Managing Autoimmunity with Diet and Lifestyle: Part 1 – The Onset of Autoimmunity
This 5-part series dives into the different aspects of managing autoimmune symptoms through diet and lifestyle, based upon the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) template.
If you’re reading this article, you or someone close to you probably has an autoimmune disease. Maybe you were just recently diagnosed. Maybe you were diagnosed a while ago, but the conventional medicines aren’t helping you as much as you’d like. Or maybe you were just diagnosed with a 2nd or 3rd autoimmune disease and feel completely disheartened.
If I had known about the strategies in this series back when I was sick, I know I would have been intrigued, and probably pretty intimidated. But read on, and digest this information slowly. This is a journey that you can take and make it your own, unique to you.
Part 1: Onset of autoimmunity
According to the National Institutes of Health, over 23.5 million Americans have been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and that number is rising steadily. In addition, about 25 percent of patients with one autoimmune disease will develop one or more additional autoimmune diseases. This is called multiple autoimmune syndrome. There are over 100 diseases that are autoimmune or on the autoimmune spectrum.
What is the immune system?
Let’s start with the basics. The immune system is a highly intricate system of checks and balances. It is the body’s military system, designed to keep the body safe by expelling invaders from the outside. It is intricately designed to protect the body, and there are multiple safeguards to keep it from attacking the body’s own tissues. 70-80% of our immune cells reside along the lining of the digestive tract. Like a military system, there are different branches of the immune system and each “soldier” (or immune cell) is programmed to have a specific job. These jobs include:
- Scouting the body to identify invaders
- Disabling and killing identified invaders
- Remembering previous invaders and launching an attack if that invader ever shows up again in the future
- Calling off the battle after the invader has been disabled or killed
- Clearing damaged tissue and inflammation after the battle
- Killing the body’s own defective immune cells to keep them from attacking “self” cells
All of these jobs are accomplished by the immune cells communicating with each other through chemical messaging.
When the immune cells identify and attack an invader, they cause damage and inflammation at the site. This can cause swelling, heat, redness and soreness. Once the invader is killed, the regulatory immune cells signal the attack to stop. The clean-up crew comes, the damage begins to heal and the inflammation subsides.
When the system fails
With an autoimmune disease, the body’s immune system loses its ability to distinguish between true invaders and its own tissues. The fighter cells begin to attack a certain type of body cells. Multiple things have gone wrong with the system:
- Back-up systems that are supposed to kill rogue immune cells fail
- The scout cells see body tissue as the enemy
- Fighter cells are overactive and continue the attack
- Memory cells continue to train more fighter cells to attack
- Regulatory cells fail to call off the attack
The specific disease determines which tissues are attacked. The resulting on-going inflammation and damage lead to the symptoms reported with each autoimmune disease.
Three contributors leading to autoimmunity
There are three key contributors to an autoimmune attack or flare.
- Genetic Predisposition. This is the weak chain in the link and what will determine which autoimmune disease(s) a person will get. Their genetics determine which disease they are predisposed toward – rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, lupus, Hashimoto’s, celiac disease, psoriasis, etc.
- Leaky Gut. This is officially known as intestinal permeability. Our gut lining is a single layer of cells that are designed to only allow water and fully digested nutrients to enter the body through cell transport systems. With leaky gut, the gut lining is damaged and the single layer of cells is no longer tightly bound together. Gaps allow contents of the digestive tract, such as undigested foods, microorganisms and toxins, to leak past the gut lining. The scouting immune cells are waiting on the other side. They recognize these invaders and mount an inflammatory immune response. When leaky gut is chronic, the immune system is constantly overactive and the body is constantly inflamed. Leaky gut can be caused by stress, food sensitivities, gluten, alcohol, toxins and/or an overgrowth of unfriendly bacteria/yeast.
- A Trigger. A person typically has underlying immune activity, auto-antibodies and inflammation for several years before noticing full-blown symptoms. Then some trigger pushes the immune system over the edge and to the point where it loses its ability to distinguish threats. It starts a full assault of ‘friendly fire’ on a particular organ or body tissue. This is when symptoms become undeniable and a person seeks help from a doctor. Triggers can include extreme or chronic stress, a physical or emotional trauma, toxin exposure, a viral or bacterial infection, or a hormone shift. Oftentimes, a trigger isn’t obvious.
It’s when these three collide in a perfect storm that symptoms become obvious and the person is likely to seek a medical diagnosis. Medications may be prescribed to tamp down symptoms with varying degrees of success.
Many people don’t realize that they have a unique opportunity to address their autoimmune disease and symptoms in a holistic, integrated way. In the next article, Part 2 – Dietary Strategies for Autoimmunity, we will take a look at the diet considerations for managing autoimmunity.