A very good friend of mine has a brilliant blog dedicated to the Paleo diet called ThePaleoMom. She has amazing recipes (many of which are suitable for families following the Specific Carbohydrate Diet for Autism support) and tips for great whole foods and healthy cooking. She asked if I’d do a guest post about how I treat Autoimmune conditions. I thought I’d link to her Autoimmune diet info and the following is my autoimmune thoughts from my guest post.
So let’s start with the basics of how an autoimmune process does its thing. Basically, the immune system is triggered (sometimes by a virus, sometimes by bacteria or foods in the gut) and that starts things going. This pathway triggers inflammation and causes the immune system to be on high alert to the original trigger. Unfortunately, in an autoimmune process the immune system confuses (cross-reacts) our own body tissues with the original trigger. So when these immune cells come in contact with those normal tissues it attacks and reinitiates the inflammation turning it into a bit of a runaway train. Conventional treatment is to suppress the immune system trying to tamp down the reaction. This is usually effective but just manages the symptoms. The Naturopathic approach is to find and eliminate the original trigger and help the body to restore appropriate control of the immune system. Sometimes both approaches are needed, especially initially if the system is pretty aggravated, but in the long run people tend to get much better success with addressing the underlying issue rather than just suppressing symptoms.
In Sarah’s post about the Autoimmune protocol, she talks about the importance of addressing the gut. While it may sound so strange to address the belly when we’re talking about eczema or rheumatoid arthritis, the gut plays an enormous role in managing the immune system. There are huge patches of immune cells lining the gut protecting us from bacteria or parasites in our foods. The healthy bacteria (or probiotics) living within the gut act as schooling grounds, training our body to be less allergic by triggering for different chemicals to be released. You can imagine that if there are any food sensitivities or unhealthy bacteria or fungi present, then all that immune tissue is going to react and cause inflammation and lots of potential for cross reactions. If you don’t have enough good healthy bacteria (normal flora), then they won’t be able to help the immune system to regulate itself. If the gut becomes damaged enough (because of ongoing food sensitivities or some medications) then it allows undigested proteins to get into the body whole, which increases the potential for food sensitivities and cross reactions to occur.
As I mentioned above, the first step to modulating the immune system is to find and address the gut immune triggers, whether they are food sensitivities or abnormal flora. Sarah’s asked me to do another post later to discuss food sensitivity testing so check back later for that. Once they are identified, we can limit or avoid those foods to allow the immune system to settle down. Occasionally, we need to look at testing to identify if there are any harmful bacteria or fungi present and we can address those with diet (Paleo and SCD are ideal) and often with herbal or prescription antibacterials/antifungals. Probiotics serve double duty by preventing harmful bacteria and fungi from taking up residence in the gut and also by stimulating normal immune regulation by releasing regulatory chemicals called cytokines. It’s always wise to research probiotics or consult a Naturopathic Physician first as there are lots available over the counter but purity, potency and freshness are significant issues.
Even once the triggers have been identified and eliminated, many people need to heal their gut in order to prevent new food sensitivities from developing. There are lots of protocols for doing this and the SCD or Specific Carbohydrate Diet was specifically designed to do this. I often do a multistep process with probiotics, digestive enzymes, fiber, omega 3 fatty acids and a product for intestinal healing. This can be accomplished with diet rather than supplementation by increasing bone broths, coconut oils, cabbage and fiber, lots of fish and nuts and seeds. But I have occasionally found that the gut is too compromised at the outset to be able to properly digest these foods without supplemental support.
The last step is to directly affect the immune system. A word of caution: This is a too tricky to do without discussing with a qualified practitioner (I’d recommend a licensed Naturopathic physician) that is knowledgeable about herbal medicine and their interactions with medications. There are many herbs that modulate the immune system, that is to say help boost it when its underfunctional and help to control it if its too active, but obviously there is lots to consider before starting any of these. Some include: Echinacea species, Rehmannia, Albezia, Nettles and Quercitin. Do not add any of these herbs (no not even Echinacea!) if you have an active autoimmune process without first discussing it with a licensed Naturopathic Physician.
I hope this has been a helpful primer on autoimmune support and keep an eye out here for more information on food sensitivity testing. If you have any questions or comments please feel free to email or post via my blog, where you can also find more tips about current news topics, allergies, Autism and other Naturopathic topics.
~ Dr Kellie Ferguson