Autoimmune diseases are characterised by chronic inflammation with a loss of self-tolerance to ‘self’ or ‘auto’ antigens. This means that the immune system recognises its own specific body cells as ‘invaders’ which triggers an abnormal immune response to these cells, resulting in damage to organs or, in some cases, throughout the whole body. The causes of autoimmunity are poorly understood but are commonly seen as being multifactorial, involving a combination of genetic, environmental, hormonal and immune factors. Key factors involve abnormal cytokine biology and activation of auto- or self-reactive CD4 positive T cells. It is suggested that autoimmune diseases occur in genetically susceptible individuals in which an environmental trigger activates the abnormal immune processes, leading to metabolic changes and then, as a result, the symptoms associated with these changes.
Environmental factors that trigger these immune processes include reproductive hormones, mechanical injury, chemicals (such as cigarette smoke) and, most significantly, viral and bacterial infections. The impacts of an ‘industrialised, western’ diet are also largely postulated as an environmental trigger and a risk factor to autoimmunity. Alongside this is the evidence of low levels of specific nutrients associated with a number of autoimmune diseases. However, not all environmental triggers to autoimmune conditions have been proven and further research is required to identify other potential environmental triggers for these conditions. Recent findings are also suggesting significant links between our microbiota (the microbes that reside within our body) and chronic inflammatory diseases and, particularly, autoimmune diseases.
Pending further research to determine the exact causes of autoimmunity, some factors associated with autoimmune conditions include:
- infections such as shingles, frequent cold sores and Helicobacter pylori
- smoking cigarettes
- long term use of permanent hair dyes
- Autoimmune conditions are more common in females than males, with the exception of a few specific diseases.
- occupational exposure to chemicals such as silica dust and pesticides
Naturopathic treatment of autoimmune conditions
As with all conditions, naturopathic management of autoimmune conditions is holistic and encompasses all aspects contributing to the individual’s condition. Interventions may involve lifestyle and dietary modifications, together with supplementation using nutrients and herbal medicine if required. As autoimmune conditions are characterised by chronic inflammation and dysregulation of immune responses, management focuses on factors that contribute to inflammation and immune system triggers, as well as supporting organs and tissues damaged as a result of these conditions. Naturopathic management of autoimmune conditions may involve:
- identifying, eliminating and managing primary causes, triggers and contributing factors
- restoring gastrointestinal health. Studies have shown links exist between a dysregulated intestinal epithelial barrier (leaky gut) and the potential development of autoimmunity.
- reducing inflammation
- modulating and improving immune responses
- reducing stress. Physiological and emotional stress can increase systemic inflammation and contribute to inflammatory processes that occur in autoimmune conditions.
Vitamin D has potent immunomodulatory properties in which it selectively suppresses the activity of immune cells implicated in autoimmune conditions. Through this function, its use is supported in the treatment of autoimmune conditions, including systemic lupus erythematous (SLE). Studies have demonstrated decreased inflammatory markers with vitamin D supplementation, as well as a strong inverse relationship between serum vitamin D levels and relapse rates in multiple sclerosis (MS) patients after supplementation. For further information on the functions of vitamin D in our body, and particularly the immune system, check out our vitamin D blog post here.
Probiotics play a beneficial role in ‘leaky gut’ and have been shown to modulate mucin (a principle component of mucous required for healthy mucosal surfaces) production while also strengthening tight gap junctions. Various strain-specific probiotics have also been shown to improve intestinal hyper-permeability. Specific strains of probiotics have also been shown to decrease inflammation.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids have both immune-modulatory and anti-inflammatory properties. Studies have demonstrated reduced levels of inflammatory markers within the body with supplementation of fish oil.
Zinc status plays a significant role in immune responses as well as promoting normal tissue repair, with low zinc levels also being associated with inflammatory conditions. Zinc aids in restoring normal immune function without having immune stimulating effects, important in the management of autoimmune conditions.
There are numerous herbs that are indicated for use in autoimmune conditions. Curcuma longa has potent anti-inflammatory properties beneficial in reducing chronic inflammation associated with autoimmunity.
Gentiana lutea offers a synergy of bitter and anti-inflammatory action that is well indicated for leaky gut, while also providing some anti-microbial activity that could improve dysbiosis.
Glycyrrhiza glabra is another herbal option indicated for its demulcent and anti-inflammatory properties. It is known to increase mucus production to protect the epithelial lining impacted in leaky gut conditions.
Hemidesmus indicus, albizia lebbeck, rehmannia glutinosa exert an immunosuppressant action which downregulates the heightened immune responses experienced in autoimmunity.
Both astragalus membranaceus and echinacea purpurea may also be beneficial in the management of autoimmune conditions due to their immunomodulatory properties.
Withania somnifera, eleutherococcus senticosus, centella asiatica, bacopa monnieri and glycyrrhyza glabra are all classed as adaptogens which have broad therapeutic activity that encourages the body to adapt better to stress as indicated in autoimmune conditions. Many adaptogens also exert immunomodulatory properties.
As stated, autoimmune conditions are multifactorial with many different contributing factors to the onset and progression of these diseases. Naturopathic medicine aims to support and manage a wide range of aspects contributing to each individual’s specific case.