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What Are Autoimmune Diseases?
Autoimmune diseases are conditions where the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s own tissues. Autoimmune conditions affect an astonishing 50 million people in the USA alone – the majority of whom are women. This is a very serious and insufficiently understood area of health: Autoimmune diseases are considered a top 10 leading cause of death in women under the age of 65.
Many people don’t know just how many of the serious conditions of the modern age are autoimmune conditions. They come in many different varieties, including rheumatoid arthritis, type I diabetes, thyroid disease, lupus, psoriasis, multiple sclerosis, and more, and can cause many different types of symptoms all over the body that range from mild to severe in nature. But what are they, what causes them, and how can they be treated?
Despite the diverse range and impact of autoimmune diseases, affecting various organs, they share a common characteristic: they are all triggered by an immune response due to systemic inflammation, leading to the body attacking its own cells. The immune system is intricately designed to protect you, constantly scanning for and identifying foreign entities that enter or come into contact with your body. When it perceives something as a threat, it generates antibodies to combat these perceived invaders.
Autoimmune diseases emerge when your body’s defense mechanisms are actively combating potential threats like allergens, toxins, infections, or certain foods, but erroneously fail to distinguish these from the body’s own tissues. This misidentification leads to the body directing its antibodies against itself, causing damage to various organs.
What Causes Autoimmune Diseases?
Understanding the causes of autoimmune diseases is complex, as they likely result from a combination of genetic, environmental, and immunological factors. Autoimmune diseases typically represent a complex and varied group of disorders characterized by the immune system’s abnormal response against the body’s own tissues. These diseases arise from a multifaceted interplay of genetic, environmental, immunological, and hormonal factors, leading to a wide spectrum of clinical manifestations.
Genetic predisposition plays a significant role in the development of autoimmune diseases. Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) have been instrumental in identifying genetic loci associated with these diseases. For instance, specific genes have been linked to diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, and multiple sclerosis. These genetic factors can influence the immune system’s functioning, making it more likely to target the body’s own cells.
Environmental factors are also crucial in the development of autoimmune diseases. These can include viral infections, exposure to certain chemicals, and lifestyle factors. For example, the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) has been linked to the development of systemic autoimmune diseases like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and Sjögren’s syndrome. Additionally, exposure to organic solvents has been associated with an increased risk of developing autoimmune diseases.
One of the challenges in this area is the poorly-understood “cocktail effect” of exposure to multiple chemicals. There is barely any testing done on the cocktail effect at all; when chemists evaluate material safety, it is typically done via acute toxicity tests. Long term and combination effects are usually unknown and may only become apparent after years of harm done!
At the molecular level, autoimmune diseases can result from the immune system’s failure to distinguish between self and non-self. This can be due to mutations in genes like TREX1 or the dysfunction of mechanisms that usually prevent autoimmune responses. For example, the activation of cyclic GMP-AMP synthase by self-DNA has been implicated in diseases like Aicardi-Goutières Syndrome and systemic lupus erythematosus.
Immune System Dysregulation:
The dysregulation of the immune system is a key feature of autoimmune diseases. This can involve overactivity of immune cells or the production of autoantibodies that attack the body’s tissues. The exact mechanisms of this dysregulation are complex and vary between different autoimmune diseases.
14 Of The Most Prevalent Autoimmune Diseases:
There are over 80 different types of autoimmune diseases in total. Here is a list of the better known ones:
1. Type 1 Diabetes: This autoimmune disease destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, leading to high blood sugar levels. It can cause damage to the heart, kidneys, eyes, and nerves.
2. Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA): RA is characterized by the immune system attacking the joints, causing swelling, warmth, soreness, and stiffness. It can start as early as the 30s and is related to juvenile idiopathic arthritis in children.
3. Psoriasis/Psoriatic Arthritis: Psoriasis leads to rapid skin cell multiplication, forming inflamed patches. Up to 30% of people with psoriasis develop psoriatic arthritis, causing joint symptoms like swelling, stiffness, and pain.
