You’ve probably heard the term autoimmune disease before. But to what exactly does that term refer? What distinguishes autoimmune diseases from other ailments? Are there ways to prevent the development of autoimmune diseases? What about ways to control a disease if one already exists in the body?
The short answer to these complex questions is this: People with autoimmune diseases display symptoms—such as bodily inflammation, extreme fatigue, or significant weight fluctuations—caused by the immune system. The job of the immune system is to attack foreign invaders and ward off viruses and harmful bacteria. Normally, the body is able to recognize friend from foe, but sometimes the immune system misfires and starts attacking completely normal cells. This can result in serious, life-altering, and even life-threatening issues.
Although autoimmune symptoms are widely varied, these diseases can impact every system within the body. Psoriasis affects the skin and results in red, itchy patches; ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease affect the gut; rheumatoid arthritis impacts the joints; type 1 diabetes and thyroid disease affect the endocrine system, the glands and organs that make and regulate hormones; and multiple sclerosis affects the nervous system. There are many other types of autoimmune diseases and these diseases, as a whole, affect between 3 and 5 percent of the US population. About 75 percent of those suffering from autoimmune diseases are women—and, shockingly, the number of people diagnosed with autoimmune diseases is on the rise.
Here’s what you need to know now to help yourself—or a friend, or a friend of a friend—prevent or control symptoms associated with an autoimmune diagnosis.
EXAMINING THE CAUSE
Ultimately, there are three underlying origins of health problems in the body. These are known as the three Ts: thoughts, traumas, and toxins. Emotional mood swings, physical injuries or surgeries, and exposure to environmental toxins all influence whether we are at risk for developing diseases. Understandably, the cause of autoimmune diseases is a hot topic in medical research. It’s also a complex topic because of the vast variety of autoimmune diseases that researchers must try to understand. Here’s a closer look at seven specific factors that researchers and experts have determined may impact the likelihood of autoimmune disease development.
Although genetics do not always appear to play a role in autoimmune disease development, studies have shown links between some diseases and specific traits associated with a particular disease or ancestral background. Researchers have noted that some autoimmune diseases can run in a family, so it’s important to fully discuss your family history with your doctor.
Stress, depression, and negative thoughts play a more profound role on health than was once suspected. Prolonged exposure to stress hormones—such as cortisol and adrenaline—increase inflammation throughout the body. Inflammation is the key mechanism by which many diseases move through the body. Bodies under a constant level of emotional stress burden the immune system, which may lead to an increased risk of developing a range of diseases.
Diets heavy in fast food, processed food, and junk food weaken the immune system and place the body under stress. Artificial sweeteners, food dyes, and additives have all been linked to various diseases—including cancer. An often overlooked link between diet and disease development is that processed foods are usually devoid of nutritional value, and depriving the body of important nutrients increases the chance of disease.
Additionally, it has been noted that some foods increase the risk of triggering an autoimmune reaction. These foods include legumes (particularly peanuts), hydrogenated fats, nightshade vegetables (such as eggplant and tomatoes), and genetically modified oils. Talk to your doctor and consume with caution and in moderation, if at all.
Some autoimmune diseases have a link to bacterial or viral infections. For example, researchers have observed that illnesses stemming from the Epstein-Barr virus—a common virus that causes people to experience cold- or flu-like symptoms—might trigger an autoimmune disease.
Vaccinations and immunizations are controversial, and whether you choose to get them is ultimately up to you. However, it has been previously noted that there might be a link between some autoimmune diseases and vaccinations. Do your research. Discuss your medical history and vaccination options with your doctor to decide what is best for you.
Exposure to Toxins
Whether it’s our water, air, or food supply, our environment has become toxin heavy. There are traces and sometimes even high amounts of a surprisingly large array of untested chemicals and compounds surrounding us every day. More than 80,000 different manmade chemicals are used to manufacture everything from beauty products to pesticides. The impact of these chemicals on human health is often untested by science or mostly unknown.
Bodily trauma resulting from a physical injury, accident, or surgical procedure could trigger an autoimmune reaction. Healing from a physically traumatic event is sometimes a long and difficult process, and any outside agent that negatively impacts the immune system could play a role in autoimmune disease reaction. It’s important to opt for excellent nutrition after a traumatic event, such as a surgery, to reduce the risk for disease.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?
The relationship between health and disease is complex, especially where autoimmune diseases are concerned, so don’t panic if you have some symptoms associated with autoimmune diseases. This does not necessarily mean that you have an autoimmune disease, but it might be beneficial to have a conversation with your doctor to see what can be done to alleviate your symptoms. Many of the symptoms associated with autoimmune diseases mimic other diseases.
