AUTOIMMUNE DISORDERS: When Your Body Attacks Itself
What Psoriasis, Lupus, Rosacea, Hashimoto’s, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Multiple Sclerosis, Type 1 Diabetes, Coeliac Disease, Graves and Sjogren’s all share
Do you feel tired, with aching muscles or joints and perhaps skin, mood or digestive problems – just never quite right? Lab tests might indicate attacking autoantibodies: protein markers of autoimmune disorders.
After a period of physical or psychological stress – perhaps a major infection or personal loss – the body’s heightened response might not return to normal. Your immune system is designed to defend against pathogens (viral, bacterial, parasitic or fungal), other invaders, and damaged cells such as cancerous ones and then return to a watchful calm. Instead it can become chronically hyper-vigilant and assault its own tissue, or protein fractions from common foods (perhaps gluten, dairy or potato).
There are about 80 auto-immune disorders including those particularly affecting the endocrine system such as thyroid or pancreas (Graves, Hashimoto’s, Type 1 diabetes); those affecting muscles, joints, skin, circulation (psoriasis, rosacea, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Sjogren’s, myasthenia gravis, lupus); those affecting digestion (Coeliac Disease, pernicious anemia – or any of the others). There are genetic markers for some of these, but they require epigenetic or outside triggers to be switched on. Onset is often preceded by a period of physical or emotional challenge that patients never fully recover from.
Medical science acknowledges two critical facts: 1) all autoimmune conditions involve the biochemical pathways of excess inflammation; 2) the gut contains about 80% of your immune cells. So the immune system, gut and inflammation are intimately connected. What affects one, likely affects the other.
Also evident in most inflamed tissue is increased acidosis. The kidneys are in charge of regulating blood pressure and blood alkalinity. Both are essential to keep the heart beating. If blood is too acidic then the kidneys use up alkaline minerals (primarily potassium, magnesium and calcium) to compensate, denying them from other sites: muscles (critical for digestion and sleep), joints, skin, hair, nails, teeth and bones. These minerals are also critical to nerve function so you stay energetic, not anxious; calm, not sedated. Most of the body and brain are made of water, and kidneys require it so minerals don’t concentrate such as in stones. Lungs also eliminate acidic CO2, so maintain regular exercise, good posture and breathe deeply.
The standard medical approach is to prescribe medications to suppress the signs of inflammation. Some drugs have very serious, even life-threatening side effects. Prednisone and other corticosteroids, mimic the power of your fight-or-flight adrenal hormones. They can be used by mouth, inhaler, injection or topically. Oral forms affect your entire body and have significant effects. They elevate blood and eye pressure (glaucoma), fluid retention, weight gain and mood swings. Long term they can increase infections, thin bones and fractures, high blood sugar and diabetes, lens clouding and cataracts, thin skin, easy bruising and slow healing. Your capacity to produce your own stress, fluid and mineral-regulating adrenal hormones lessens and within four weeks the adrenal glands can be reduced by half.
With sudden or harsh pain, of course you want fast relief. Instead of drugs as a first or only choice for long term management though, it is better to focus on why the body is in inflamed fighting mode. Were there adverse dietary, pathogenic or environmental triggers before or after the autoimmune diagnosis? And due to the close relationship between gut and immune function, if gut sensitivity was not associated with the cause of the problem, it will likely be in play after development. As biochemist Dr Jeffrey Bland says, “…stimuli such as bacterial infection, trauma, ischemic events [restricted blood supply], stress-related events, toxic exposures, allergens and chronic viral infections activate the inflammatory response.”
Inflammation prompts the liver to up production of a protein in the blood called ‘C-reactive protein’ or CRP. Elevated CRP and other markers such as alpha-lipoprotein and homocysteine indicate an increased risk of heart disease or stroke even if all other markers (such as high blood pressure or cholesterol) and risk factors are absent. A Johns Hopkins University study showed as fitness levels go down, CRP levels go up. University of Copenhagen research linked high CRP with 30% greater likelihood of cancer.
Temporary pain relief can be offered by steroidal meds or non-steroidal anti-inflammatories. NSAIDS can be over-the-counter such as aspirin or Ibuprofen, or by prescription such as Celebrex, Vioxx or other COX-2 inhibitors. They all work by blocking the effect of an enzyme called cyclooxygenase (COX). It is critical in producing prostaglandins (PGs) including those that activate pain and swelling. PGs are hormone-like regulators constructed from fats. Some speedily step on the gas pedal to your body’s activity and reactions, while others press on the brake. They all influence mind, mood, health and ageing. Whether you primarily produce pro- or anti-inflammatory PGs is strongly predicted by the types and quality of fats you eat. Omega 3 fish oil capsules can also block COX and increase calmative PGs.
