June 3, 2021
Why is my immune system attacking itself?
by Mona Jauhar RDN, LD
Autoimmune disease happens when the body's natural defense system can't tell the difference between your own cells and foreign cells, causing the body to mistakenly attack normal cells. They are a group of at least 80 health conditions that involve an immune-mediated attack on the body’s own tissues. Researchers don’t know what causes autoimmune disease, but several theories point to an overactive immune system attacking the body after an infection or injury. Some factors that definitely increase the chances of developing an autoimmune disease are genetics, weight issues, smoking and certain medications.
Triggers at large
Approximately 30% of autoimmune diseases are believed to be attributed to genetic predisposition, while the remaining 70% are attributed to environmental factors. Read solvents, BPA, heavy metals, asbestos.
- Lifestyle stressors: Eating a western diet, lack of movement, staying indoors, smoking and alcohol consumption make matters worse. Smoking: Research has linked smoking to a number of autoimmune diseases, including lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, hyperthyroidism and MS.
- Genetics: Certain disorders such as lupus and multiple sclerosis (MS) tend to run in families.
- Weight: Being overweight or obese raises your risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis or psoriatic arthritis.
- Certain medications: Certain blood pressure medications or antibiotics can trigger drug-induced lupus.
Overall, autoimmune diseases happen more with increasing age, more in women and more among certain ethnic backgrounds like Hispanic, African American.
Read the signs
If you’ve been healthy and suddenly you feel fatigue or joint stiffness, don’t downplay that. Different conditions may present with certain similar symptoms, particularly at onset, such as aches and pain, fatigue and weakness, general malaise, heat, low-grade fever, redness and swelling. A period of symptoms is called a flare-up. A period when the symptoms go away is called remission. No single test can diagnose most autoimmune diseases. Your doctor will use a combination of tests and a review of your symptoms and physical examination to diagnose you.
With unusual autoimmune diseases, patients may suffer years before getting a proper diagnosis. Most of these diseases have no cure. Some require lifelong treatment to ease symptoms. The traditional approach to treatment involves the use of immunosuppressive medications, which don’t always benefit the body in the long run. An integrative approach to treatment, on the other hand, may incorporate dietary and nutrient therapy, as well as lifestyle interventions, such as strategies for better sleep, mindfulness, and avoidance of environmental triggers.
- Autoimmune Protocol Diet: The AIP diet eliminates potential inflammatory triggers from the diet, including grains, dairy, eggs, coffee, alcohol, nuts, and seeds, as well as refined and processed sugars, oils, and food additives. The diet also stresses on eating freshly prepared, nutrient-dense, fermented foods, and bone broth. Similar to an elimination diet, after a period of time, individuals may reintroduce foods gradually to identify individual dietary triggers. Patients with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis have reportedly benefited from this eating and elimination pattern.
- Curcumin: Known for its anti-inflammatory properties, curcumin is supposed to be therapeutic in a number of autoimmune conditions. It is believed to modulate pro-inflammatory cytokines and defective immune cells in Systemic lupus erythematosus.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Omega-3 fatty acids are inherently anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory. As a result, they have been proposed as a possible therapeutic intervention for inflammatory and autoimmune conditions, such as RA, SLE, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis.
- Probiotics: Probiotics have been shown to promote a healthy composition of microbiota in the gastrointestinal tract and modulate the systemic immune response. Studies have shown that probiotic supplementation may improve symptoms, such as joint pain and swelling, inflammatory markers, and disease activity in individuals with Rheumatoid Arthritis.
- Vitamin D: Both epidemiological and functional studies have shown that vitamin D plays a central role in the immune response, and is able to modify the risk and the course of infectious and autoimmune diseases.
- Sleep and fatigue: Chronic insomnia is associated with an increased incidence of developing autoimmune disease. Profound and debilitating fatigue is the most common complaint reported among individuals with autoimmune disease, such as systemic lupus erythematosus, multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, and rheumatoid arthritis.
- Mindfulness: Research says that long-term meditation may improve resilience to stress and neurogenic inflammation, an inflammatory response that may contribute to the development of autoimmunity. Some studies have also demonstrated that qigong training has a statistically significant effect on immune markers and the immune response.
- Environmental exposure: Limiting exposure to potential harmful toxins at home and in the workplace may help reduce the risk of autoimmune conditions.
- Toxicology of Autoimmune Diseases. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3076021/
- Treating Human Autoimmunity: Current Practice and Future Prospects. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4061980/
- Vitamin D in Autoimmunity: Molecular Mechanisms and Therapeutic Potential. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5247472/
- Environmental Triggers and Autoimmunity. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4290643/
- Potential therapeutic effects of curcumin, the anti-inflammatory agent, against neurodegenerative, cardiovascular, pulmonary, metabolic, autoimmune and neoplastic diseases. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1357272508002550
- Fatigue, Sleep, and Autoimmune and Related Disorders. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fimmu.2019.01827/full