According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), a division of the National Institutes of Health, autoimmune diseases affect over 23 million Americans with some statistics estimating more than 50 million per the NDNR. There are at least 80 different auto-immune related diseases recognized with many not even identified yet. The widespread implications of such an enormous all-encompassing condition on millions of Americans is almost incomprehensible. Approaching treatment of those who have an auto-immune disease is especially important for naturopathic medicine practitioners who may offer an alternative in a sea of conventional less effective treatment options.
To better understand naturopathic medicine as a treatment option, it is essential to explore the immune system as well as common triggers and risk factors for autoimmunity. “To begin with, everyone has, in a sense, 2 immune systems: the innate immune system and the adaptive, or specialized, immune system (sometimes called the acquired immune system). Also, autoimmune issues can present themselves as either a systemic condition, like multiple sclerosis, or as fairly localized problems, like psoriasis,” states the NDNR.
The adaptive, or acquired, immune system defends the body based on experience. Some of the main players in the immune system are the white blood cells or lymphocytes that are composed of B-cells and T-cells. Antigens are the threats to the immune system and the white blood cells must match appropriately with the antigen to destroy it.
Within the T-cell family are helper T-cells, cytotoxic T-cells, and suppressor T-cells:
- Helper T-cells stimulate B-cells and other T-cells into action, and they bolster the body’s immune response.
- Cytotoxic T-cells attach to invading bacteria, viruses, or toxins.
- Suppressor T-cells constitute a natural “brake” on the actions of the immune defenses, ensuring that they don’t take their jobs too far by attacking healthy cells.
Additional components of the adaptive immune system include the thymus and the spleen.
Risk Factors and Triggers
According to the NDNR, “The potential risk factors and triggers for autoimmune diseases are plentiful. However, one of the most significant causes of increased production of autoantibodies (ie, T-cell actions against the body’s own structures) is exposure to environmental toxins.” NIEHS researchers report that autoantibodies can develop for years before actually attacking tissues. Below are the triggers and correlations reported:
- Solvent exposure – e.g., proximity to paint thinners, cleaning supplies, and nail polish – contributes to the development of systemic sclerosis
- Smoking contributes to the development of two types of rheumatoid arthritis
- Having children – especially more than one – contributes to ANA prevalence
- Workers exposed to fine particles of crystalline silica – found in quartz, granite, and many other minerals – are prone to developing several autoimmune diseases. Anyone in mining, construction, or other building work is clearly at risk.
- Gluten consumption contributes to the development of celiac disease in genetically susceptible individuals.
Additional challenges posed for practitioners is identifying the signs and symptoms associated with an autoimmune disorder. Some of the most common issues include:
- Joint pain or muscle pain, accompanied by weakness or tremors
- Unintentional weight loss or weight gain
- Intolerance to heat or cold
- Rapid heartbeat
- Recurrent rashes or hives or sun sensitivity
- Brain fog, difficulty concentrating or focusing
- Abdominal pain, bloody stools, or diarrhea
- White patches or ulcers in and around the mouth
- Dry eyes, mouth, or skin
- Numbness or tingling in hands or feet
- Multiple miscarriages or blood clots
A naturopathic practitioner confronts the often-daunting complex puzzle of diagnosing autoimmune conditions with the many symptoms listed above. The most common autoimmune diseases are the thyroid related Hashimoto’s or Graves’ disease, Addison’s disease, celiac disease, SLE, type 1 diabetes, and RA. Frequently these diseases or conditions are treated by conventional practitioners with prescription medications that present a slew of adverse side effects.
As described in the previous article regarding cancer treatment and naturopathic medicine, many of the recommended treatment plans for cancer apply to autoimmune diseases. It all begins with the whole patient whole body approach of naturopathic medicine. Treatments include:
- Restorative Sleep
- Actively reduce stress
- Avoid all possible exposure to environmental toxins, such as chemicals, mercury, and other heavy metals.
- Avoid taking unnecessary drugs
- Dietary restrictions – do not overindulge in refined grains and sugars, vegetable oils high in omega-6 fatty acids, cured meats, and/or deep-fried foods
- Utilize supplemental nutrients – curcumin, vitamin D, essential fatty acids, and probiotics
- Detoxification – hydrate, dry brushing of the skin, and Epsom salt baths.
Autoimmune diseases are difficult to treat but patients can experience considerable relief after following such therapeutic naturopathic treatments. Many patients have been through conventional treatments and medications with few positive results. But a naturopathic holistic approach incorporating mindful and body-wise interventions, may finally enable patients to feel free of symptoms and more vibrant than they have for years. Please reach out to Dr. Michael Robinson at the Ayre Clinic for Contemporary Medicine for autoimmune disease treatment options.