By Essie Bester
Autoimmune diseases have become some of the most common illnesses – the incidence is even higher than that of cancer and heart diseases, so much so that some medical experts even call it an epidemic.
And yet, it could take an average of five years and five doctors to diagnose a person with an autoimmune disorder, according to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA). The disease is complicated, with a large number of factors that scientists do not fully understand yet, and it is often difficult to diagnose by means of standard tests. It also often happens that doctors downplay a patient’s symptoms as psychological and refer them to a psychologist.
What are autoimmune diseases?
It is a condition in which one’s autoimmune system mistakenly attacks one’s body. The immune system protects the body against germs such as bacteria and viruses. When you have an autoimmune disease, your immune system makes the mistake of seeing a part of your body as foreign or as an intruder and it forms antibodies that attack your healthy cells.
What causes autoimmune diseases?
They are caused by a combination of genetic susceptibility on the one hand, and a degree of exposure on the other hand. The incidence is notably higher among women than men. Some experts even say that 75% of the American population affected by autoimmunity (about 30 million) are women. According to researchers the fact that women have two X chromosomes could be a factor. The X chromosome contains a small piece of genetic material called micro RNA, which could have an effect on the immune system function.
An increase in autoimmunity
Researchers blame the increase on extraordinary stress and changes in our environment, which, in their turn, could cause changes in our bodies. Progress in technology and living conditions let us believe that we have to be healthier than ever before – most Western civilisations now have access to better medicine, clean water and abundant food. The better medicine, however, comes with an overuse of antibiotics and the advent of super germs. And with industrialised farming we see the emergence of chemicals and processed foods – all of them things that could be involved in the onset of autoimmunity. Autoimmune diseases could therefore be the product of our own success as an industrialised species.
Autoimmunity is complicated, with a whole lot of factors that scientists still do not fully understand. Even the number of diseases that AARDA recognises as autoimmune diseases (currently 100), including lupus, Type 1 diabetes, coeliac disease, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis and many more, is debatable.
What can you do to help decrease the consequences of autoimmunity?
Traditional treatments include the following:
- Immune system suppressors – the purpose of these are to limit the amount of damage that your immune system could do to your body. However, if your total immune system is suppressed to protect it against itself, you leave your body vulnerable to other dangerous diseases.
- Anti-inflammatory medicine – these only help in the short term.
- Palliative treatment (which basically only focuses on the removal of the pain without focusing on the condition) – this is necessary in very painful cases of autoimmunity. However, more damage can be caused if you rely too heavily on pain management (which causes you not to feel the pain anymore) and become involved in activities that are not recommended for your joints.
Manage symptoms and prevent complications as follows:
Better eating habits are one of the best ways of handling autoimmunity. Good health starts in your stomach. The food and supplements that we take into our bodies (and therefore our intestines) are directly linked to our autoimmune health and there are many foods that you can eat to relieve the autoimmune response.
Natural pain-relief techniques such as massage techniques and acupuncture, the use of essential oils on the skin as well as heat and/or ice treatments help to manage symptoms.
The best activities are low-impact exercises such as cycling, walking, water aerobic exercises and yoga. Stretch exercises can also help.
- Paying attention to vitamin intake
Vitamins D and C, magnesium and vitamin B are important. Vitamin D is a great immune system regulator and to increase your levels you must make sure that you get a lot of exposure to the sun every day. Alternatively you could try a high-quality vitamin D3 supplement.
Eating fermented foods such as yoghurt and kefir (a type of yoghurt drink), miso (a fermented soy-bean spread), miso soup, unpasteurised sauerkraut, tempeh, yeast bread and pickled gherkins, promote healthy bacteria that colonise your intestine and help to destroy bad bacteria before they can cause an autoimmune response and infection.
- An anti-inflammatory diet
Food such olive oil, leafy vegetables, almonds, walnuts, healthy fats (as in fish), tomatoes and certain fruits such as blueberries, strawberries and cherries reduce inflammation.
Remove all toxins from your living space and diet, such as red meat injected with chemicals and hormones.
- Handling stress and getting enough sleep
Stress can suppress your immune system, aggravate inflammation, and encourage autoimmunity. Practise deep-relaxation and breathing techniques. Also try to get a good night’s sleep every night.