Root Causes of Autoimmune Illness, Natural Ways to Prevent & Reverse Them
(By Dr. Ben Kim )
Health-e-Solutions Comment: Most of the time with type one diabetes we are focused on managing symptoms. That is a great and necessary thing to do, because well-managed blood sugars can make a great difference in disease progression. However, we believe it is also important to try to address root causes of autoimmune disease and find ways to eliminate what caused, or may still be causing the insult to the body’s delicate but resilient balance.
In this lengthy combination of articles, Dr. Ben Kim looks at the root causes of autoimmune diseases and then discusses natural ways to prevent and reverse them. Can this apply to type 1 diabetes? We believe it is at least possible.
It has not yet been determined what causes the autoimmune attack that precipitates type 1 diabetes. Who is to say that it cannot be a cause similar to nearly all other autoimmune diseases? If this turn out to be the case, it may be possible to stop the autoimmune attack or, if caught early enough, reverse at least some of the damage. This article will help explain the connections between autoimmune disease, and suggest ways to help stop the assault on the body that is causing it to attack itself.
Root Causes of Autoimmune Illness
You have countless immune cells in every corner of your body that are constantly working to keep you healthy by identifying, packaging, and eliminating harmful substances that have made their way into your blood.
If your immune system falters and begins to identify some of your own tissues as being harmful or unnecessary, it will work to attack and eliminate these tissues through an inflammatory response that can cause pain and discomfort in many forms - this is how autoimmune illness develops.
The specific tissue or groups of tissues (organs) that your immune system decides to attack is determined by your genetics.
But just because you have a genetic predisposition for an autoimmune illness does not mean that you are guaranteed to experience it sometime during your life, or that you cannot recover from it.
Genetic predispositions are largely triggered, maintained, and kept under control by environmental factors, namely, your diet, lifestyle, and how much stress you experience.
Ultimately, the development of autoimmune illness requires that your immune system begins to identify some of your own cells as being harmful, and that control mechanisms that are in place to prevent such "glitches" no longer do what they are supposed to in preventing such occurrences.
There are several theories that attempt to explain why and how these glitches occur. Rather than get into biochemical jargon that will not do much, if anything, to help you get better, we can explain these glitches in the following way:
Over time, as your cells are abused by lack of rest, lack of optimal nourishment, accumulation of waste products, and direct insult by excessive amounts of free radicals and toxins, your cells gradually become less efficient at eliminating waste products and exogenous toxins (toxins that are produced outside of your body).
Eventually, waste products and toxins may incorporate themselves into your cell membranes, and if this happens, your immune system may identify such cells as being old and damaged. At that point, your immune system will work to attack and eliminate such cells from your body.
How does your immune system go about attacking and eliminating such cells? By producing antibodies, attaching said antibodies to the cell membranes of cells that have been identified as old and damaged, and then sending other components of your immune system to destroy these antibody-tagged cells. Your immune system destroys such cells using a process of inflammation, which is why autoimmune illness is often accompanied by discomfort.
If your genetic predisposition is such that the majority of cells that are tagged to be destroyed are clustered around your thyroid gland, your health challenges may be attributed to a diagnosis of Graves’ disease. If your abnormal-looking cells are in the fatty, insulating sheath (myelin) that surrounds your nervous system, you may exhibit symptoms of multiple sclerosis. If your genetically weak tissues are those that line your joints, destruction of old and damaged cells in and around your joints may be diagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis.
Ultimately, the underlying inflammatory process that accompanies autoimmune disease is the same for all of the following names that we have created for different groups of symptoms:
- Acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM) involves inflammation in the brain that typically occurs a few days or weeks after a vaccination or a viral infection.
- Addison's disease involves dysfunction of the outer portion of the adrenal gland.
- Ankylosing spondylitis is a type of arthritis that involves inflammation of the spine and pelvic joints.
- Antiphospholipid antibody syndrome (APS) is a condition that affects the blood-clotting process, causing blood clots to form in veins and/or arteries.
- Aplastic anemia is a condition whereby the bone marrow does not produce enough blood cells. It is often caused by an autoimmune attack on the bone marrow.
- Autoimmune hepatitis involves inflammation of the liver.