4. Multiple Sclerosis (MS): MS damages the myelin sheath surrounding nerve cells in the central nervous system, affecting nerve transmission. Symptoms include numbness, weakness, balance issues, and trouble walking.
5. Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE): Lupus affects many organs, including joints, kidneys, brain, and heart. Symptoms include joint pain, fatigue, and rashes.
6. Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD): IBD causes inflammation in the intestinal wall. Crohn’s disease can affect any part of the GI tract, while ulcerative colitis affects the large intestine and rectum.
7. Addison’s Disease: This disease affects the adrenal glands, leading to insufficient production of cortisol and aldosterone. Symptoms include weakness, fatigue, weight loss, and low blood sugar.
8. Graves’ Disease: An attack on the thyroid gland, causing overproduction of hormones. Symptoms include rapid heart rate, heat intolerance, unintentional weight loss, and thyroid swelling.
9. Sjögren’s Disease: It attacks glands providing lubrication to the eyes and mouth, causing dry eyes and mouth. It may also affect joints or skin.
10. Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis: This condition slows thyroid hormone production, leading to symptoms like weight gain, cold sensitivity, fatigue, hair loss, and thyroid swelling.
11. Myasthenia Gravis: It affects nerve impulses that control muscles, leading to muscle weakness that may worsen with activity and improve with rest.
12. Celiac Disease: People with celiac disease cannot tolerate gluten. It causes the immune system to attack the small intestine, leading to digestive issues.
13. Autoimmune Vasculitis: This condition involves the immune system attacking blood vessels, causing inflammation and reduced blood flow.
14. Pernicious Anemia: It occurs when the body doesn’t produce enough intrinsic factor, leading to vitamin B12 deficiency and anemia. Symptoms include fatigue, weakness, and headaches.
14 Signs and Symptoms You May Have an Autoimmune Disease:
Diagnosing autoimmune diseases can be challenging due to the wide range of symptoms that can vary from person to person. Doctors often use a combination of patient history, physical examination, and various tests, including blood tests, to make a diagnosis. While symptoms can vary widely depending on the specific disease, many autoimmune conditions share common signs and symptoms. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, especially a combination of several of them, you may have an autoimmune disease.
1. Fatigue A pervasive sense of tiredness that is not relieved by rest is a common symptom in many autoimmune diseases.
2. Joint Pain and Swelling Many autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, are characterized by pain, swelling, and stiffness in the joints.
3. Skin Problems Conditions like psoriasis lead to skin issues, including rashes, thick scaly patches, or dry skin.
4. Abdominal Pain or Digestive Issues Autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s disease and celiac disease can cause abdominal pain, bloating, and other digestive problems.
5. Recurring Fever Low-grade fevers that recur without any apparent cause can be a sign of an autoimmune response.
6. Swollen Glands Swelling of the lymph nodes can be a response to autoimmune activity in the body.
7. Muscle Aches Persistent muscle aches without clear cause can be associated with autoimmune diseases.
8. Numbness and Tingling in Hands and Feet This can be a symptom of autoimmune diseases that affect the nerves, such as multiple sclerosis.
9. Hair Loss Autoimmune diseases that affect the skin and follicles, like lupus, can cause hair loss.
10. Skin Rash Various autoimmune diseases can cause rashes, which might be localized or widespread.
11. Trouble Concentrating Cognitive issues, often referred to as “brain fog,” can be a symptom of autoimmune diseases.
12. Dizziness or Lightheadedness These symptoms can be associated with autoimmune diseases that affect blood flow or the nervous system.
13. Recurrent rashes or hives, sun-sensitivity, a butterfly-shaped rash across your nose and cheeks.
14. Heat or Cold Intolerance:
It’s important to note that these symptoms can also arise from various other health conditions. Therefore, a proper diagnosis from a healthcare provider is crucial to determine if these symptoms are due to an autoimmune disease.