How to Cool not Fuel Inflammation
1) Regulate fats. Fats are the foods most prone to oxidation or inflammatory damage. Read labels and use only cold-pressed or extra virgin oils. Minimise damaged fats (any rancid, overheated or commercially hydrogenated fat or non-cold-pressed oil). For cooking use top quality monounsaturates (olive, peanut, avocado, most nuts) or occasional saturates (clarified butter, coconut, cocoa, sustainable palm). These resist the oxidation heating promotes. Oxidation increases free-radical damage to arteries and the brain (over 50% fat). Include Omega 3 food sources (oily fish, seafood, linseed, chia, walnuts) and Omega 6 wholefoods (sesame, tahini, pumpkin kernels, sunflower seeds). But most processed foods and cheap oils are too high in Omega 6, which in excess is pro-inflammatory. TIPS: The Fats of Life.
2) Regulate blood sugar levels. Eating meals or snacks with lots of highly processed carbs (eg white bread with jam) spikes fat-storage hormone insulin as well as inflammatory cytokines. To regulate BSL, each meal and snack needs fibre (especially soluble fibre found in linseed, chia, legumes, oat bran, seaweed, psyllium, slippery elm), protein (meat, fish, eggs, dairy; wholegrains or legumes served with nuts or seeds) and a little fat (eg wholegrain seeded bread with nut butter or hummus). Other BSL helpers are crunchy foods, vinegar, lemon juice, cinnamon, and most of all eating slowly. Do not go to bed hungry or very full, or disturbed BSL can trigger wakefulness or morning fatigue.
3) Increase antioxidants and alkalinity. Eat foods rich in antioxidants such as vitamins A, C and E, beta-carotene, zinc and selenium. Eat 5+ servings and 5 colours daily of veg and fruit to obtain these and thousands more. They help minimise oxidation, inflammation and free radicals. Top providers: prunes, raisins, berries, garlic, kale, spinach, sprouts, broccoli, beetroot, avocado, orange, grapes, red pepper. Top sources of alkaline minerals: fresh herbs, spices, nuts, seeds, seaweed, seafood, veg especially leafy greens, fruit. Most acidic foods: refined sugar, soft drinks. Daily drink 8 water, herb tea or broth.
4) Improve gut health. Have soluble fibre at least 2 x daily and insoluble fibre 3 x daily (wholegrains, fruit, veg; note legumes, nuts, seeds have both types). Prebiotics (eg psyllium, slippery elm) help feed the good guy bacteria and decrease pathogens. They can be more consistent in their delivery than probiotic supplements. Good probiotic foods include naturally fermented sauerkraut (eg Be Nourished), kimchi and miso. Exclude foods that are poorly digested (contact this office for an allergy test). Instead of being broken down into nutrients, they pass through the gut wall, damage the vast and delicate lining, and are targeted by the immune system as a dangerous invader, dysregulating cortisol and BSL. Do everything possible to improve digestion: eat slowly and mindfully, at least 3 x daily, not too much.
5) Check for personal triggers such as allergies and sensitivities. These damage tissue (commonly gut, respiratory, skin or joints) via toxins (eg nicotine); inhalants (eg pollen); topicals (eg deodorant); excitotoxins (eg MSG); or poorly digested food fractions (eg gluten) which pass into circulation and trigger your overworked immune system to fight the invader (contact this office for an allergy test).
6) Enjoy regular exercise and relaxation. These strategies help lower stress chemicals such as cortisol, which promote hyper-reactivity leading to fatigue, poor sleep and truncal weight gain. If stressed do deep breathing (eg Buteyko). Plan sufficient solitude and socialising. #1 exercise for regulating BSL: every 20 minutes of sitting, get up and move for 2 minutes (do filing, dusting, climb stairs, get water). Add 30 minutes of walking, stretching, gardening, yoga, exercycle 6 x weekly (or 10 minute segments if you tend to fatigue or pain). No caffeine (coffee, tea, soft drinks, chocolate) after 2 pm (can take the liver 8 hours to break it down). At least 60 minutes before bed turn lights low and no cell phone or computer use (their blue light and bright lights overhead inhibit sleep hormones). Relax with a book, comedy, hot bath, classical music. Lights out by 10 pm to prevent cortisol surge and wakefulness.