Each autoimmune disease has its own set of specific symptoms. There are, however, some common characteristics that have been reported, including:
>> Muscle weakness
>> Sleep problems
>> Changes in blood pressure (including feelings of dizziness and vertigo)
>> Persistent and extreme fatigue
>> A significant weight loss or weight gain
>> Digestive health issues
>> Swollen glands
>> Candida yeast infections
>> Emotional problems or mood disorders
THE THREE DIMENSIONS OF HEALING
To stop the body from attacking itself, consider the three dimensions of healing: biochemistry, energetic, and structural. Let’s take a closer look at each.
Within the biochemistry dimension, you must understand which toxins to eliminate and which nutrients the body is missing. At this point, supplementation needs can be identified. In what areas are you lacking key nutrients, and what sources are available for you to get them? A detailed blood test and analysis is also warranted—for example, the Cardio Ion blood and urine test. A doctor specializing in functional medicine can order and interpret this test for you.
Another element of the biochemistry dimension includes far infrared detoxification, which helps remove toxins from lipid cells and eliminate them from the body. The detox takes place at a deeper cellular level and can relax and rejuvenate the body.
The energetic dimension involves the acupuncture meridian system; using this system can balance the body’s overall energetics and stability. Additionally, the effects on the immune system are extremely beneficial. Afraid of needles? Consider laser acupuncture as an alternative.
The structural dimension deals with the entire nervous system, which controls trillions of cells. Remember that in order for your immune system to function in an optimal manner, your spine must also function optimally, allowing nerves to flow smoothly throughout the nervous system. There is a direct relationship between spine health, the nervous system, all organs, and the immune system. Working with a chiropractor can help you keep the impulses of your nervous system communicating with your body as a whole.
STEPS THAT PROTECT
The first step to decrease your risk of autoimmune disease development or reaction is to avoid harmful compounds and agents. This means avoiding processed foods and fast foods. Choose a diet that largely consists of whole foods and organic foods.
Some foods work specifically to fight the underlying cause of so many diseases: inflammation. Anti-inflammatory foods such as garlic, turmeric, pineapples, and berries are great dietary additions. Garlic also has anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-fungal properties; turmeric—a trusted Indian spice—may also have anti-cancer properties. Pineapples contain a powerful anti-inflammatory enzyme, and berries boost overall immune system strength.
Next, strive to remove toxic compounds from your environment; this goes a long way to help your health. It might seem daunting, but simple alternatives like using a water purifier or purchasing green cleaning products help remove harmful compounds from daily activities.
Additionally, think about supplementing. Consider boosting your vitamin D levels and your omega-3 fatty acid consumption. Cod liver oil is often recommended because it is high in both omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D. But be sure that your cod liver oil has been purified; otherwise, it may contain high levels of heavy metals, such as mercury or lead. If you’re concerned about heavy metals in your body, have your doctor check your heavy metal levels.
Taking active steps to relax and giving your body the support it needs to be healthy is another key step. In recent years, modern medical science has proven the value of ancient practices such as yoga, meditation, massage, and acupuncture. All of these practices can help reduce physical pain, lower stress levels, and boost mental stability.
Researchers are still working to decipher how autoimmune diseases work and to discover their underlying causes, but their complexity shouldn’t make you feel helpless. If you are proactive about your health and recognize that diet and lifestyle choices impact disease development, you can help reduce your chances of developing an autoimmune disease—and you’ll become healthier in the process.
Aristotle Economou, DC, LAc, (Az) DiplAc (IAMA), FIAMA, is a member of The Institute for Functional Medicine. He is author of Change The Way You Heal: 7 Steps to Highly Effective Healing, and has more than 20 years of clinical experience. To learn more about Dr. Economou, visit draristotle.com.
What’s in your gut?
Go organic, read product labels, or find alternatives. Most importantly, listen to your body. Potential sources of ingested toxic compounds include:
HEAVY METALS IN SEAFOOD OR COSMETICS
MEDICINES, SUCH AS IBUPROFEN
PROCESSED FOODS AND FAST FOODS
REGULAR AND DIET SODA
What’s in your environment?
Ask questions, do your research, and be aware. Potential sources of environmental toxic compounds include:
CHEMICALS AND HEAVY METALS ON COOKWARE
EXPOSURE TO X-RAYS AND ELECTROMAGNETIC FIELDS
MERCURY AMALGAM FILLINGS
PESTICIDES AND INSECTICIDES