- Celiac disease is characterized by chronic inflammation of the first third or half of the small intestine, and is caused by exposure to a type of dietary protein called gluten, found in abundance in grains like wheat, oats, barley, and rye.
- Crohn's disease involves chronic inflammation of the intestinal tract.
- Diabetes Mellitus Type 1 is characterized by low or non-existent production of insulin by the pancreas.
- Goodpasture's syndrome involves destruction of kidney tissue and bleeding in the lungs.
- Graves' disease is a form of hyperthyroidism.
- Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) involves inflammation of the peripheral nervous system, and is also called acute inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, acute idiopathic polyradiculoneuritis, acute idiopathic polyneuritis and Landry's ascending paralysis.
- Hashimoto's disease is a form of hypothyroidism.
- Idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura is characterized by a low platelet count, resulting in easy bleeding.
- Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is a chronic autoimmune condition that can involve inflammation in the following areas: skin, joints, heart, lungs, kidneys, and nervous system.
- Multiple sclerosis involves nerve dysfunction due to demyelination of the central nervous system.
- Myasthenia gravis involves intermittent weakness and fatigue due to a problem with communication at the junction of nerves and muscles.
- Optic neuritis involves inflammation of the nerves that supply your eyes which can cause partial or complete loss of vision.
- Pemphigus is characterized by the formation of blisters and raw sores on mucous membranes and skin.
- Pernicious Anemia is a form of anemia (inadequate red blood supply/function) that is caused by a problem with absorbing vitamin B12, which is needed to form healthy red blood cells.
- Rheumatoid arthritis is characterized by joint pain and inflammation.
- Sjögren's syndrome involves destruction of glands that produce saliva and tears.
- Takayasu's arteritis is characterized by inflammation that narrows the lumen of arteries.
- Temporal arteritis is characterized by inflammation in medium to large-sized arteries, mostly commonly in the head. It is sometimes called giant cell arteritis, and can lead to significant vision loss.
- Warm autoimmune hemolytic anemia is characterized by destruction of red blood cells by IgM antibodies.
- Wegener's granulomatosis involves inflammation of blood vessels, typically affecting the kidneys and lungs.
Diagnoses that are not universally accepted as being autoimmune in nature, but for all practical purposes belong in the same category of health conditions, include:
- Alopecia is characterized by hair loss. Loss of random patches is called alopecia areata, while full body loss of hair is called alopecia universalis.
- Endometriosis is characterized by endometrial tissue (tissue found in the uterus) being deposited outside of the uterus, causing pain and sometimes infertility.
- Interstitial cystitis is a urinary bladder disease that is characterized by one or more of the following symptoms: intense, intermittent pelvic pain, frequent urination, a sense of urgency to urinate, pain with urination, and pain with sexual intercourse.
- Psoriasis is a skin condition that is characterized by patches of rapidly-dividing cells that produce itchy, scaly, and inflamed lesions.
- Sarcoidosis is characterized by granuloma formation in the lungs and sometimes throughout the body.
- Schizophrenia is characterized by impairments in the perception or expression of reality, often leading to social and occupational dysfunction.
- Scleroderma is characterized by excessive deposits of collagen throughout the body.
- Ulcerative colitis is characterized by inflammation in the bowel, typically in the distal section of the large bowel and rectum.
- Vitiligo is characterized by gradual loss of pigmentation in patches across the face and/or body.
All of these conditions may be caused, in part, by cells in the problematic regions becoming old, damaged, and congested enough to be tagged by your immune system as being ready for destruction and removal.
But there is another major mechanism by which all autoimmune illnesses can develop and worsen. Whenever any unnecessary, harmful, or unidentifiable substances enter your bloodstream, they get noticed by your immune system. In an effort to preserve your health, your immune system produces antibodies that seek out and attach themselves to these unwanted substances; these substances are generally referred to as antigens.
Once your antibodies attach themselves to antigens, antigen-antibody complexes are formed. Your immune system will work to eliminate these antigen-antibody complexes from your body so that the foreign antigens cannot harm your cells. But if enough of these complexes are formed, your immune system may not be able to eliminate them as quickly as they are formed. This can lead to some of these complexes getting deposited into different tissues, where they can cause inflammation and damage. Typically, the sites at which these complexes get deposited are determined by your genetic predisposition.
