The human body is an amazingly complex organism. Our many biological quirks may seem counterintuitive at face value but dig a little deeper and there’s usually a logical reason for even the oddest of physiological adaptations.
Autoimmune (AI) conditions are a good example. In the most basic terms AI is about your immune system not recognising it’s own tissue, causing it to treat it like a rogue invader. In effect, it creates an immune response to kill off healthy body organs. However, autoimmunity in it’s mildest form makes good sense, as one of our natural ways of fighting off the first appearance of cancerous cells.
Like many chronic illnesses, AI conditions often arise from a natural and quite healthy body reaction being triggered in the wrong place at the wrong time, in a massive over reaction.
Many AI diseases are triggered by stresses on the body, such as a trauma or injury, surgery, a virus or emotional or physical stress. It is as if the immune system is on the verge of dysfunction and stress pushes it over the edge. Sometimes there are genetic factors and interestingly also most AI diseases are more common in women. Smoking triggers some AI conditions and pharmaceutical drugs may cause others.
AI dysfunctions are wide and varied, some are limited to a specific organ, such as the pancreas resulting in Type 1 diabetes, while others range wider such as system lupus erythrematosus (lupus). Other common AI conditions include rheumatoid arthritis, polymyositis, autoimmune thyroiditis (Hashimotos), myasthenia gravis, Crohn’s, scleroderma, Sjogren’s syndrome, coeliac, multiple sclerosis and vitiligo. It is not uncommon to have more than one AI problem at the same time.
While the symptoms differ depending on what part of the body is most affected, fatigue is a common symptom.
Holistic treatment of AI diseases focuses on appropriate immune and nervous system support, plus individualized treatment as is needed for the conditions. The aim is to support the body so the frequency and severity of flares reduce.
The following naturopathic suggestions focus on some of the lifestyle support, common to most AI conditions. Of course, you don’t need to actually get an AI problem to adopt them!
Generally the “Mediterranean Diet” is a good model to eat by. This is lowers inflammation and is based around eating plenty of seasonal fruits and vegetables, legumes and other unrefined carbohydrates, fish fresh from the sea, local olive oil unheated on salads and a little sheep’s milk yoghurt.
Aim for a diet low in animal based proteins/fats (reducing your meat, dairy and egg intake) but high in fish and unrefined plant foods.
Oils – fish, fresh nuts, seeds and raw plant oils, especially omega 3’s. Avoid polyunsaturated, animal fats, margarines and heated oils (anti-inflammatory)
Eat lots of green and orange vegetables (organically grown when possible).
Shitake mushrooms provide good immune support.
Avoid processed foods (things made from flours, sugars and don’t resemble the ingredient in it’s natural state), alcohol, sugar and caffeine.
Gluten – some people with AI diseases feel better on a gluten-free diet. Follow the guidelines for coeliac disease. You need to be entirely off gluten – wheat, rye, barley, oats (though the issue with oats tends to be cross-contamination), spelt, kamut, for at least six weeks to assess this for yourself. If you are unable to contemplate being gluten-free initially, go on a strict no-wheat or refined grain diet (i.e.: nothing made from any kind of flour). People with thyroid anti-bodies are most prone to being sensitive to gluten.
Those with any type of joint degeneration/arthritis should avoid members of the nightshade family – potato, eggplant, capsicum, chili, tomato and tobacco.
Putting yourself first
It’s exhausting having your body fight itself. Flare-ups are often triggered by over doing things, not listening to your body and succumbing to the pressure to “soldier on”.
Regular time for proper rest means having less time to accumulate stresses. Learning to say “no” to every request allows you to have the energy to say “yes” to the things you really want to do. This means rethinking your obligations.
Like in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), which is sometimes classified as AI or an AI like condition, energy is an important but often limited resource. You have a choice in how you spend your energy. Like living on a limited income, if you blow all your money at the beginning of the week it can be a long time ‘til payday. Your physical and emotional energy is just the same.
Creating good routine in your life, particularly around eating and sleeping times is useful. Finding the right kind of exercise for your body such as swimming or hydrotherapy (especially for rheumatoid arthritis), yoga, pilates, tai chi or walking.
Working less and avoiding toxic relationships help most people with these conditions.
Obviously smoking, recreational drugs and alcohol are not intelligent lifestyle choices for someone wishing to take control of their AI condition.
Practice self-love and respect, with some judicious “positive selfishness” on a daily basis.
Vitamin D: While low vitamin D levels are at almost “epidemic” proportions in sunny Australia, so appears in a wide proportion of the population but it is also common in AI conditions. It is worth getting a blood test from your doctor and taking Vitamin D supplemented if low, or even on the low end of normal range.
One of the common medical treatments for AI conditions includes corticosteroids (e.g.: prednisolone). Long-term use can cause a wide range of nutrient deficiencies including: Vitamins B6, B12, C & D, calcium, potassium, magnesium, selenium and chromium. To balance the nutrient loss it is advisable to take dietary supplements.
While there are specific herbs for different AI manifestations, general herbal treatment always includes supporting the nervous system. Some of my favourites are lemon balm, chamomile, withania, scullcap and passionflower.
As many AI diseases are potentially life threatening do not self-prescribe medicines. Herbal treatment is best prescribed by a qualified and experienced herbalist.
Be aware that medicinal doses of licorice are contraindicated while taking steroid drugs.
A note on Echinacea
Many sources list Echinacea as contraindicated in AI conditions. While some people with AI diseases can have a flare up when using this herb, others don’t. Despite the link being theoretical rather than scientifically proven. I would advice no self-prescribed use of Echinacea, leaving its use only in conjunction with an experienced herbalist if needed.
I agree with American herbalist Paul Berger’s summary regarding Echinacea use, “Due to the rarity of reports of such instances, the word “contraindication” is too strong, but practitioners may be prudent to carefully observe reactions to the use of echinacea in auto immune conditions, especially in patients undergoing an acute exacerbation or whose condition is kept in precarious balance with immunosuppressive drugs.”
There are many alternatives to Echinacea for it’s anti-infective actions. Consider vitamin C or thyme.