Autoimmune Dysfunction – Part I

Happy Spring to each of you! I just got back from a fabulous West County Garden Tour that was truly inspirational. It’s amazing to see the beauty of nature even in gardens created for low water use. Shows we can do this!

I would say that a week never goes by that I don’t work with several of you who are facing auto-immune health challenges. Because of this, my personal history, and experiences in my family, I recently had the opportunity to attend a cutting edge Integrative Medicine conference about these diseases and the options we now know can best help patients. Here is some of what I learned. In addition, I plan to do a talk this summer for those of you who want to learn more.

Auto-immune diseases are the third fastest growing group of diseases, after cancer and heart disease.

They affect 5-8% of the population. Until relatively recently there were only a few diseases that fit into this classification. Now, however, our understanding has broadened substantially and there are over 80 different conditions that are associated with a dysfunctional autoimmune process. The most common include rheumatoid arthritis, Lupus, Hashimoto’s and Grave’s diseases, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s Disease, Addison’s disease, some diabetes, and certain types of heart disease. These are some of the most debilitating disease processes that can very negatively impact quality of life.

Women are more frequently affected than men.

More than 78 percent of people diagnosed with an autoimmune disease are female. This is felt to be partly due to women’s immune responses being generally stronger than men’s, giving them more protection against infections but also predisposing women more to autoimmune disease development. In addition, it has been found that women have a newly discovered subset of B cells that produce autoantibodies. Finally, women’s hormones play a role.

The causes of autoimmunity can be varied, but several have been clearly identified in the research. They include everything from our gut to our hormones, and many others. What is always present, however, is inflammation at the cellular level. Let’s look at some factors that cause the onset of some of these conditions.

Autoimmune Triggers

Infection with viruses and bacteria incite autoimmunity, and they are considered the main environmental triggers. Some commonly known infections include Coxsackievirus B (myocarditis), Treptococcus pyogenes (rheumatic heart disease), Borrelia burgdorferi (Lyme disease, arthritis, myelitis, peripheral neuropathy), Sydenham chorea (Tourette’s and obsessive-compulsive disorder). Even bad bugs in your digestive tract can be a trigger for autoimmune disease, as we will see in more detail in the discussion of leaky gut.

Food allergies, or better called “delayed sensitivities,” are now considered by some clinicians and researchers to be present for all autoimmune diseases to get started.

These reactions can cause an inflammatory cascade that triggers leaky gut and the consequent reactive autoimmune response.

Sex hormones influence our immune response in their own way. Androgens (testosterone, progesterone, DHEA) act as immune-suppressors. On the other hand, certain pro-inflammatory estrogens provide a boost to the immune response. These are primarily comprised of the undesirable 16 alpha-hydroxyestrone and oxidized 4-OHE. You may remember that we measure and monitor these forms of estrogen in your 24 hr urine testing that is typically done yearly after being on the hormones for several months. If we find these to be elevated, there are superb herbs and other supplements that help to correct this imbalance.

Toxins in our environment can adversely influence and modulate immune reactions.

Many of these are called xenoestrogens and are known to have adverse effects on the endocrine system. More research needs to be done regarding their specific immune effects. They are found in pesticides, fertilizers, in food and water, and in many products that touch our skin.

Trauma from direct tissue damage is also correlated with autoimmunity. This seems to include even the sub-concussion head injuries in football players. These events can turn on the autoimmune response by allowing leakage of a specific protein into the blood, triggering an auto-antibody response which in turn causes tissue damage associated with cognitive ability.

To keep this discussion from being way too long in one issue of this newsletter, I have decided to continue writing on this topic for next month also. At that time I will discuss the issues of leaky gut, stress, and what can be done to prevent disease development or to support your body if an autoimmune disease has already taken hold.

Until then, be well!

Jane

Jane Kennedy, CFNP, MN, MPH

About Jane