By. Dr. Marlo Swanepoel
M-tech Hom (UJ)
With Autoimmune diseases being a big interest of mine, I thought I would give you a brief and simple overview of how I see autoimmune diseases and hopefully bring some hope as to how it can be managed and treated naturally.
What is an autoimmune disease?
To oversimplify this, autoimmune diseases are inflammatory conditions where your immune system attacks yourself.
You see, normally your immune system should protect you from invaders such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites by sending out an army of soldiers whose job it is to fight off, kill or neutralise the threat.
Your immune system can normally do this very well and effectively as it can differentiate between foreign or abnormal cells and your own healthy cells, thus it kills off the invaders and leaves your own cells alone. BUT with an autoimmune disease, the body loses the ability to differentiate between normal and abnormal and thus mistakenly start to attach the body's cells.
There are many autoimmune diseases. Although a lot is known about autoimmune diseases many of them are still poorly understood. Some autoimmune diseases will only target a specific organ or system where others will cause a systemic invasion, meaning it goes all over.
How does an autoimmune disease occur?
As I mentioned, the exact cause is not completely understood or even known. Your immune system is extremely complicated and, in my opinion, it has more integrated parts than any other system in your body. Although the basic function of an immune system is the same in all humans, not a single person’s immune system is identical.
Think about it, even identical twins will not have the same immune system functionality, for simple reasons like, we were not all exposed to the same things throughout our lifetimes.
Some studies showed that women are twice as likely to develop an autoimmune disease compared to men. Some ethnic groups are more prone to develop specific autoimmune diseases. Some autoimmune diseases run in families, but that being said not all family members will develop the same autoimmune disease and some will not develop an autoimmune disease at all.
So yes, genetics might play a role in this whole debacle, but it most certainly is not the be-all and end-all. In fact, some doctors believe that genetics only play a 20%-25% role in the development of autoimmune diseases. Many of these diseases are increasing in frequency in especially industrialised countries, which brings us to other causes or contributing factors.
These include: environmental factors i.e. toxins, diet, inflammation, infection and so the list goes on. Some studies even hypothesise that the development of autoimmune diseases might be linked to vaccines and antiseptics, as this might cause the immune system to overreact to a harmless substance.?
So, if we don’t really know what causes an Autoimmune disease how do I treat it?
Once again, I oversimplify, but the way I see an autoimmune disease is as an inflammatory process. This inflammation is a direct response of the immune system that never shuts down. You see, acute inflammation is a good thing.
Let say you get the flu. Your immune system will release all kinds of chemicals and recruit all kinds of cells to kill this virus. One of the responses is inflammation, which will lead to a fever. This happens to be one of the best natural ways to kill off any invaders. Once the threat has been neutralised, the inflammatory response will decrease and shut down and continue to patrol the perimeter, until it sees the next threat.
However, with an autoimmune disease, the inflammatory response is never switched off. Yes, the intensity decreases but a low-grade inflammation is present 24/7. This is where and when things go haywire.
So, for me personally in my practice, I treat autoimmune diseases based on 4 pillars.
The Four Pillars of treating an Autoimmune disease
1st you must Remove any possible triggers of the autoimmune disease. This may be food sensitivities, infection, heavy metals, etc.
2nd Control the inflammatory response. Once you stop the continuous inflammatory response the immune system can rest and reboot. I always think about this as someone going to war. If you are sleep deprived and in constant fight mode you might just end up hurting one of your own.
3rd you need to start Repairing your immune system. One of the ways I do this is by diet. Go read my previous article on leaky gut (http://www.naturopathichealthcarecentre.co.za/articles/leaky-gut). Remember 70%-80% of your immune system is located in your gut. This means that if your gut is healthy, your immune system might just be healthy too. Which is why repair and control goes hand-in-hand.
4th I always try to Balance and support your immune system. This might include a few supplements to optimise the immune system functionality, but NEVER forget the power of sleep and exercise. Relaxation is just as curtail, as stress will only cause an increase in adrenalin and cortisol which will result in a tired, overworked and misfiring immune system.