By Dr. Hilary Booth, ND
Autoimmune disease is a broad term to describe any condition where the body attacks itself. The very concept of self-sabotage is surprising – why would the body attack itself, and why doesn’t it stop? As a Naturopathic Doctor, these are the fundamental questions I address when I treat autoimmune disease, and it all comes down to treating inflammation.
Why is there inflammation in autoimmune disease?
Autoimmune conditions include Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, lupus, MS, eczema, psoriasis, and more. In each of these conditions the immune system has shifted into over-drive, causing too many immune “soldiers” to be produced. Each immune “soldier” releases signals called cytokines and other mediators that cause inflammation.
In a non-autoimmune situation, inflammation is beneficial because it promotes localized immune activity where it’s needed (think of a cut as it heals). In an autoimmune circumstance, the inflammation is systemic and chronic, and it needs to be addressed to reverse the disease.
How is inflammation treated?
Remove inflammatory foods
Seventy percent of the immune system is in the gut, so it stands to reason that the gut is the source of most of our immune hyper-activity and inflammation. Medications, stress, over-exercising, and eating inflammatory foods disturb our gut flora and destroy the physical barrier between food and our immune system. When our immune system is exposed to food proteins, we create “soldiers” to attack them, and these soldiers contribute to widespread inflammation in the body.
An IgG test can be done to discover which foods are causing inflammation. This measures the amount of immune soldiers (IgG) that have been created to attack various food proteins, and then we remove specific foods based on your test results. If you prefer to skip the test, we would do a full anti-inflammatory diet where gluten, dairy, sugar, eggs, and nightshade vegetables are strictly eliminated for up to six months.
It’s important to heal the gut lining during the food elimination phase so that new immune soldiers don’t continue to be produced. This is done using L-glutamine, probiotics, and possibly enzymes or overgrowth-killing supplements, depending on your case.
Inflammation is also induced when the body is under stress. It’s important to realize that the body can’t differentiate between deadlines at work and being chased by a lion. Stress is stress, and your body always reacts the same way: inflammation.
Your stressors may be hiding in unexpected places. Maybe you don’t get enough sleep, and your body perceives that as a stressor. Maybe you exercise too hard, or don’t eat on a regular schedule. Maybe you aren’t coping well with the stresses of everyday life. Making adjustments to reduce your stress is often easier said than done, but it is a huge part of managing autoimmune conditions.
Address environmental toxin exposure
There is a well-established connection between environmental toxins, including heavy metal exposure, and autoimmune disease because toxins cause inflammation in the body. Toxins include lead, cadmium, mercury, parabens, phthalates, BPA, and more.
To reduce your toxin exposure, start by recognizing how many personal care and household products you use in a day: deodorant, makeup, shampoo, laundry detergent, and dish soap, to name a few. Each of these likely contains inflammation-stimulating ingredients. The process of reducing toxic exposure is slow. Every time run out of something, simply replace it with a natural product. Every bit helps!
Heavy metal-induced autoimmunity is a special case because heavy metal exposure often goes undetected, and because it’s difficult to detoxify the body from heavy metals. I will be writing an article entirely about the connection between heavy metals and autoimmunity in the coming weeks, so stay tuned!
There are many anti-inflammatory herbs and supplements that can be used to help reduce inflammation as we work to remove the causes of inflammation from our bodies (diet, environment, stress, etc.). Some great examples include curcumin, boswelia, rehmannia, devil’s claw, and fish oil.
The key to using supplements is understanding which formulations are potent enough to see benefit. One common example is curcumin, or tumeric. When used as a spice for cooking, it tastes great but will never reach a high enough dose in the body to have anti-inflammatory action. Some high-potency extracts have been shown to reduce inflammatory markers in the blood stream, but only for short periods of time.
This is why it’s important to use correct dosing intervals, strengths, and time frames in order to see a reduction in inflammation in the body. I use lab testing for inflammatory markers and a health history to determine each patient’s anti-inflammatory protocol.
Time and patience
By the time autoimmunity manifests and is diagnosed, the immune system has usually been in over-drive for a long time. After removing sources of inflammation, it takes up to six months for immune “soldiers” and their inflammatory mediators to be flushed from the system and to return to normal. It’s important to keep this in perspective when you create a timeline for your treatment. Patience and perseverance are possibly the toughest but most important parts of treating autoimmune disease.