The immune system is designed to seek and destroy anything that is a threat to the body. However, in autoimmune conditions, instead of identifying and destroying a threat, the immune system gets confused and thinks a part of our body is the threat and tries to destroy that!
Types of autoimmune conditions
Autoimmune conditions include:
- Hashimoto’s thyroid
- Graves’ thyroid
- Ulcerative Colitis
- Crohn’s Disease
- Coeliac Disease
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Reactive arthritis’
- And there is research to suggest that conditions we previously thought were from old age or diet also have an autoimmune component such as Alzheimer’s.
What causes an incorrect autoimmune response?
Why does autoimmunity happen to some and not others? Genetics plus environmental factors seem to drive autoimmunity.
When listening to my patients’ stories of their autoimmune journeys, there is a recurring theme where they think back to an illness they had. I often hear them reflect, “I’ve never been the same since I had that bad xyz illness…”
This is really common and is reflected in recent research. That is, (a) having contracted a virus, bacteria, or parasite; (b) battled through the infection and kind of got better; (c) but have never felt the same since, haven’t been quite right, or had as much energy as they used to.
This is because the immune system has put a lot of energy into fighting the initial infection, recovered enough to continue on, but is STILL fighting the original infection in the background.
This means the original infection becomes a low-grade infection, but causes the genetics in that individual to switch on. If that individual has a genetic predisposition to one of the many autoimmune conditions, the immune system will start attacking that part of the body (because the genes are telling it to). It’s like the infection running in the background flicks a switch, and the immune system is told that a certain part of the body is a threat and needs to be killed off
What are these causative infections?
The common ones are gastro bugs or parasites. Also, viruses such as Epstein Barr virus (aka Glandular Fever) combined with cytomegalovirus or other low-grade viruses that all together have a high viral load for the immune system.
What to do if you suspect autoimmune problems?
Previous thinking is to stop the immune system attacking, that is by using pharmaceutical drugs called immunosuppressants. There are numerous medications that do this. However, in my experience, this method of treatment doesn’t work for the majority amongst the patients I’ve seen. This is because, if the immune system is suppressed, it cannot fight the background infection which is triggering the autoimmune reaction. So what is going to happen then? Drive the low-grade infection even further causing more autoimmune symptoms.
How to treat autoimmune the naturopathic way
We want to support the immune system to fight that original infection.
The role of the gut
Most commonly, this originates in the gut. Yes! Even the viruses. The gut is a microcosm of all different species of bacteria, mycoplasma, viruses, and even some fungal species. The gut balance is different in every individual, and the ratios are also dependent on the food and substances we ingest. When the ratio of “good” and “bad” bacteria (or probiotics) is altered too far in favour of “bad” bacteria, this causes more inflammation along the gut lining. Depletion of gut lining influences how the immune system matures and therefore the propensity and focus of what the immune system fights.
Addressing gut function
Therefore, often—this will vary from individual to individual—the first thing to look at from the naturopathic understanding is how well the gut is functioning. Balancing the ratio of “good” and “bad” bacteria to create a happy environment for the gut is paramount and will improve digestion, emotional balance, and get you on the path to wellness.
How do we balance the gut?
We begin to balance the gut with medicinal herbs, particular probiotic strains, and good food.
There are some very specific herbs in the medicinal-herbal world that target and kill off those nasty bacteria, viruses, and parasites that live in our gut driving all the above conditions and causing a lot of unpleasant symptoms.
The role of detox in balancing the gut
More often than not, this treatment will include a form of detoxing. That is:
- Medicinal herbs and/or nutritional supplements to:
- kill off unwanted bacteria, viruses, etc
- support immune balance
- support digestion, adrenal and mitochondrial energy, nervous system (as required by the individual)
- Good food and sometimes supplements to mop up all the endotoxins. These are also important as when we’re rebalancing the ratio of the gut, there will be some bacteria and viruses that die off. They get broken down into many little bits, so these bits need to be ‘mopped up’ and taken out before they cross the intestinal wall into the blood stream and cause a lot of inflammation throughout the body.
- Probiotics and organisms to support a healthy gut environment, reduce inflammation along the gut lining, and help support the healthy maturity of the immune system.
The role of diet
Diet is very important! I haven’t had a patient with autoimmune conditions that doesn’t respond well to reducing gluten, sugar, dairy, and alcohol from their diet. Sorry! What becomes apparent over the first 2-6 months is that these patients start to feel better upon making these dietary changes, then they start to join the dots themselves. They start to notice their own thresholds of all the yummy foods and know how much is too much. Plus, as time goes on and they feel better and better, they start to be able to tolerate more of those foods without the previous symptoms! Sometimes this takes 6 months, sometimes 18 months. It really depends on the individual case
The role of kinesiology and naturopathy
I have focused on the naturopathic understandings and treatment of autoimmunity. As I also practise kinesiology (i.e. the art of balancing the body via the traditional Chinese Meridians without acupuncture needles), I combine the above understanding in the kinesiology balances. I have seen some amazing responses with incredible and positive feedback from my patients.
The kinesiology balances help the body to respond naturally, and then with naturopathic medicines people get better within a much shorter time period. That is, patients come to see me reporting having seen naturopaths for 1-2 years without any improvements (or conditions worsening). However, after one kinesiology balance they feel the improvements. After almost five years of practising with both naturopathy and kinesiology, it never ceases to fascinate and amaze me!