Autoimmune disease is a major health concern across the globe. Autoimmune diseases affect an estimated 24 million Americans, or five to eight percent of the population. And there are likely many more people living with an undiagnosed autoimmune disease.
Autoimmune diseases are notoriously complicated to diagnose as the symptoms - such as inflammation, pain, and swelling - are difficult to classify. There are currently over 100 known autoimmune diseases and the list is growing.
What Are Autoimmune Diseases?
Let's start with a quick outline of the immune system.
Comprised of organs and cells designed to protect the body from harmful bacteria, viruses, and cancer, the immune system is the body's first line of defense.
An autoimmune disease occurs when the immune system attacks the body rather than protects it. Imagine your body is a castle and your immune system is the army of guards protecting it from invasions. Autoimmune conditions are a result of the army of guards attacking the castle rather than the invader.
Experts don't know why the immune system attacks the body. It seems to happen when the immune system can no longer tell the difference between dangerous cells and healthy ones. However, many attribute gut health as a major factor.
The cause may remain unknown, but that doesn't make autoimmune disease any less serious. The impact on a person's health can be dramatic, affecting almost every organ and tissue type in the body.
Common Symptoms Of Autoimmune Disease
Autoimmune disorders can cause a wide range of symptoms with varying severity. General symptoms include chronic pain, fatigue, headaches, dizziness, nausea, and rashes. However, the symptoms a person experiences depend on the type of autoimmune disorder.
For a more specific overview of autoimmunity symptoms, we've divided them into categories:
Autoimmune disorders in the digestive tract, such as Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, and ulcerative colitis:
- Acid reflux
- Bloody stools (or mucus in stool)
- Sensitivity to certain foods
- Stomach pain
Autoimmune disorders in the muscles and joints, such as lupus, psoriatic arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis (RA):
- Inflammation in the area
- Muscle pain
- Muscle weakness
- Sore, stiff, or swollen joints
Autoimmune disorders in the skin, such as dermatomyositis and psoriasis:
- Dry, flaky skin
- Dry eyes or mouth
- Hair loss
- Inflammation of the skin
Autoimmune disorders in the nervous system such as Guillain-Barre syndrome and multiple sclerosis (MS):
- Anxiety and/or depression
- Blurred vision
- Confusion, brain fog
- Memory loss
Other autoimmune disorders (such as glandular disorders like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis) may cause one or more of the symptoms listed below:
- Chest pain
- Chronic pain
- Irregular heartbeat
- Heightened sensitivity to temperature
- Shortness of breath
- Swollen glands
- Fluctuations in weight
Causes Of Autoimmune Diseases
Experts still don't know the exact cause of autoimmune disease, but there are several known risk factors that may raise your chances of developing one. These include:
- Certain medications such as antibiotics, statins, and blood pressure meds
- Exposure to toxins and heavy metals
- Gender - A whopping 78% of people with autoimmune diseases are women
- Pre-existing autoimmune disorders
- Underlying infections
Alternative Treatments For Autoimmune Diseases
Because there is no cure for autoimmune disease, medical doctors will often just treat the symptoms with painkillers, anti-inflammatories, anti-depressants, rash creams, and immuno-suppressing drugs.
However, many patients will seek natural alternative treatments alongside functional medicine to deal with autoimmune issues.
Popular alternative treatments include:
- Chiropractic procedures
- Herbal remedies
- Hydrotherapy (particularly for patients suffering from autoimmune disease in the joints eg. fibromyalgia or arthritis)
Herbs That Naturally Help Against Autoimmune Disease
When the immune system is put under a prolonged period of inflammatory stress, the immune system starts to turn again the body and attack.
Herbs have been proven to aid in reducing inflammation, regulating autoimmune responses. In some cases, herbs may even work more effectively than functional medicine.
The following herbs are particularly effective in decreasing overeager autoimmune responses in the human body:
12 Steps To Naturally Treat Autoimmunity
The first step on your journey to healing autoimmunity is discovering the root cause. These 12 strategies can help you to discover causes and triggers and naturally reduce inflammation.
1. Follow a Whole Food, Anti-inflammatory Diet Plan
Make some dietary changes to reduce inflammatory immune response in the body. Avoid inflammatory triggers and add in foods rich in omega 3 (fatty fish), leafy greens, and turmeric. Try to eat the rainbow every day. Colorful, non-starchy berries and vegetables are packed with phytonutrients, reducing the symptoms associated with autoimmunity.
