Mary is a 40-year-old woman suffering from fatigue, painful joints, anemia, dry eyes and carpal tunnel syndrome. Like many other Canadians, she is puzzled by the wide variety of symptoms that have taken over her body. Mary has an autoimmune disorder; her immune cells have lost the ability to identify her own from foreign cells.
Think of a war being waged in your body–all the artillery and soldiers are poised for an assault against bacteria, viruses and fungi. But your army fights itself instead. These auto-antibodies think they’re protecting their turf. In reality they are destroying their own organs and inciting inflammatory responses, leading to wide-spread inflammation throughout your body.
A watchful eye should be kept on any ongoing, sub-acute, non-specific inflammation. This is a strong warning that the immune system is not functioning optimally.
The immune system is tightly linked to the nervous system; emotional stress such as divorce or job dissatisfaction can weaken the body’s defenses. When this happens, bacterial, viral or fungal infections may invade and spread with little effective opposition. People who are able to handle stress well and have a positive, happy outlook towards life usually enjoy a robust immune system. This may also explain the periods of exacerbation and remission that most people with autoimmune disorders tend to go through.
The precise cause of autoimmune disorders is not clearly understood, but they are probably the result of chemical pollution. Infection, tissue injury or emotional trauma may also set off autoimmune reactions in people with a genetic predisposition to them. Food allergies, poor digestion, vaccinations, mercury fillings and drugs may also cause subtle changes.
Fevers actually enhance the immune system and help it to defend itself against infection. Viruses in the body can’t resist temperatures above 42 C. It is only when fevers become too high that intervention is required. Unfortunately, many people tend to take fever-reducing medications like aspirin at the first sign of a fever, never giving natural immunity a chance. It is important to keep in mind that aspirin and other powerful anti-inflammatories may be responsible for the feeble immune responses which can lead to illness.
Allergies and Autoimmunity
Food allergies have a huge impact on autoimmune diseases. When foods are not broken down properly, large protein strands cross through the gut wall. These protein strands are no longer identifiable as food and the body attacks them as though they were pathogens. As this process continues, a phenomenon called “leaky gut syndrome” develops that contributes to poor digestion, malabsorption problems and further food allergies. As the indigestion becomes chronic it puts a further burden on the immune system, weakening it, which leads to allergy, then autoimmune disease and finally conditions in which immunity collapses altogether, like cancer or AIDS.
Often autoimmune disorders are treated symptomatically. Removing all stresses from the immune system is extremely important to keep it functioning optimally. Basic factors vital to any possible recovery include eating a clean, whole-organic-food diet devoid of artificial colors, preservatives, hormones and chemicals; supplementation with digestive enzymes; stress reduction; removal of allergens; detoxification and changes in lifestyle.
Adaptogenic herbs have a major role to play in the treatment and management of autoimmune disorders. Adaptogenic herbs help the body adapt to stress, whether this stress is from physical stress, such as illness or intense fatigue, or mental stresses such as relationship problems or coping with your illness. Herbs with an adaptogenic action also stimulate the body’s natural defense mechanisms, helping to support and sustain the immune system. Examples of adaptogenic herbs to be considered for autoimmune disorders include Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticoses), borage (Borago officinalis), gotu cola (Hydrocotyle asiatica), licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), and sarsaparilla (Smilax officinalis).
Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) and Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticoses) are both restorative to the adrenal glands, which become exhausted from periods of prolonged stress (whether this stress is physical or psychological). Licorice is also a potent antiviral, which will aid the immune system. It tones the digestive system by regulating gastric secretions and providing relief to any ulcerations or inflammations. Deglycyrrhized licorice (DGL) will not complicate hypertension.
Siberian ginseng increases immunity and helps resist attack from viruses, toxins and even radiation. Licorice and Siberian ginseng can be taken together in tincture form (one teaspoon three times a day) or capsules (two 500 mg capsules of each, three times a day). Some relief is generally noticeable within three to six weeks, but for specific herbal advice you should consult a clinical herbal therapist or naturopath.
- Minimize consumption of foods of animal origin.
- Consume foods rich in essential fatty acids (EFAs), such as nuts, seeds, evening primrose oil and cold water fatty fish. EFAs may help by slowing stomach emptying; improving digestion; and by building better membranes around our cells.
- Sugar has an immune-suppressing effect and should be reduced as much as possible. Many people with autoimmune conditions show improvement after following an anti-candida diet.
- Exercise helps reduce stress and build a stronger immune system.
- Practice relaxation techniques.