A healthy immune system recognises foreign or dangerous substances and defends the body against them. These threats include bacteria, viruses, parasites, and some cancer cells. The immune system identifies these substances as being ‘non-self’ (from outside the body) and launches an attack to rid them from the body. This identification occurs through molecules called antigens. Antigens can be located within cells or on the cell surface, or be part of a virus.
Antigens are found in most cells in our bodies, but normally, the immune system reacts to antigens from foreign or dangerous substances, not to antigens from a person's own tissues (which it identifies as ‘self’). However, sometimes the immune system mistakenly identifies the body's own antigens as foreign and produces antibodies (called autoantibodies) or immune cells that target and attack our own tissues. This response is called an autoimmune reaction. It results in inflammation and tissue damage, and in some cases the immune reaction is excessive and may constitute an autoimmune disorder, which is chronic. It is possible to produce small amounts of autoantibodies without developing an autoimmune condition - having autoantibodies in the blood does not mean that a person has an autoimmune disorder. (1, 2)
Why does the body attack itself?
Although we understand what happens in the body in an autoimmune condition, the triggers which cause the immune system to misfire are poorly understood. Statistics show some people are more likely to develop an autoimmune condition than others. Genetics, diet, infections, and exposure to chemicals might be involved.
Gender: A recent study showed that women get autoimmune diseases approximately twice as often as men. The disease often begins during childbearing years (ages 15 to 44).
Ethnicity: Autoimmune diseases can be more prevalent in certain ethnic groups. For example, lupus affects people of African and Hispanic descent more often than Caucasians.
Genetics: Some autoimmune diseases may have a genetic component, like multiple sclerosis and lupus. This does not mean that all family members will have the same condition, but they inherit a susceptibility. In susceptible people, a trigger, such as a viral infection or tissue damage, may cause the condition to develop.
Environment: Environmental factors are currently being researched because the incidence of autoimmune diseases is rising. It is suspected that infections and exposure to chemicals or solvents might contribute to the development.
Diet: What we eat is another suspected risk factor for developing an autoimmune disease. Eating a typical ‘Western diet’ of high-fat (especially trans fats), high-sugar, and highly processed foods is thought to be linked to inflammation, which may contribute to a misdirected immune response. This has not been proven.
Hygiene: Another theory which may contribute to the development of autoimmune conditions is called the hygiene hypothesis. Children aren’t exposed to as many germs as they were in the past and the lack of exposure could make their immune system prone to overreact to harmless substances. (2, 4, 6)
Autoimmune disorders can affect any part of the body. More than 80 autoimmune conditions have been identified, and many share similar symptoms. Inflammation is the classic sign of autoimmunity though it impacts individuals differently depending on which part of the body is affected. Some autoimmune disorders can affect specific types of tissue — for example, blood vessels, cartilage, or skin. Others can affect a particular organ, including the kidneys, lungs, heart, and brain. The inflammation and tissue damage can cause pain, joint abnormalities, weakness, limited movement, breathing difficulties, accumulation of fluid (oedema), changes in brain function, and even death. (1,3)
Examples of Autoimmune Disease
Autoimmune disorders can be placed into two general types: those that are localised to specific organs or tissues or those that are systemic and damage many organs or tissues.
Examples of localised autoimmune diseases
Addison’s disease – affects the outer layer of the adrenal gland (the adrenal cortex) which produces the hormones cortisol and aldosterone, as well as androgen hormones. The adrenal gland does not produce enough hormones, resulting in fatigue, muscle weakness, weight loss, low blood sugar, and a loss of appetite.
Grave’s disease – a condition in which the thyroid gland is stimulated to release excess amounts of thyroid hormone into the blood (hyperthyroidism). Symptoms can include exophthalmos (bulging eyes), weight loss, nervousness, irritability, rapid heart rate, weakness, and brittle hair.
Type 1 diabetes – Immune system antibodies attack and destroy insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. People with type 1 diabetes require insulin injections to survive as high blood sugar levels can damage blood vessels as well as organs like the heart, kidneys, eyes, and nerves.
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) – Conditions which cause inflammation in the lining of the intestinal wall causing diarrhea, rectal bleeding, urgent bowel movements, abdominal pain, fever, and weight loss. IBD includes Crohn’s disease, which can inflame any part of the GI tract, from mouth to anus, and Ulcerative Colitis, which affects only the lining of the large intestine (colon) and rectum. (1, 4, 5)
Examples of systemic autoimmune diseases
Rheumatoid arthritis – a chronic condition that causes painful stiffness and swelling in the joints, eventually leading to damage of the joint itself if left untreated. Rheumatoid arthritis can also cause inflammation around other organs, such as the heart and lungs. It differs from osteoarthritis, which is generally caused by mechanical stresses on the joint.
Multiple sclerosis – damages the protective coating that surrounds nerve cells in the central nervous system (called the myelin sheath). This damage slows the transmission speed of messages between your brain and spinal cord to and from the rest of your body and can lead to symptoms like numbness, weakness, balance issues, and trouble walking.
Lupus – systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is a complex condition which affects many organs, including the joints, kidneys, brain, and heart. Common symptoms include joint pain, fatigue, and rashes. (1, 4, 5)
Other common autoimmune diseases
Conventional Diagnosis, Treatment and Side Effects
An autoimmune condition is traditionally diagnosed after a combination of tests, a symptom review, and a physical examination. There is no one test which can diagnose all autoimmune diseases.
The antinuclear antibody test (ANA) is often used when symptoms suggest an autoimmune disease. A positive result indicates the possibility of an autoimmune disease, but it won’t confirm exactly which type. Other tests look for specific autoantibodies produced in certain autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid factor or anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide (anti-CCP) antibodies which are typically present in rheumatoid arthritis. (2, 3, 5)
Treatment and Side Effects
Conventional treatment for Autoimmune conditions usually include:
non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and naproxen
corticosteroids and/or other drugs that suppress the immune system
The aim of these drugs are to reduce the inflammation and symptoms, though they won’t cure the condition.
Corticosteroids, such as prednisone, increases the risk of fractures related to osteoporosis. To prevent osteoporosis, drugs used to treat osteoporosis may be given. People whose immune system is suppressed by corticosteroids and other drugs and by autoimmune disease itself are often given drugs to prevent infections. In people who have overlap diseases, doctors treat symptoms and organ dysfunction as they develop. (2, 3, 5) This can cause a domino-effect of symptoms caused by drugs to treat more symptoms caused by more drugs…
Nutritional Therapeutic Approaches to Autoimmune Conditions
Conventional treatment of autoimmune conditions aims to reduce symptoms and inflammation through the usage of drugs. These drugs are often being prescribed for extended periods of time - sometimes for life - which can cause further complications.
Nutritional Therapy aims to find the root cause of the condition rather than just treating the symptoms. If the root cause of a disease is not found, the condition will likely return. Huge strides can be made in autoimmunity through changes in diet, lifestyle, clinical treatments, and through supplements. Functional Testing through private laboratories can give a clear idea of what is going on inside the body, and where to target a personalised protocol. Every autoimmune disorder manifests differently, and no one protocol is effective for everyone with that condition.
If you suffer from an autoimmune condition or are experiencing any symptoms you would like to investigate further, contact us to discuss your options.