Causes of Antigen-Antibody Complex Formation and Ensuing Inflammation
Perhaps the most common cause of excessive formation of antigen-antibody complexes is having an unhealthy digestive tract.
From your mouth to your anus, your digestive tract is one long tube that is meant to extract nutrients out of your food and allow these nutrients to slip through into your bloodstream so that they can nourish your cells. While your digestive tract is designed for proper digestion and assimilation of nutrients, it is also designed to protect your blood and inner cells against undesirable substances that can become antigens that lead to antigen-antibody complex formation in your blood.
If you abuse your digestive tract long enough with poor dietary and lifestyle choices, it can begin to lose its ability to prevent harmful substances from entering your blood. The lining of your digestive tract can begin to break down, and the population of microorganisms that line your digestive tract can shift from being predominately health-promoting and protective bacteria to largely microorganisms that can break down your digestive tract lining, such as yeast, bad bacteria, and even parasites.
This state – where your digestive tract lining loses its ability to keep harmful substances out of your blood – is often called "leaky gut syndrome."
Leaky gut syndrome can cause incompletely digested food to enter your bloodstream. And the most problematic incompletely digested food group in autoimmune illness is protein.
Your body expects to receive amino acids – the smaller constituents of protein – into its blood supply, not bigger molecules of protein (several amino acids linked to one another). So when incompletely digested protein enters your blood supply through an unhealthy digestive tract lining, your immune system identifies these molecules as being foreign and potentially harmful. Your immune system will quickly move to create antibodies that can attach onto chains of incompletely digested protein, forming antigen-antibody complexes. And you know what happens next. While your immune system will do its best to eliminate these complexes from your body, if enough of them form because you continue to have a dysfunctional digestive tract and you continue to eat large amounts of protein, some of these complexes will get caught up in various tissues in your body, leading to inflammation and pain.
Incompletely digested protein is not the sole group of substances that can contribute to autoimmune illness in this fashion. Any substances that your body cannot use for nourishment can potentially trigger the production of antigen-antibody complexes and ensuing inflammation. This is why it is important to be aware of common household and environmental toxins, and to do your best to decrease your exposure to them.
For example, great care should be taken to avoid unnecessary exposure to conventional cosmetic products. Lipstick, lip balm, and other products that are typically used around large pores have a relatively easy pathway to your blood supply. It is a well-established fact that women suffer from autoimmune illness at a significantly higher rate than men; I have come to believe that this is, in part, due to the widespread use of cosmetics among women – this is a connection that has not been established in the medical literature, it is a personal hypothesis based on my own clinical experiences.
At this point, I hope that it is clear that autoimmune illness, no matter which specific one you are concerned about, is not a local problem in your body; it is a systemic problem that has multiple causes and should be addressed as such.
Put another way, if you want to maximize your chances of experiencing a full recovery and being free of autoimmune illness for the long-term, you must take care of every aspect of your health on a daily basis.
Natural Ways to Prevent and Reverse Autoimmune Illness
This post reviews several natural ways to protect yourself against autoimmune illness. In some cases, I've found that the steps outlined below can actually reverse some of the degenerative changes that can accompany various autoimmune illnesses.
Give Your Digestive Tract a Chance to Heal
Think of your digestive tract as your first physical line of defense against autoimmune illness, or any degenerative illness for that matter.
From your mouth to your rectal pouch, the lining of your digestive tract is continuous with the skin that covers your body. This technically makes your digestive tract lining similar to your outer skin in the sense that it acts as a barrier that protects your blood and inner tissues against undesirable substances in your environment.
Once the lining of your digestive tract begins to break down, if your genetic programming allows for it, you will begin to experience the antigen-antibody complex formation that occurs whenever incompletely digested protein leaks through your damaged digestive tract into your blood. The same goes for exogenous toxins like synthetic chemicals found in cosmetic products.
If you are suffering from an autoimmune condition, chances are good that your digestive tract is not as healthy as it can be, and that the effects of "leaky gut syndrome" and the formation of antigen-antibody complexes are contributing to your current symptoms.
How can you know with reasonable certainty that your digestive tract lining is not as healthy as possible? Leaky gut syndrome is not recognized by conventional medicine as a health condition, most likely because there are no clear-cut drugs or surgical procedures that can justifiably be prescribed for it.
