Understanding Autoimmunity

Your immune system is meant to protect you from bacteria and viruses, but what happens when it goes too far?

Autoimmune disease is the broad term for more than eighty disorders, which occur when your immune system mistakenly attacks your body.

What is autoimmune disease?

Normally, your immune system guards against bacteria and viruses by sending out antibodies to attack these foreign cells.

Autoimmune diseases occur when these antibodies mistake part of your body — like your cells, tissues or organs — for a foreign cell and attack. This can cause inflammation and damage.

Some autoimmune diseases target just one organ — Type 1 diabetes damages the pancreas. Other diseases, like systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), affect the whole body.

Common conditions:

There are about 80 related autoimmune disorders which range from common to very rare, ranging in severity from mild to disabling. About 5% of Australians suffer from an autoimmune condition.

The most common autoimmune diseases include:

  • Graves’ disease — the immune system attacks the thyroid gland in the neck, causing it to become overactive. Symptoms include weight loss, elevated heart rate, anxiety and diarrhoea.

  • Hashimoto’s — the immune system also attacks the thyroid gland but causes it to produce less thyroid hormone. Symptoms include fatigue, weight gain, goiter, depression and cold sensitivity.

  • Rheumatoid arthritis — the immune system attacks the joints, causing swelling, redness, soreness and stiffness. Unlike osteoarthritis, it can start as early as 30s.

  • Type 1 Diabetes — the immune system attacks insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. This can result in high blood sugar, leading to damage in the blood vessels as well as organs. Symptoms include thirst, frequent urination, weight loss and increased susceptibility to infection.

  • Inflammatory bowel disease — the immune system attacks the bowel, resulting in conditions like ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease. Symptoms include diarrhoea and abdominal pain.

  • Psoriasis — causes skin cells to multiply too quickly, resulting in thick, red patches of skin. About a third of people with psoriasis also develop psoriatic arthritis — swelling, stiffness and pain in their joints.

Who is susceptible to autoimmune disease?

Autoimmune diseases can affect anyone. While the exact causes are not known, there are several risk factors to look out for:

  • Gender — women are more susceptible to autoimmune diseases, which often start in the childbearing years.

  • Family history — autoimmune disorders appear to run in families, like Lupus or Multiple Sclerosis. It’s also common for family members to be affected by different autoimmune disorders. For example, a mother may have rheumatoid arthritis while her daughter may have Type 1 Diabetes. However, it appears genes alone are not enough — environmental factors are thought to trigger the disease to start.

  • Environmental factors — exposure to sunlight, chemicals like solvents and bacterial infections have all been linked to autoimmune conditions.

Natural remedies for autoimmune disease

Autoimmune conditions can be difficult to resolve or to put into remission, but there are many ways natural medicines can be used to ‘turn down’ the symptoms while we work to treat the underlying causes. My favourite natural remedies to support autoimmune conditions are:

  • Vitamin D plays an important role in balancing your immune system, calming the overreactive response to reduce inflammation.

  • Probiotics are known for their benefits to gut health, but new research is showing they also play a role in balancing our immune system and turning down inflammation caused by an overactive immune response.

  • Try turmeric — this spice has long been used in traditional Indian medicine (Ayurveda) for the treatment of inflammatory conditions. Scientific research is only recently validating its anti-inflammatory benefits.

  • Specialised Pro-Resolving Mediators (SPMs) — Inflammation is normally a self-limiting process. As the threat of injury or infection passes, your body produces SPMs that tell your immune system to ‘turn off’ the inflammatory response. In the case of autoimmune conditions, your body’s ability to produce these SPMs is reduced — preventing the resolution of inflammation. Unresolved inflammation then becomes chronic, leading to ongoing pain and tissue damage. Thankfully, there are new products on the market that can supplement your body’s production of SPMs — ask your Naturopath about how these can help you.

What can you do to improve autoimmune disease symptoms?  

  • Treat your gut — Leaky gut is an inflammation of the gut wall, which allows toxins and larger than normal food particles into the bloodstream. This triggers a person’s immune system to respond in a number of different ways with far-reaching consequences — including autoimmune conditions.

  • Eat a wholefood diet — up your intake of organic, lean protein and fresh vegetables and fruits. Avoid gluten and dairy, and reduce your intake of alcohol, caffeine and refined sugars.

  • Exercise regularly — it’s a natural anti-inflammatory! I recommend 30 minutes of low impact exercise a day, 5 days a week. Try walking, yoga, pilates or swimming.

  • Address your stress — stress have a negative impact on autoimmune conditions, causing some symptoms to flare-up. It’s important to take time to reduce your stress like yoga, deep breathing, massage, or even just a nice warm bath. Work on recognising your stress triggers and developing strategies for either preventing these or dealing with them in a more mindful way.

  • Get enough sleep — going to bed early allows your body and mind time to repair. Your adrenals repair and recover between 9pm and 1am, while most people need at least 8 hours of sleep each day to feel rested.

If you believe you may have an autoimmune disease, it’s important to seek help. A qualified Naturopath can help you understand the path forward and how to best manage your symptoms so that you can enjoy life!

Would you like free advice?

Whether you need a quick remedy for a cold or flu or you suffer from a chronic condition, our qualified Naturopaths are ready to help you with FREE mini consults, the best natural supplements, herbal medicines and lifestyle advice.

There’s no need to book an appointment, simply phone the clinic on 02 4961 4075 and be directed to a qualified Naturopath for your free consultation.

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    16 Murray Street Hamilton NSW 2303

    Disclaimer – This website is designed to inform clients about ways to possibly improve their health. The opinions of the Mullen Natural Health Centre are our opinion only. Please consult your own healthcare provider to determine the best course of treatment for you.