The Link Between Autoimmune Diseases And Gluten:
The link between autoimmune diseases and gluten intolerance primarily revolves around celiac disease, which is itself an autoimmune disorder triggered by gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. However, the relationship between gluten and other autoimmune diseases is also an area of ongoing research and interest. Here’s an overview of the connection:
1. Celiac Disease as an Autoimmune Disorder: In celiac disease, the immune system reacts abnormally to gluten, leading to damage in the small intestine. This reaction is a direct autoimmune response where the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues.
2. Increased Risk of Other Autoimmune Diseases: Individuals with celiac disease have a higher risk of developing other autoimmune disorders. This increased risk is thought to be due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Commonly associated autoimmune diseases include type 1 diabetes, autoimmune thyroid diseases, and autoimmune liver diseases.
3. Gluten Sensitivity and Autoimmune Diseases: Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) is a condition where individuals experience symptoms related to gluten ingestion without the autoimmune or allergic responses seen in celiac disease or wheat allergy. The relationship between NCGS and autoimmune diseases is less clear, but some individuals report an improvement in autoimmune symptoms when following a gluten-free diet.
4. Leaky Gut Syndrome: There is a hypothesis known as “leaky gut syndrome,” which suggests that increased intestinal permeability may allow substances like gluten to pass into the bloodstream, potentially triggering autoimmune responses. However, this theory is still under investigation and is not universally accepted in the medical community.
5. Genetic Factors: Certain genetic factors, such as the presence of HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8 genes, are associated with a higher risk of celiac disease. These genetic factors might also play a role in the susceptibility to other autoimmune diseases.
6. Inflammation: Chronic inflammation, a hallmark of many autoimmune diseases, might also be exacerbated by gluten in some individuals, particularly those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
7. Dietary Management: For individuals with celiac disease, strictly adhering to a gluten-free diet is essential to manage the disease and reduce the risk of developing other autoimmune disorders. For those with other autoimmune diseases, some may find symptom relief with a gluten-free diet, but this is highly individual and not universally recommended.
It’s important to note that while there is a clear link between gluten and autoimmune responses in celiac disease, the role of gluten in other autoimmune diseases is less definitive and can vary greatly among individuals.
Conventional vs. Alternative Approach To Autoimmune Diseases
Conventional Medicine Approach:
While conventional medicine may excel in the arena of diagnosis, it may sometimes fail to address the root cause, perhaps merely managing symptoms such as anti-inflammatory drugs, steroids, or immunosuppressants; especially if a disease is regarded as “incurable” by orthodox practice. Long term immunosuppressant drug use may cause further problems down the line.
Alternative Medicine Approach To Autoimmune Diseases:
Determining the specific autoimmune disease you may have can be challenging. The symptoms often lack specificity, and these diseases can manifest in numerous forms, impacting organs such as the thyroid, brain, skin, among others. Collaborating with a functional medicine doctor is crucial in this process. They will examine your family’s medical history, assess your susceptibility to infections, food sensitivities, and exposure to toxins, and attentively connect the dots between all your symptoms. This comprehensive approach is vital for your recovery. A functional medicine doctor will guide you in selecting the appropriate laboratory tests to uncover the fundamental cause of your health issue.
Understanding that around 80% of the body’s immune system centers around the gut, alternative therapists may focus primarily on restorative modalities for gut health.
The initial action for someone diagnosed with or suspected of having an autoimmune disease is to promptly start a thorough elimination diet. This diet aims to exclude the top twelve foods known to cause inflammation. Additionally, it’s advisable to eliminate all grains and legumes from their diet, if feasible. The presence of lectins in grains and legumes is often associated with the development of autoimmune conditions.
To further assess the patient’s condition, a detailed stool analysis might be conducted. This test is crucial for evaluating the balance of beneficial bacteria in the gut, detecting any infections, and determining the presence of intestinal permeability, commonly known as leaky gut.
