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Natural Options for Autoimmune Disease
“I know I haven’t been feeling well—but you’re saying my own immune system is attacking me?”
A diagnosis of autoimmune disease (AI) (or rather, any of the nearly 100 diseases that fall under the AI umbrella) can be frightening. Even arriving at the diagnosis may sometimes be a gruelling journey, given that symptoms often mimic other concerns. And unfortunately, over 45 per cent of patients with autoimmune diseases are labelled chronic complainers in the earliest stages of their diagnosis, according to an American Autoimmune Diseases Association survey.
But what is an autoimmune disease? Let’s look at the immune system—our body’s guardian and protector. The immune system is constantly looking out for attacks from foreign invaders like bacteria, infected or pre-cancerous cells, but in its travels it also connects with normal healthy molecules in our blood, bones and tissues. The immune system’s ability to identify and react to both healthy and invading molecules is crucial; when it can’t determine the difference, it attacks healthy cells and tissues, creating inflammation, pain, and other symptoms associated with an autoimmune disease.
More than 50 diseases are clustered into the AI category. Some of the most commonly seen are rheumatoid arthritis (RA), Crohn’s disease, lupus, irritable bowel syndrome, multiple sclerosis and skin conditions such as psoriasis. Combined, these diseases affect at least two million Canadians, and strike women at least three times more often than men.
The effects of AI can be debilitating and life-threatening. The life expectancy of an individual with RA, for example, may be reduced by between five to 10 years, with cardiovascular disease a significant cause of death in individuals with RA (Statistics Canada). Nerve damage associated with multiple sclerosis can cause brain damage, vision loss and debilitating muscle spasms. More than 100,000 people in Canada have MS, and 80 per cent of those are unable to work (MS Society of Canada).
The causes of AI are not entirely unknown, but genetics, environment and lifestyle likely all play a role. Diet, exercise, stress reduction and physical therapy (such as massage, acupuncture and physiotherapy) can address some of the underlying causes.
While conventional medicine dictates rounds of anti-inflammatories or corticosteroids as the symptomatic solution, they don’t address the underlying factors associated with the disease and their long-term effects can be quite devastating to our overall health. As a result, many people diagnosed with AI look for more natural, less invasive treatments.
Naturopathic doctor Heidi Fritz sees many patients suffering with AI in her Bolton practice. “People notice their symptoms—pain, fatigue, swelling, inflammation—are increasingly aggravating or not going away,” she says. “Often people come to us having already been diagnosed with AI, but they want to avoid the need for powerful medications such as steroids or anti-inflammatories. We help by addressing the underlying issues around their symptoms.
“We look for a clustering of symptoms—rash, multiple-system involvements, kidney and joint concerns, perhaps alongside digestive concerns,” she says. “We perform a complete intake and blood tests to aid in determining a cause.” If a patient is already taking steroids or anti-inflammatories, “we don’t usually tell them to stop, because that may cause a flare-up of the symptoms; it really depends on how bad the situation is,” explains Fritz. “If we are the first consult, however, we often inform patients that it is desirable to avoid prednisone if possible, or at least to limit reliance upon it.” Once a healthier diet and lifestyle are established, the need for those medicines often subsides.
Food sensitivities and stress can make people more susceptible to AI. “Sometimes we see a dramatic resolution to AI issues when we change a patient’s diet,” Fritz explains. “Eating a varied whole-foods diet reduces inflammation in the gut and bowel (which reduces digestive complaints) and improves overall health.”
Nova Scotia-based Bryan Rade, ND, agrees. “Identifying and removing food sensitivities is absolutely one of the most important components of AI management. When we consume foods we are sensitive to, it leads to inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. Studies looking at food sensitivity elimination in patients with RA and psoriasis show significant clinical improvement.”
Bringing balance to the immune system is also an important factor, says Rade. Supplements like vitamin D, melatonin, phytosterols (“plant cholesterol”), and herbs such as astragalus, achisandra can help. Rade identifies therapies such as acupuncture and gamma-linolenic acid for RA, while topical curcumin for psoriasis and selenium for Hashimoto’s thyroiditis can prove beneficial.
Herbs and botanicals can also build immunity and help reduce inflammation in the body. In his three-decade medical practice, Elvis Ali, ND, has used the herbal remedy ESSIAC® Canada International to help assist and boost the immune system. “I have used individual herbs along with combinations as found in ESSIAC® Canada International tea,” says Ali. ESSIAC® Canada International, combines slippery elm bark, Indian rhubarb root, burdock root and sheep sorrel—herbs that reduce mucus and toxins throughout the body, from the lungs to the kidneys and gastrointestinal tract. “Its goal is to remove toxic accumulations in the fat, lymph, bone marrow, bladder and alimentary canals—thus reducing inflammation and balancing the body’s immune system,” he notes.
Along with addressing diet and providing herbal supplementation, managing stress is also a key factor in reducing the effects of AI. “Chronic stress can suppress cortisol production—cortisol is the strongest of our anti-inflammatory hormones, and when it is lacking patients can suffer what we call adrenal burnout. We recommend herbs to boost cortisol and adrenal hormone production, and of course, reducing stress is a big benefit. Removing stress from our lives is challenging but learning to manage it through stress reduction techniques such as meditation can help,” notes Fritz.
One might think that since AI affects considerably more women than men, there may be a hormonal element associated with it. Times of hormonal upheaval, such as pregnancy and menopause, can impact female hormone production, thus creating situations where women may be more susceptible to AI. “It’s not well understood,” says Fritz. “We don’t have good data to support it, but there could be a correlation. The drop in estrogen and progesterone associated with menopause may increase an individual’s susceptibility to inflammation, and we do see many cases of adrenal issues and RA in menopausal and post-menopausal women.”
But starting out with and maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle can protect our bodies from autoimmune attacks and decrease the susceptibility of future concerns. “When a patient is pregnant, we often recommend key supplements such as vitamin D and omega-3s. The supplements can help both the mom-to-be and the baby in utero to protect and control asthma, allergies and other AI, not only now, but in later years,” says Fritz.
Catherine Kenwell, BA, is a freelance writer based in Toronto. As former director of communications with the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine, she was the founding editor of MIND|BODY|SPIRIT, the College’s alumni magazine. She is certified in animal-assisted therapy and has a special interest in traumatic brain injury rehabilitation and mental health. Catherine can be reached at [email protected]