Autoimmune Illness Overview
How Does The Immune System Work?
To understand an autoimmune illness, one must understand the function and processes of the immune system itself. This system is split into two main parts:
- Innate Immune System: You are born with this immune system and its main form of defense is the utilization of phagocytes. When something the system identifies as a threat is detected, these phagocytes are immediately deployed. They then surround the invader and destroy it.
- Adaptive Immune System: This immune system is developed over time and relies on the innate system to help it produce antibodies as a means of protection. When the body is exposed to an invader, B lymphocytes of the adaptive immune system create antibodies over the course of several days. Despite the time it takes to build a defense, it only takes one moment of exposure for the body to recognize the invader as a threat in the future. Your adaptive immune system changes continuously as it catalogues invaders and creates antibodies throughout your life.
Together, these two parts make a whole immune system.
What Is An Autoimmune Illness?
Sometimes an immune system, which is in charge of defending the body against bacteria, viruses, toxins, and other invading foreign bodies like fungi, begins targeting its own body. This mistake of attacking healthy body tissue is called an autoimmune disorder or autoimmune illness and can lead to the body tissue being destroyed, abnormal organ growth, and actual change in organ function. In fact, there are more than 80 types of autoimmune disorders, such as Celiac disease, Graves disease, and Hashimoto thyroiditis that affect approximately 24 million people in the United States. In their havoc, they may affect multiple organ and tissue types like the muscles, red blood cells, skin, and more. It is possible, too, for an individual to have more than one type of autoimmune illness at a time.
What causes a body’s means of defense to turn on itself? Normally, antibodies produced by a healthy immune system attacks antigens—another name for the harmful invaders the system protects against—but when an autoimmune illness occurs, the immune system is unable to distinguish between friend and foe. A theory for what triggers this reaction is that drugs or some microorganisms, like bacteria or viruses, incite confusion within the immune system via specific changes. The digestive system is also crucial crux point of many autoimmune disorders. It is the frontline of a war our immune system is constantly fighting to keep us healthy as one of the body’s weakest points of defense from invaders. This frontline is more than just a battlefield though and it is also where the immune system trains new immune cells. Dysregulation within the digestive system may lead to mistrained cells that target our own cells instead of invaders.
When it comes to autoimmune illnesses, symptoms like pain or swelling of joints and muscles, recurring fevers, irritable digestive issues, and more may occur.
What Can You Do About An Autoimmune Illness?
Like with all illnesses, it’s important to treat not just the symptoms, but to get to the root of the problem. At its core, an autoimmune illness is a body attacking its own tissue due to systemic inflammation or a jumbled response of the immune system. Such inflammation has multiple causes: genetic variation, infections, environmental toxins, inflammatory diets, lack of physical activity and stress are just a few. This isn’t to say our bodies can’t handle any inflammation—they are equipped to handle allergy and cold seasons, after all. In small doses, our bodies can cope, but when runaway inflammation occurs the inflammation grows out of control and is no longer manageable. This situation can result in autoimmune illnesses, especially if inflammation within the digestive system is involved.
A way of treating these autoimmune illnesses at their core involves uncovering what causes their systemic inflammation, removing those causes, and healing the damage caused. This may reduce symptoms significantly or heal the autoimmune illness itself.
But how does one go about treating systemic inflammation? Here are four steps you can consider when it comes to taking back your health:
- Identify: The first step is a reminder how important it is to know what you’re working with. What factors may be triggering the inflammation? This is a battle over the body’s wellness, so identifying underlying causes may be the most significant step towards victory. This is your battle strategy! Consulting a holistic wellness center, such as Plum Spring Clinic, can be a great resource to help you identify these causes.
- Address Causes: If identifying the causes is your strategy, then addressing those causes is the heart of the battle. Our bodies normally rid toxins on their own, but extreme or consistent exposure can eventually grow too overwhelming. Likewise, underlying infections such as sinus or yeast infections that go untreated can cause damage and spark the dreaded runaway inflammation. This can also occur with allergies or hidden sensitivities within your food diet, the most common inflammatory foods being dairy and gluten. Many people with autoimmune illnesses also have altered gut flora.
- Reduce Stress: Heal your troops by reducing stress. When the brain is in a constant state of “fight-flight-or-freeze” it may affect the sympathetic nervous system, which is similar to the gas pedal of a car. Keeping the autonomic nervous system, which is comprised of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, balanced may help level inflammation. As such, maintaining low-stress levels is a significant component to treating autoimmune illnesses. If you find yourself stressed often, you may want to consider natural approaches to relaxation, such as yoga, meditation, and exercising.
- Strengthen Your Immune System: You may consider increasing the strength of your immune system as not just healing the troops in this battle for wellness, but providing elite reinforcements to help you succeed. Consuming a healthy diet, getting adequate physical activity, and getting enough sleep at night can help improve your immune system.
If you or someone you know is affected by an autoimmune illness, reach out to Plum Spring Clinic for assistance. Our team can help you navigate the steps in treating an autoimmune illness and work with you to create a wellness plan that fits your needs.
Dr. Michael Sharp, our Plum Spring Clinic medical doctor, is a Harvard trained physician who was on the UNC School of Medicine faculty for 20 years before embarking on his career in holistic medicine. He has spent the 20 years since then building experience and expertise understanding and treating chronic illness.