The month of March is Autoimmune Disease Awareness Month. Autoimmune diseases are increasing in prevalence across North America. Approximately 50 million Americans, 20 percent of the population or one in five people, suffer from autoimmune diseases. Over 75 percent of those affected are women.
What is an autoimmune disease?
An autoimmune disease occurs when the body’s immune system attacks and destroys healthy body tissue by mistake. When you have an autoimmune disease, your immune system does not distinguish between healthy tissue and outside elements, known as antigens. They can wreak havoc and are responsible for the deterioration and abnormal growth of body tissue and organs.
As a holistic nutritionist, I have had the opportunity and pleasure to help people with challenging health situations return to a better state of health simply by eating and living a little differently.
As a person who has experienced an autoimmune disease first-hand (Crohn’s Disease), I know that this is not a small feat.
At one time, I too suffered. In pain. In frustration. In confusion. I had Crohn’s disease. When in flare up, it stole many, many weeks of my life at a time. Looking back now, I think the most frustrating part of my experience was that nobody could suggest what foods I should be eating, or staying away from. This was over 20 years ago. I was in my twenties and even then, it seemed as obvious as the nose on my face that what I eat would make a difference to how I felt. I was hospitalized and on an IV to rehydrate and re-nourish me because I hadn’t been able to eat for a couple of weeks. When I asked the medical staff (doctors and registered dieticians alike) in the hospital to please give me an idea of what I could eat that would NOT send me into fits of agonizing pain, they would say “It’s really trial and error. Try and stay away from popcorn and nuts.” The end.
The unfortunate reality is that the experience would likely not be much different now. Medications are always the answer (I am not suggesting that they should not be part of the answer, as every case is different), as they were back then. That part of my story did not end well. I ended up having to have bowel resection surgery which resulted in a very lengthy recovery – 3 months before my wedding day. So, I understand the intrusion that these conditions can have in our life.
Some autoimmune diseases you might be familiar with are:
- Crohn’s Disease
- Celiac Disease
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Type 1 Diabetes
- Grave’s Disease
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Hashimoto’s Thyroid
And so many more. At this time, there are over 80 identified autoimmune disorders.
Conventionally, autoimmune diseases are viewed and treated as diseases of a particular organ or system. While they are tracked back to genetic markers, there is no accepted known cause. Conventional medical treatments usually involve drugs which suppress the immune system and stop it from “overreacting”. The approach will differ depending on the system affected. For example if you have Rheumatoid Arthritis, you will see a rheumatologist, if you have Crohn’s or Colitis you will see a Gastroenterologist, and so on. Each of these doctors will likely prescribe a different medication.
Complementary medicine suggests that this approach does not address the root cause of the disease or conditions, and sees compromised food quality, environmental toxins and stress as main players in the autoimmune arena.
The approach is based on research that supports the notion that autoimmune conditions exist beyond just a genetic marker, and that symptoms of this disorder can be mediated by lifestyle and environmental factors. There is mounting clinical evidence that in fact, symptoms of these disorders can be forced into remission by shifting elements of a person’s diet and lifestyle.
According to Dr. Allessio Fasano, MD, a world-renowned pediatric gastroenterologist, research scientist and founder of the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research, all autoimmune conditions have three factors in common: a genetic susceptibility, exposure to an antigen, and increased intestinal permeability. This is referred to as the ‘autoimmune triad’.
The genetic predisposition alone does not cause the development of autoimmune disease. Environmental factors such as bacteria, toxins and some drugs may play a role in triggering an autoimmune response in someone who is already predisposed to develop such a disorder. The theory is, that the inflammation initiated by some of these components, toxic or infectious, somehow provokes an autoimmune reaction in the involved tissues.
Read more: Avoid Toxins Use Natural Cleaning Products
While it was previously believed that the degeneration in the autoimmune process could not be stopped, recent evidence suggests that the process could be interrupted and possibly reversed, by interrupting one of the three factors in the autoimmune triad. Specifically, gut permeability, or “leaky gut.”
80% of our immune system resides in our gut. Our guts are slightly permeable. The intestinal wall is one cell layer thick. It has to be in order to allow nutrients to travel into our bloodstream and to nourish and repair us. The problem occurs when food particles that have not been broken down into small enough, recognizable molecules get through because of gut permeability. So, two things need to happen: gut repair and optimized digestion. If the foot soldiers of digestion are not doing their job, then the colonels in the immune colony cannot possibly plan their next move.
Read more: How to improve digestion
The ‘holistic approach’ is based on the premise that the progression of autoimmune disease is dependent upon poor gut health. If we ‘repair the gut’ then we should be able to mitigate symptoms of the disease and at least place it in a type of ‘remission’. I call this “The Autoimmune Shift.”
Read more: Leaky Gut Syndrome
For those who suffer, this is very inspiring news. It is encouraging to think of a life without harsh immunosuppressant drugs and their side effects. Although we can’t alter our genes or immediately identify all potential “threats”, we can examine the opportunity to improve digestion and repair intestinal permeability as a way to heal the body and shift the disease into remission.
[Editor's Note: If you want to eliminate unhealthy ingredients and chemical additives from your diet for good, click here to sign up for a Naturally Savvy Get Healthy Challenge.]