Autoimmune diseases are diseases of the immune system.
When I was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease in the spring of 2004, the doctors gave me a brochure and a website and basically said “good luck”. There was no cure for this rare autoimmune disease and it would likely take my life after a very slow and painful decline.
That wasn’t okay with me. I researched and read everything I could on autoimmunity. I then took what I learned to action and did everything I could to address this illness. After six months I was symptom free and continue to live entirely symptom free to this day. You can read more about my story here.
My experience with autoimmunity is what really launched me into herbalism and the alternative health field. After I had fully recovered from a terminal disease I knew that I wanted to help others who were in the same situation.
Before we get to the holistic ways you can address autoimmunity, let’s take a look at what it is.
Auto immune diseases are diseases of the immune system. (For specific names of auto immune diseases see the list of autoimmune diseases below).
Depending on the particular disease there are various symptoms. Common autoimmune disease symptoms include a low grade fever, pain in joints and fatigue.
The pathophysiology of autoimmunity is essentially that your body begins to attack its own tissues. In a healthy immune system your antibodies attack antigens (review the functions of the immunity system here).
The main problem with auto immune diseases is that your immune system starts attacking healthy tissues that it thinks are harmful antigens. Depending on the particular type of autoimmunity the antibodies may attack your connective tissue like your skin and joint cartilage (rheumatoid arthritis, Lupus), or your nervous system (Guillain-Barre Syndrome) and sometimes your glands (autoimmune thyroid disease like Hashimotos thyroiditis) and organs.
You can think of it like a game of Pac-Man. Your immune system antibodies are Pac-Man and the antigens are the ghosts and goblins. Within a healthy immune system Pac-Man is roaming through your body and killing pathogens and cleaning up cellular debris. In autoimmune diseases Pac-Man goes haywire and starts eating the maze, creating damage to the whole system. I hope this simple analogy helps you to better understand what is an autoimmune disease.
There are many different kinds of systemic autoimmune disease. Each has their own set of symptoms and pathology. Some diseases are not entirely autoimmune in nature but have an autoimmune component. The following autoimmune diseases list is not a complete list but does cover most of the common auto immune diseases.
Now that we have a basic understanding of what is an autoimmune disease, let’s look at the causes of autoimmune diseases.
The underlying causes of auto immune diseases are multifactorial. Genetics do seem to play a role. However, just because someone has a gene that makes them susceptible to an autoimmune disease does not mean that they will inevitably get an autoimmune disease. The emerging field of epigenetics proves that, for the most part, we are not doomed by our genes and how we live our life can have a more profound effect on our overall health.
Doctors agree that besides having a genetic propensity to autoimmunity there often also needs to be a trigger to set it off. This could be an infection, certain foods (like gluten), chemical exposures, pharmaceutical drugs or extreme stress and physical trauma.
Another growing hypothesis of the cause of autoimmunity is called intestinal permeability or ‘leaky gut’. The hypothesis is that through various reasons the health of the intestines degrades. The villi that line the intestines become damaged and as a result very small food particles are leaked from the intestines into the blood stream. The body sees these as foreign entities and marks them as antigens (remember those ghosts in Pac-Man). While the leaky gut theory is growing, it is not entirely accepted within the western medicine community.
While the causes of a leaky gut are varied we know the following can play an important role in damaging the intestines: NSAIDs, certain pharmaceutical drugs, alcohol consumption, food intolerances, and poor digestive health.
Western medicine treats autoimmune diseases by attempting to suppress the immune system. Steroids are often given for autoimmune diseases. NSAIDs may be given to stop inflammation. In extreme cases chemotherapy may be used to further suppress the immune system.
I am often asked about natural cures for autoimmune diseases but, honestly, the wording of this question makes me a bit uncomfortable.
In western medicine the idea is that there is a diagnosable disease and then the cure resides in a pill. However, it is seldom that these pills actually cure the disease. Most of the time they simply suppress symptoms so that the person can momentarily forget they have the disease.
Because these pills don’t address the underlying cause or reason the person has the disease, more damage and havoc can continue in the body.
It’s like ignoring the check oil light in your car. There’s only so long you can continue to drive smoothly before more intense damage is done.
Using traditional herbalism as a guide to autoimmune diseases, we want to understand WHY you are having this problem and then address that why. I have never seen one herb or one herbal pill provide any natural cures for autoimmune disease. Instead we need to look at a wide range of factors specific to the individual who has the disease.
So instead of asking “What are natural cures for autoimmunity?” we want to really work with the person who has the disease to understand their particular issues.
While the intestinal permeability or leaky gut hypothesis is not entirely accepted, I can say that I have worked with many people to heal their gut health and then seen remarkable improvements in their overall health.
The first step is to do a food elimination diet and eliminate any offending foods. Gluten, casein, corn and soy are often culprits.
Herbs play a very important role to heal the gut lining and promote digestive health. Depending on the person I generally use a tea that includes vulnerary, demulcent, astringent and carminative herbs.
Autoimmune diseases have a lot of inflammatory components. Diet, herbs and lifestyle changes can significantly improve systemic inflammation.
Most people I’ve worked with who have an autoimmune disease have also shown signs of liver congestion. Using hepatics, bitters and cholagogues can help optimize liver function and bring forth a cascade of health benefits.
Prolonged digestive dysfunction often means there is also nutrient deficiencies present. As the gut heals, these may need to be supplemented or specifically sought out through diet.
Vitamin D3 plays an important role in healthy immune system function and a deficiency of vitamin D3 has been proven to play a role in autoimmune diseases. I recommend that people get tested to find out their levels of Vitamin D3 and then use the sun or supplement accordingly to have optimal levels. I like to see people at least above 50, but closer to 80 is better.
Autoimmune diseases can be very serious chronic diseases. While it’s important to work with your doctor to minimize the progression of a disease, there are also many ways that herbalism and alternative health can help you understand and address the root cause of the disease. Being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease can be a big wake up call that something is wrong with how your are living your life. Rather than ignore the symptoms by suppressing them, you can listen to your warning systems and make changes.
The more we can transform our overall health to move beyond a disease the healthier and more vibrant we become throughout our entire lives.
Rosalee is an herbalist and author of the bestselling book Alchemy of Herbs: Transform Everyday Ingredients Into Foods & Remedies That Heal. She's a registered herbalist with the American Herbalist Guild and the Education Director for LearningHerbs. Read about how Rosalee went from having a terminal illness to being a bestselling author in her full story here.