The loss of lining integrity that we are talking about is microscopic, which doesn’t make it any less harmful than it is.
In general, you can safely assume that your digestive tract lining is in need of significant repair if you have symptoms of an autoimmune illness and you have one or more of the following symptoms of digestive tract dysfunction:
- Excessive, foul-smelling gas production
- Ill-defined discomfort in your abdomen following meals or even during meals
- Chronic constipation and/or diarrhea
So how do you go about restoring the health of your digestive tract?
First, recognize that your body’s self-healing mechanisms are already hard at work to repair any damage that exists within your body, including within your digestive tract.
Just as your body predictably works to heal a cut on your skin the moment the cut is created, your body is constantly on the alert for trouble spots throughout your body and will always work to repair damaged areas.
The difference between your digestive tract and your skin is that you can see your skin and clearly determine if your daily choices are helping or hindering yourself healing mechanisms as they work to repair a cut.
Put another way, it is easy for you to see that when you keep a cut on your skin clean and protected against abrasive objects, your body can almost always successfully restore it to health. But when it comes to your digestive tract, it is not as easy for you to know how your daily food and lifestyle choices are helping or hindering your body’s attempt to heal damaged areas.
If you could see with your eyes how a specific food that you ate over lunch – say a hot dog or a turkey sub – was putting stress on your digestive tract lining and preventing it from making progress in healing, you would certainly be well motivated to avoid such foods.
Similarly, it isn't obvious to your eyes how other foods, lack of rest, emotional stress, and other lifestyle factors are affecting the health status of your digestive tract.
The good news is that you can learn – from this post and by listening to your body’s signals – how to best support healing of your digestive tract. And once your daily food and lifestyle choices consistently support your body’s ongoing efforts to restore the health of your digestive tract, recovery of your health is well within your reach.
When you want a cut on your skin to heal as quickly as possible, you know that you must do the best you can not to disturb that area. Leave it alone and let your healing mechanisms do exactly what they are well designed to do all the time.
This same principle applies to healing your digestive tract: leave it alone as much as possible. Do not give it any unnecessary stress.
Which takes us to our next major point…
Adopt Eating Habits that Facilitate Optimal Digestion
Perhaps the single most important eating habit that you can adopt to facilitate healing of your digestive tract is to chew your foods thoroughly.
Ideally, you want to chew your foods until liquid. When you chew well, you allow your digestive tract to efficiently break down small particles of food into micronutrients that can pass through the wall of your small intestine into your blood.
Your teeth are designed to mechanically break down food, while the rest of your digestive tract and organs are designed to chemically break down your food. Whenever you do not chew well, your digestive tract and organs take on the burden of trying to accomplish what is much easier for your teeth to accomplish.
If you have dental or jaw problems that make it difficult to chew well, consider blending your foods in a blender or a food processor.
Chewing your foods and liquids well allows your saliva and digestive enzymes to mix in with your foods and liquids, and begins the process of digestion right in your mouth.
Chewing well encourages physical and emotional rest while eating. And being emotionally balanced and at rest while you eat allows your body to send a rich supply of blood to your digestive organs during a meal, which helps to optimize every step of digestion.
If possible, strive to combine the habit of chewing well with a steady focus on feelings of gratitude for your food and other blessings. Just as the connection between your mind and body can cause you to sweat when you are nervous, having a feeling of gratitude while you chew your food can help your digestive organs break down your food and assimilate nutrients into your blood.
Once you condition yourself to chew well and to eat with a grateful heart, the next habit to adopt to promote optimal digestive tract health is to...
Avoid Eating More Protein than You Need
As mentioned previously, a significant cause of autoimmune illness is the formation of antigen-antibody complexes that can float around in your blood and get deposited into your tissues, which can cause inflammation and accompanying discomfort.
And a chief cause of formation of such immune complexes is the leakage of incompletely digested protein into your blood.
Chewing your food well will certainly help to minimize the amount of undigested protein that can make it into your blood.
But to stay optimally well, it is equally important to avoid eating more protein than your body needs.
In general, it is best to eat no more than half of your body weight of protein, in grams, per day. This means that if you weigh 150 pounds, you should strive to eat no more than about 75 grams of protein per day.
