What is autoimmunity? The immune system normally recognizes between what is “self “and what is “not-self.” Anything which is “self” is tolerated. However, anything in the body which is identified as “not-self“ is attacked. The key word here is identified. Normally the body does a great job of differentiating which is which. But sometimes the line gets blurry and the body thinks “self” is “not self” and tries to destroy it, which means it tries to attack itself or at least a part of itself. If the antibodies attack the thyroid, we might call it Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. If antibodies damage the skin, we might call it psoriasis. If the attacked tissue is joint tissue, we might call it rheumatoid arthritis; nerve tissue, we call it multiple sclerosis; connective tissue, we call it systemic lupus erythematous.
What causes that line of self vs. non-self to be blurry? Some of the things that trigger that “blurry line” are heavy metals (mercury, lead, cadmium, excess iron, and aluminum). Another theory for the blurry line of autoimmunity revolves around smoldering infections. I am referring to chronic infections and chronic inflammation. White blood cells work by blasting the bacteria, yeast, or virus with free radicals. However, if there is a global deficiency of antioxidants, the tissue surrounding the area where the infection is breeding will suffer. What are some of the things which cause antioxidant depletion? Old age, stress, lack of sleep, hydrogenated oils, physical trauma, junk food diets, a systemic acid chemistry, and the previously mentioned heavy metals. Pesticides, plastics, food allergies, low cholesterol, vaccines, and vitamin D deficiency also contributing to autoimmune disorders.
Regardless of the ultimate cause, poor digestion and imbalanced gut microflora play a huge role. Think about it. Our intestine functions as a barrier between us and the outside world, which comes in with every meal. All of the factors we have discussed can cause disruption in our intestinal barrier function leading to increased permeability, which allows undigested food to enter into the intestinal wall and the blood circulation. Therefore, increased intestinal permeability (“leaky gut”) should be considered in every autoimmune condition. For more chronic cases, I order specific functional lab tests to identify the unwanted bacteria or parasites, lack of healthy bacteria, or excess yeast. The body will make antibodies for these organisms. In a compromised gut, these antibodies will leave the gut and look for things that are similar in structure, like tissues, a process called molecular mimicry and proceed to attack it. ["The production of cross-reactive antibodies is strikingly increased in the gut of many RA patients. Their food related problems might reflect on adverse additive effect of multiple modest hypersensitivity reaction mediated by immune complexes promoting autoimmune reactions in the joints." (Gut 2006; 55: 1240-47)]
We know that 50 - 70 % of the immune system by weight either originates or is located in the gut. Therefore, the gut should be foremost in our mind when dealing with autoimmune disorders. Also, having one autoimmune disease places us at a higher risk of a second autoimmune disease. "More than 40 autoimmune conditions have been identified, including such common examples as type 1 (insulin-dependent) diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and celiac disease. Together they constitute the third leading cause of sickness and death after heart attack and cancer." (Scientific American, March 2007) If you or someone you love suffers from an autoimmune disorder, act now. Make an appointment for an Integrative Functional Medicine evaluation for a renewed, healthier, and happier life.