Next a functional medicine 4R approach may be applied:
The “4R approach” in functional medicine is a framework used to treat gastrointestinal disorders, particularly those involving imbalances in the gut microbiome. This approach is based on four key strategies: Remove, Replace, Reinoculate, and Repair. Each step is designed to systematically address and improve gut health, which is often seen as central to overall health in functional medicine. Here’s a brief overview of each step:
1. Remove: This step involves eliminating factors that negatively affect the gut environment. This can include removing harmful foods, allergens, or infections. For example, if a patient is sensitive to gluten or dairy, these would be eliminated from the diet. Similarly, if there are harmful bacteria, parasites, or yeasts present in the gut, appropriate treatments would be used to remove them.
2. Replace: This step focuses on replacing essential elements that may be missing and are needed for proper digestion and absorption. This can include digestive enzymes, hydrochloric acid, or dietary fibers. The idea is to ensure that the digestive system has all it needs to function optimally.
3. Reinoculate: This step is about restoring beneficial bacteria in the gut. This is typically done through the use of probiotics (which add beneficial bacteria) and prebiotics (which provide food for these bacteria). The goal is to support a healthy balance of gut microbiota, which is crucial for gut health and overall immune function.
4. Repair: The final step involves supporting the healing process of the gut lining. This can be achieved through a diet rich in nutrients that promote gut health, such as omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, antioxidants, and amino acids. Supplements and foods that help reduce inflammation and promote tissue repair are also emphasized.
The 4R approach is often used in functional medicine as a comprehensive strategy to address various gastrointestinal issues, recognizing the central role of gut health in influencing overall well-being. It’s a holistic approach that looks beyond just treating symptoms and aims to address underlying causes and promote long-term health.
A healthcare provider might conduct blood tests to detect different antibodies and search for concealed or underlying infections.
Additionally, they might screen for unseen toxins such as mycotoxins, mercury, and other heavy metals. In cases where heavy metals are identified (via blood, hair, or urine tests), the patient might undergo oral or natural/alternative chelation therapy. If mycotoxins are detected, recommendations are given for the patient to address and rectify these issues in their living environment; typically via a combination of damp remediation and HEPA air purification.
 “Autoimmune diseases: overview and current concepts of pathogenesis” – [Clinical Biochemistry, 1992] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1633633/
 “An Overview of Organ-Specific Autoimmune Diseases Including Immunotherapy” – [Immunopharmacology and Immunotoxicology, 2015] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.3109/08820139.2015.1099409
 “B7 immune checkpoint family members as putative therapeutics in autoimmune disease: An updated overview” – [International Journal of Rheumatic Diseases, 2022] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1756-185X.14273
 “Autoimmune diseases in Turner syndrome: an overview” – [Acta Biomedica, 2019] https://www.mattioli1885journals.com/index.php/actabiomedica/article/view/8737
 “Approaches and advances in the genetic causes of autoimmune disease and their implications” – [Nature Immunology, 2018] https://www.nature.com/articles/
 “Epstein-Barr Virus in Systemic Autoimmune Diseases” – [Journal Of Immunology Research, 2013] https://www.hindawi.com/journals/jir/2013/535738/
 “Activation of cyclic GMP-AMP synthase by self-DNA causes autoimmune diseases” – [PNAS, 2015] https://www.pnas.org/doi/full/10.1073/pnas.1516465112
 “Organic Solvents as Risk Factor for Autoimmune Diseases: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis” – [PLOS ONE, 2012] https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0051506
 “Autoimmune Diseases: Types, Symptoms, Causes & More” – Healthline (updated 2023) https://www.healthline.com/health/autoimmune-disorders
 “What Are Common Symptoms of Autoimmune Disease?” – Ana-Maria Orbai, M.D., M.H.S., John Hopkins Medicine. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/what-are-common-symptoms-of-autoimmune-disease
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