2. Get Tested for Underlying Infections
Speak to a functional medicine doctor to look for hidden infections like yeast infections, Lyme disease, viruses, and bacteria that could be the underlying causes of autoimmune issues.
3. Check for Food Allergies or Sensitivities
Functional medicine practitioners can use blood tests to look for food allergies such as celiac disease which can cause an unwanted immune response and inflammation in the body. They will test for hidden food allergies (dairy, soy, wheat, etc,) and may recommend eliminating certain food allergens from your diet for a period of time.
4. Get Tested for Heavy Metal Toxicity
Exposure to heavy metals such as mercury can be a high-risk factor in autoimmunity. If you think you have high levels of toxins in your body, there are natural/homeopathic remedies to detox your body. Incorporate foods and herbs such as cilantro, garlic, wild blueberries, lemon water, and spirulina into your diet to remove heavy metal toxins. Also, reduce exposure to common toxins such as household cleaners, pesticides, cigarettes, caffeine, and alcohol. Replacing household cleaners with natural, homemade cleaners dramatically reduces your exposure to toxins.
5. Heal Your Gut
Since roughly 70% of the immune system is found in the lining of the gut, supporting intestinal health is key when dealing with autoimmunity. It all begins in the gut. The best way to heal the gut is to eat a diet made up of whole foods, rich in anti-inflammatory foods, and free from food allergens such as gluten.
6. Take Vitamin Supplements
Give your body a boost with some supplements. If you suffer from autoimmunity, adding supplementary nutrients like fish oil, magnesium, vitamins C & D, zinc, and probiotics to your diet can reduce immune responses. Other anti-inflammatory supplements like quercetin, curcumin, and grapeseed extract can regulate autoimmune responses.
7. Eat Good Fats
Omega-3 fats reduce inflammation. Make sure you eat a diet rich in cold-water fish, seeds (chia, flax, hemp, etc,), and nuts (walnuts).
8. Get Regular Exercise
Moving the body consistently is one of the best anti-inflammatory remedies. Make an effort to move your body every day for optimal health.
9. Reduce Stress & Practice Calming Techniques
Stress exacerbates immune responses. Stress management tools such as deep breathing, yoga, or massage can help to promote relaxation and calm a stressed immune system.
10. Get Enough Sleep
Getting a good night's sleep is vital for good health and reducing inflammation. When we don't get enough sleep, this can impact our metabolism and make us crave sugary foods. Consistent lack of sleep can drive us to eat more and increase the risk of developing autoimmune disorders. Aim for 8 hours of sleep every night. Good sleep hygiene can improve the quality of your sleep, reducing sugar cravings.
11. Get Outside
Studies show that active vitamin D is effective in modulating immune function. In order for the immune system to function properly (preventing autoimmune responses), the body needs optimal levels of Vitamin D. To heal your body from autoimmunity, up your intake of Vitamin D by spending more time in the sun, eating vitamin D-rich foods like fatty fish, cheese, egg yolks, and beef liver, and taking a vitamin supplement to ensure you get your recommended daily allowance.
Inflammatory Foods To Cut Out Of Your Diet
To naturally treat autoimmunity and heal your body, you will need to reduce inflammation. One of the major sources of inflammation is food. By clearing inflammatory foods out of your diet for 10 days, you give your immune system a chance to reset.
Cut the following culprits out of your diet and monitor the results:
- Fried foods
- Gluten (triggers autoimmune responses and contributes to leaky gut)
- Low-quality vegetable oils
- Margarine and lard
- Processed food
- Red meat & processed meats (sausages, hot dogs, etc,)
- Refined carbohydrates (pastries, white bread)
- Soda and sugary drinks
When treating autoimmune disease, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, it's best to avoid nightshade vegetables. Nightshades like eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes aggravate inflammation.
Food That Naturally Fights Inflammation
Cutting out food that triggers autoimmune responses and inflammation will give your body a chance to heal and reset. Incorporating anti-inflammatory foods into your diet can speed up the healing process. Increase your intake of the following:
- Fruit (blueberries, apples, etc,)
- Green tea
- Vegetables, especially green leafy greens (high in natural antioxidants and polyphenols) like kale or spinach
- Fiber (increases healthy bacteria in the gut)
- Foods rich in probiotics such as kimchi or sauerkraut
- Healthy oils (extra virgin olive oil)
- Whole grains