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Understanding 
Autoimmunity

When Our Bodies Turn Against Us

Autoimmune disorders, conditions in which the immune system attacks healthy cells, are the third-largest class of illness in the United States, affecting more than 24 million Americans.

The dramatic rise in autoimmune diagnoses can be attributed to a new, deeper understanding among medical professionals that autoimmune conditions are connected by one central biochemical process: a runaway immune response—also known as systemic inflammation—that results in the body attacking its own tissues.

Inflammation and Disease

It is important to distinguish between good and bad inflammation. As Tennessee-based functional medicine practitioner Dr. Scott Resnick notes, “inflammation is essential for our health and safety, yet when unregulated and undisciplined, it can be a potent and unrelenting negative force on our cellular health.”

The body has the innate ability to heal itself. When we have a cut, bruise or injury, it responds by telling the immune system to activate specific proteins and chemicals to heal the tissue, which becomes red, inflamed and even warm to the touch.

A healthy immune system can turn this type of acute response on and off in an orchestrated fashion. It recognizes, remembers and attacks viruses, bacteria, cancer cells and other foreign invaders. But chronic or persistent inflammation lays the groundwork for potential illness. This is often what triggers an inappropriate immune response.

A defective immune system cannot identify self from non-self, and it starts to attack the host by directing antibodies against its own tissues, resulting in disease processes that are “autoimmune” in nature. Those include rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, lupus, psoriasis and even type 1 diabetes and allergies.

Finding the Cause of Disease

What kick-starts this process? Many variables can wreak havoc on our immune systems, such as environmental triggers, inflammation and a compromised gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Genetic predisposition can play a part as well.

Some 80 percent of our immune system is in our gut. A “leaky gut” occurs when the intestinal lining, which in a healthy individual keeps harmful substances out of the bloodstream, becomes compromised. This can happen if we eat foods that aggravate our GI tract, have been infected by a virus or bacteria or are taking certain pharmaceuticals, such as antibiotics.

When “foreign invaders” like bacteria, viruses and certain food proteins pass from our gut into our bloodstream, our immune system tries to protect us. Over time, our own organs can get caught in the crossfire, with joints, muscles, skin, brain, gut and thyroid coming under attack.

Early prevention—damping inflammation and removing other obstacles to health—is key to avoiding the onset of any autoimmune disease. Naturopathic doctors are trained to identify and address these underlying causes of illness.

The human body strives to be in a state of homeostasis, and if we provide a supportive environment, it will do just what it is designed to do: heal itself.  

Natural Ways to Boost Immune Health

■  Address chronic infections such as candida, viruses and Lyme disease
■  Avoid heavy metals, plastics (BPA), pesticides and herbicides
■  Avoid tobacco and alcohol
■  Limit caffeine intake
■  Spend at least 30 minutes a day outdoors
■  Address chronic insomnia
■  Exercise regularly
■  Lower stress and negativity
■  Address hormone imbalances
■  Practice deep breathing, meditation or yoga
■  Adopt a clean diet, addressing any food sensitivities and avoiding gluten

Supplements for Immune Health

 (Should be prescribed and monitored by a trained healthcare professional)
■  Omega-3 fatty acids: found in cold-water fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel, halibut) sea vegetables and dark, leafy greens
■  Oleic acids: found in cold or expeller-pressed extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, whole nuts, seeds and ripe olives
■  Spirulina/chlorella: nutrient-dense greens that are rich antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and enzymes needed to aid in detoxification
■  Glutathione: an antioxidant essential for balancing immunity
■  Probiotics: essential for healthy digestion and immune support
■  Digestive enzymes: facilitate proper digestion
■  B vitamins: support the nervous system and hydrochloric acid production
■  Magnesium: calms nerves and anxiety, relieves muscle aches and spasms, relieves constipation
■  Quercetin: can reduce auto- immune response
■  Vitamin D: deficiencies linked to increased autoimmune processes

Diana Milling Naturopathic Doctor Naturopathic Doctor Diana Milling practices at Lakeside Natural Medicine, in Shorewood.

 

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