Autoimmune Disease and Naturopathic Medicine
Autoimmune Disease is a major health problem in our society. One in twelve people in general, and one in nine women, will be diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. There are over one hundred different autoimmune disorders, including multiple sclerosis, Lupus, Rheumatoid arthritis, Inflammatory Bowel diseases and Celiac disease. Together these conditions affect more people than cancer or heart disease and can rob patients of their quality of life, mobility and even take their lives.
Scientists worldwide are puzzled over the alarming rise in the rates of autoimmune disease, particularly in the Western world. The rates have more than doubled in the last three decades. Genetics can no longer be blamed as the only cause of autoimmune disease since our genetics can’t change that quickly.
As a naturopathic physician, I have treated many patients with a variety of autoimmune diseases in my years of practice. The familiar story is one of misdiagnosis, dismissal and frustration with limited treatment options. In half of all cases, women with autoimmune disease are told there is nothing wrong with them for an average of five years before receiving diagnosis and treatment. Once a diagnosis is made, treatment is focused on reducing symptoms but not treating the underlying factors that may have caused the disease. Commonly used immunosuppressant treatments can be lifesaving, but can also lead to significant long-term side effects.
The path to a long lasting recovery from autoimmune conditions focuses on correcting the underlying stress factors that may have caused the immune dysregulation that drives the disease.
Exciting research was recently presented at a gastroenterology convention I attended in Victoria. The immune system has well developed mechanisms to attack foreign invaders. In autoimmune disease, the immune system loses its ability to differentiate our own normal tissues from foreign invaders. That ability to temper the immune system’s inflammatory reactions to invaders is something our bodies must learn. And strangely enough, in fact, the teacher lives in our guts. The bacterial lining of the intestines (the intestinal microbiome) is responsible for educating our immune systems, letting them know when to attack and when to cease fire.
The delicate intestinal bacterial lining is made up of over 1000 species of bacteria and weighs about three pounds in an adult. We are created in a sterile womb, devoid of bacteria and acquire our first dose of beneficial bacteria in the birth canal. In the western world, there is an ever increasing trend towards delivering babies by C-section. Without that first dose of beneficial bacteria from the birth canal, the baby’s microbiome is different than a baby born via vaginal birth. Abundant research has shown that there are increased rates of asthma and autoimmune disease in those delivered by C-section. Researchers concluded that a C-section (or Caesarean section) raises the risk of type 1 diabetes by 20%. They also crunched the data from 23 studies and showed the same increased risk for asthma—20%—in children delivered by C-section.
Antibiotics are the other western phenomenon that disturbs the intestinal microbiome. We know not what we do when we take an antibiotic for an infection without consideration of the trillions of beneficial bacteria that form an integral part of our digestive and immune systems. Mice given antibiotics were more likely to develop inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis.
Naturopathic physicians have long emphasized the importance of correcting deficiencies in the intestinal microbiome. Programs to repair the intestinal mucosal lining, replenish probiotics and kill off harmful elements of the microbiome have long been a mainstay of the treatment of autoimmune disease.
Vitamin D deficiency in northern countries have also been linked with increased rates of autoimmune disease. As we spend more time indoors and lessen our exposure to sunlight, thus using sunscreen more often (as those with paler skin tend to do) when we are outdoors, we play an active role in depleting our Vitamin D stores. Vitamin D has also been shown to play a role in the regulation of inflammatory fires of the immune system. Vitamin D helps tell the immune system to tolerate our own cells. Some studies show that Vitamin C inhibits induction of disease in autoimmune encephalomyelitis, thyroiditis, type-1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), lupus, rheumatoid and Lyme arthritis.
For my patients with joint pain associated with autoimmune disease, laser therapy is an excellent way to manage pain, reduce joint destruction and improve joint function. A recent Canadian expert panel determined that this painless laser therapy is an effective treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. I have been using a high tech laser light treatment for my patients for years. It is very effective for most patients with osteoarthritis and is part of an overall treatment for inflammatory arthritis too.
Natural anti-inflammatory medicines may reduce the dependence on harsh prescription drugs. A turmeric extract called Meriva has been shown to be a safe and defective pain reliever in arthritis. Fish oil is considered an essential part of auto-immune treatment in that it helps alleviate the inflammation that drives most symptoms. Most auto-immune disease involves high levels of oxidative stress, so sufferers who incorporate anti-oxidant foods and supplements into their daily regime are making a wise choice. Kale and blueberries are my favorite high anti-oxidant foods; grape seed extract and resveratrol are my favorite supplements.
Fatigue is often a crippling element of auto-immune disease. I also work with patients to support their adrenal gland through teaching them meditation and relaxation techniques using herbs like rhodiola.
Science is beginning to shed light on the complexities of the immune system and ways that we can influence the health of it. Take care of your immune system, and if you have an autoimmune disease, learn ways to tame your inflammation – naturally.