While allergies are the prime example of an overactive immune system that attacks harmless foreign substances such as pollen or certain foods, another class of immune disorders is the autoimmune diseases, which occur when the immune system attacks the cells of our own bodies.
A healthy immune system protects the body from harmful substances, or antigens, such as bacteria, viruses, toxins, cancer cells, and foreign tissues. But in people with an autoimmune disorder, the immune system can't tell the difference between those antigens and healthy body tissue. The result is an immune response that attacks and destroys normal body tissues.
An autoimmune disorder may affect a particular organ or tissue type, or an entire bodily system, and in some cases, a person may have more than one autoimmune disease. There are more than 80 different types of autoimmune disorders, including:
• Multiple Sclerosis, a disorder in which the immune system attacks the nervous system, beginning with the myelin sheaths that protect the nerves and their communication centers
• Rheumatoid Arthritis (and Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis) a systemic immune system attack of the joints
• Lupus, or Systemic Lupus Erythematosus , which can affect skin, joints, connective tissue, kidneys, heart, brain, red blood cells, and other tissues
• Grave's Disease and Hashimoto's Thryroiditis, both of which affect the thyroid gland
• Type 1 Diabetes Mellitus, which is an autoimmune disorder of the pancreas islet (Type 2 Diabetes, which accounts for 90-95% of diabetes cases, is NOT an autoimmune disorder)
• Crohn's Disease and Ulcerative Colitis, immune attacks of the GI tract
• Guillain-Barre syndrome, affecting the nervous system
• Scleroderma, which attacks mainly the skin, and also the intestine
• Vitiligo, attacks the pigment melanin, causing white patches on the skin
The cause of autoimmune diseases is unknown, but it appears that there is an inherited predisposition to develop them, with autoimmune diseases tending to run in families (although family members may not have the same disorders). Autoimmune disorders are more common in women, especially those in child-bearing years, leading researchers to believe that there is a hormonal connection as well. Environmental triggers such as certain medications, toxins, viral infections and lifestyle choices may also play a role.
Traditional treatment of autoimmune disorders is to relieve the symptoms with anti-inflammatories, or pain relievers, or to use immunosuppressive medicines, such as steroids, which inhibit the immune system. But suppressing all immune function puts the body at risk for infection, viruses, and other real threats.
What really needs to be done is to balance the immune system. Like a person suffering with poor vision, it has lost the ability to distinguish between friend and foe. So what we want to do is put glasses on the immune system – restore its vision, its ability to recognize true danger, and respond appropriately.
In the next article, Balancing Your Immune System, we will look at the vitamins, minerals, herbs, fruit extracts and other compounds that work together to balance the immune system – not suppressing it, and not putting it into overdrive.
But for those with autoimmune disorders, there are some specific foods and nutrients guidelines that address the inflammation that underlies many of the diseases.
Foods to Avoid
• High glycemic foods such as sugars, white flour and processed foods, which increase inflammation
• Corn/safflower/sunflower oils which contain high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids (not to be confused with the very beneficial omega-3 fatty acids)
• Saturated fats, which are also inflammatory
• Alfalfa sprouts, which stimulate the immune system
Foods/Nutrients to Have Regularly
• Omega-3 fatty acids, which reduces inflammation
• Vitamin D and B vitamins, which can inhibit pro-inflammatory responses
• Vitamins C, E and K
• Turmeric/curcumin and ginger
• Boswellia extract,
• Low starch vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower and salad greens
• High flavonoid foods such as berries, citrus, tea and coco
In addition, getting enough rest, exercising regularly when possible, and finding ways to reduce and manage stress are extremely important for those suffering from autoimmune diseases. And above all, pray with understanding for God to reveal to you the pathway for your healing.