, and elsewhere, like Lyme disease. Two viruses that cause mono, EBV and CMV, are highly correlated with autoimmunity. These viruses can lay dormant in the body for years, and become reactivated from stress, illness, grief, trauma, or major life changes. Again, the immune system confuses the body for the virus, and attacks the body. These infectious causes often are not checked. If present, antiviral treatment is necessary for achieving “remission,” or immune balance and protection from further damage.
Both vitamin D and DHEA deficiencies are related to higher rates of autoimmune illness. Across the board, higher disease activity is linked with low vitamin D levels. In RA, vitamin D is linked to disease severity, inflammation, and bone loss. Low vitamin D is linked with thyroid autoimmunity, and also with Sjogren’s. Low DHEA levels are correlated with lupus and RA. DHEA controls the amount of inflammation by our immune system. It tries to prevent a chronic inflammatory state. Low DHEA creates an increased cortisol ratio, which leads to decreased gut function, chronic inflammation, and abnormal immune function.
Finally, environmental toxins must be considered as contributors. Long-term exposure to chemicals causes a pattern of illness. First allergies appear. Then endocrine disorders occur (thyroid, adrenals, etc.), and finally, autoimmune diseases develop. Consider testing your toxic burden if you’ve had this pattern of health concerns. Toxins most associated with autoimmunity include heavy metals like arsenic, mercury, lead, and cadmium, and pesticides. We must also consider the total toxic burden in our home and work environments over time. Along with detoxification, avoidance of future exposures to these harmful compounds is key.
There are many medications that are extremely effective at quelling the symptoms and damage of these diseases. You may recognize them as Humira, Enbrel, Xeljanz, Plaquenil, and Prednisone. They are so effective because they completely turn off the immune system, in order to avoid further damage. As a result, their side effect profiles are rather alarming. Most commonly, they cause stomach upset, liver problems, and infection. Any infection can quickly worsen, or you may not be able to clear it easily, as your immune system can’t help you to do so. You may also need regular testing for liver damage. This is not to say that some people will do absolutely fine with these medications, and will not have any of these side effects. But if you are suffering from side effects, you may want to consider natural alternatives that will NOT leave you with an increased risk of infection.
Effectively treating autoimmune disease means finding and treating the cause. If the gut is susceptible, remove food intolerances, restore normal gut flora, remove infections, support digestion, and repair the lining. If chronic viruses are present, natural antiviral treatments are necessary. Stress management is extremely important for cortisol balance. Restore any vitamin D or DHEA deficiency with your physician’s supervision. If toxins are present, detoxification is needed, along with exposure avoidance. Autoimmune diseases can effectively be managed naturopathically. If you are not well-managed, have side effects from medications, or feel that the cause has not been found, please speak with a naturopathic physician.