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Autoimmune disease: an overview

Updated: May 26, 2020

What is autoimmune disease?

An autoimmune disease is defined as a condition in which the immune system acts as though your own healthy cells are foreign invaders. In other words, your immune system is acting on itself. Although autoimmune conditions may have genetic tendency, they can also be acquired over one’s lifetime through epigenetic factors. Endless number of autoimmune conditions have been identified; some are more common than others.

In basic terms, in autoimmune disease, the immune system is set into 'over-drive' and cells that were once considered your own and healthy in nature, are attacked by your body’s own immune activities. Autoimmune disease in a given organ or tissue space, can therefore lead to increased or decreased cellular growth of organ tissue, or even change the way that particular organ works.

What causes autoimmune disease?

The exact cause of autoimmune conditions is unknown, but there are certain factors that may be a trigger: genetics, compromised immune system (viral, fungal and bacterial infections), recreational drugs, environmental toxins, chemicals, foods, INFLAMMATION (of course) etc..

Some autoimmune conditions are triggered resulting in “flare ups” and then are followed by a period of quiescence.

Where can you get autoimmune disease?

Here are some of the common conditions and their locations in the body:

  • Type 1 Diabetes – pancreatic cells

  • Celiac Disease – intestinal lining in the small intestine

  • Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) – joint inflammation

  • Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) – multiple sites: brain, kidneys, joints, skin and more

  • Scleroderma – connective tissue in the organs, skin and muscle tissues

  • Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis (Hypothyroid) – thyroid gland

  • Grave’s Disease (Hyperthyroid) – thyroid gland

  • Sjorgren Syndrome – kidneys, lungs, lacrimal ducts

What does autoimmune disease present as?

The symptoms can be dependent on what organs and locations in the body are affected. The HALLMARK of autoimmune disease is INFLAMMATION.

Sometimes, there can be infection-like symptoms such as fever, fatigue, body aches etc. And again, the symptoms of autoimmune disease can increase and decrease in intensity during “flare ups” and “dormancy”.

How can we diagnose autoimmune disease?

Your body’s immune system produce antibodies to the various types of autoimmune diseases. Here are SOME examples of markers for autoimmune disease:

  • Rheumatoid Factor (RF) - Rheumatoid Arthritis

  • Anti-nuclear antibody (ANA) - general for many autoimmune diseases

  • Tissue transglutaminase Antibody, IgA endomysial antibody, Anti-gliadin antibody, and more - Celiac disease (biopsy is most definitive)

  • Anti – TPO thyroid peroxidase - autoimmune thyroid

  • Anti-double stranded DNA (anti-dsDNA) - SLE

  • Etc.

Then, we have markers for inflammation that we can test:

  • C-reactive Protein (CRP)

  • Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR)

  • Complete Blood Count (CBC)

  • And more specific markers that can track progression, depending on the type of autoimmune disease

How can Naturopathic medicine benefit autoimmune disease?

Treatments for autoimmune disease can vary depending on the condition. However, there are a few generalized principles that are important in treating autoimmune disease from its ROOT CAUSE:

  • Reduce inflammation

  • Herbal Formulas including anti-inflammatory herbal preparations

  • Supplementation of various antioxidants and cofactors

  • Intravenous (IV) therapies

  • Support healthy joint, bone, nerve and organ inflammation through a variety of mechanisms

  • Common herbal extracts: Curcumin, Rhemannia, etc.

  • Immuno-modulation

  • Herbal formulas including immune-modulating herbal factors

  • Intravenous (IV) therapies

  • Probiotic Support

  • Balancing hormones

  • Hormone balancing herbal extracts

  • Supplementation of required hormone support (adrenal support, thyroid support)

  • Dietary modifications

  • Avoid certain foods that propagate particular inflammatory cascades in the body (eg. Gluten, dairy, other food sensitivities)

  • Gluten has been shown to negatively impact a variety of autoimmune conditions (not just Celiac)

  • Anti-inflammatory diet high in healthy fats and lean protein sources

  • Gut healing (~70% of our immune system is located in our gut)

  • Advanced testing

  • Testing for markers of autoimmune disease

  • Chronic infections (bacterial, viral and fungal) panels

  • Highly detailed and advanced Hormone panels

  • Body scans

  • Biopsy (if required) – covered by public health care in Canada, usually.

  • Natural Killer Cell testing

  • Lifestyle modifications:

  • Reduce alcohol consumption

  • Manage stress

  • Appropriate exercise when possible

Naturopathic modalities can be used adjunctively with or without conventional medical treatments, for autoimmune disease, depending on the type of condition. Your naturopathic doctor trained in pharmacology will be able to educate you on which natural-based treatments are and are not safe to take with your prescribed medications.

I hope you found this article informative!

Dr. Mawji

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