Autoimmune disease has rightfully earned its title as a 21st century disease. In the early eighties, many of us would have expected robots to rule the world by now and humanity defending itself against invading forces from far away galaxies; little did we know that the true enemy lies within ourselves.
Our immune system has started to attack its host (our bodies) in more ways than we could have ever imagined; almost 10% of the UK population suffers from an autoimmune condition such as Type 1 Diabetes, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, hypothyroid or multiple sclerosis. Looking across the pond, the numbers are even more frightening – 24 million Americans are under attack from their own immune cells and 78% of those are women.
We have to start asking ourselves what is so different about NOW that this collection of diseases is allowed to thrive. What made our immune system turn a corner and destroy the very tissue it is supposed to be protecting? The common denominative of all autoimmune conditions is low grade inflammation. Whenever the immune system launches an assault against a true antigen or a harmless substance such as skin cells it releases inflammatory molecules such as TNF alpha, interleukines (IL) and cytokines. Their job is to damage and, ultimately, kill the pathogen, or in the case of autoimmunity, your own healthy tissue. The orthodox medical solution is to curb inflammation and suppress the immune system with powerful steroid drugs; such medications have severe side effects and often don’t alleviate symptoms sufficiently. Believe it or not, there is quite a straightforward solution that is side effect free and shows remarkable results in a very short time. The key is to discover all underlying factors that push your immune system into confusion and address them all at the same time – through diet and lifestyle.
Unearthing the root cause of a problem, or an imbalance, might present itself as the biggest challenge, but not if you know where to look. In the case of autoimmunity, we don’t have to look very far at all! According to Donna Jackson Nakazawa, author of the ground breaking book ‘The Autoimmune Epidemic, ’ the 21st century has a lot to answer for. Consider this: since 1900, we have released more than 80,000 manmade chemicals into our society and only 550 of those have been tested for safety. The average human body harbours around 148 different chemicals at any one time. Umbilical cord blood, tested just after birth, has revealed an astonishing 287 industrial chemicals such as pesticides, phthalates, dioxins, flame-retardants, Teflon, and toxic metals like mercury. So called auto-gens, foreign compounds found in pollutants, create an immune reaction against oneself paving the way to autoimmunity.
The next place to look for a possible culprit lies a bit closer to home – your digestive system. When our gut is inflamed or leaky, food particles such as gliadin from gluten, casein from dairy and lectins found in grains can interact with our immune system, creating an autoimmune response. Increased intestinal permeability or ‘leaky gut’ is a common feature of many autoimmune conditions such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Considering that 80% of our immune system is located in our small and large intestines, it doesn’t come as a surprise that this is the very place to start when addressing an immune imbalance. When talking about gut health we also have to mention the dramatic effect of gluten on our defence mechanisms; it is now well established that over 60 different autoimmune conditions are actually related to a gluten intolerance. It is important to differentiate between celiac disease and a gluten intolerance, however; whilst celiac shows a clear abnormality in the structure of the intestinal wall, people can still be gluten intolerant even if their gut wall looks normal and healthy. Once an antibody against gluten has been made, it is very easy for your body to make anti-bodies against our own tissue such as the thyroid gland. The more gluten we eat, the more we will be driving autoimmunity against healthy cells.
As I mentioned earlier, it is not enough to simply adopt a gluten free diet to find relief from autoimmunity. All possible triggers and drivers have to be addressed. The best place to start is to swap all your cleaning and body care products to natural, chemical free articles, consume organic foods whenever possible and look for a holistic dentist who can safely remove any amalgam fillings. Removing toxic minerals such as mercury and lead is also an important step to take and should be done safely under the guidance of a qualified practitioner.
Once your environment is clean, levels of vitamin D and omega 3 fatty acids should be optimised; both compounds are essential for a well functioning immune system and people are often deficient or out of balance. The ideal diet to successfully combat an out-of-kilter immune system is quite strict and limiting but generally only needs to be followed for an average of 3 to six months, followed by a reintroduction period.
Adopting a paleo-like diet that avoids grains, legumes and refined foods will naturally eliminate many of the dietary triggers known to exacerbate an inappropriate immune response. Essentially, we are looking at a diet rich in whole, unprocessed foods including vegetables & fruit (ideally low GI such as berries) organic meat, oily fish, eggs and healthy fats and oils. It can be challenging to make dramatic changes to your usual diet so creativity is paramount; concentrate on vegetables (over fruit!) and organic animal protein and search for interesting recipes to explore new and delicious ways of preparing them. Fish is a fantastic source of protein but avoid relying on tuna because of its high mercury levels. Once you start seeing the benefits of your hard work, it will get easier to adapt to your new lifestyle and always remember it is only temporary! You might have been told that there is no cure for autoimmunity but, with hard work and some guidance, it is possible to escape the clutches of your immune system.