A three-ounce piece of beef, chicken, or fish contains approximately 25 grams of protein. And three ounces of meat equates to a serving size that is about the size of a regular deck of cards.
But don’t forget that every food that you eat, including fruits and vegetables, contains protein. So if you eat three ounces of animal-based protein, you are almost certainly eating more than 75 grams of protein per day [if you eat plenty of vegetables (which you should)].
A cup of broccoli or cooked spinach contains approximately 5 grams of protein.
If you eat plenty of vegetables and legumes [legumes are not on the diabetic-alkaline lifestyle], it is not difficult to get enough protein to be optimally healthy without eating any animal foods at all. I am not suggesting that you need to be a strict vegan for the long-term to recover from and prevent autoimmune illness. Rather, I am striving to illustrate how easy it is to eat more protein than you need, which is a critical mistake when addressing autoimmune illness.
My clinical experiences have led me to believe that animal-based protein, especially when cooked at high temperatures, tends to contribute to antigen-antibody complex formation in people with autoimmune illness more easily than plant-based protein.
To best support recovery from autoimmune illness over the long-term, I recommend eating no more than one three-ounce serving of animal-based protein per day, cooked using a low temperature technique, such as steaming or boiling. [the diabetic-alkaline lifestyle would limit that to once or twice per week, but only after 6 months without any animal protein and after achieving well-managed blood sugars]
If possible, I even recommend staying away from all animal-based protein for a period of six months to give your digestive tract complete rest from having to digest animal protein. During such a time, it is best to avoid eating large amounts of protein-dense plant foods as well, such as nuts, seeds, and legumes. So long as you eat plenty of vegetables, especially green ones like broccoli, lettuce, and cabbage, you will get plenty of protein for your daily needs.
After six months of avoiding animal protein and going light on protein-dense plant foods, you can gradually increase your protein intake until you are eating approximately one gram of protein per day for every two pounds of your body weight, with no more than one major serving of animal-based protein [only 1 or at most 2 servings per week on the diabetic-alkaline lifestyle].
Now that we have emphasized how important it is to avoid over-consumption of protein, let’s take a close look at how you can choose to...
Eat Foods that Optimally Nourish and Cause Little to No Harm
The best food groups for preventing and reversing autoimmune illness are vegetables, and fruits [only the five low glycemic, alkaline-forming ones]. Ideally, you want to eat just these food groups for a period of six months to give your body the rest and nutrients that it needs to best support a full recovery.
Eat a fresh salad every day that includes plenty of dark green lettuces and colorful vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, shredded zucchini, and shredded cabbage.
For concentrated healthy fat intake, add an avocado, as well as a simple salad dressing made out of extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice and sea salt.
Steamed vegetables are also an excellent food group for overcoming autoimmune illness. You can eat a lot more broccoli, kale, Swiss chard, and other hardy vegetables when they are steamed than you can when they are raw. Steaming such foods can actually help you extract more nutrients out of them.
Steaming can also soften the fiber found in these foods, which can be helpful if your digestive tract is sensitive to large amounts of raw fiber. Try eating steamed vegetables with healthy salad dressings or even soups that can serve as nourishing and flavorful sauces.
You can make vegetable soups by boiling vegetables and then running them and the water that they are boiled in through a blender or food processor.
Eating vegetables in their raw state allows you to benefit from naturally occurring enzymes that are destroyed with cooking.
Eating vegetables that are steamed or boiled allows you to eat more of them and extract more nutrients out of them than you can when they are raw. So eating both raw and cooked vegetables positively diversifies your intake of health-promoting nutrients.
Freshly pressed vegetable juices provide intact enzymes, and because they are nutrients that have already been extracted from fibrous vegetables, they provide a concentrated batch of nutrients that are readily absorbed into your system and able to nourish your cells. If possible, do your best to include at least one freshly pressed vegetable juice in your diet on a daily basis. And if your life circumstances don't allow for this, consider taking a high quality green food powder.
Fruits are also a good choice for autoimmune illness, but you have to be careful. Most fruits have a lot more carbohydrates and naturally occurring sugar (fructose) than they do antioxidants.
[Excellent choices for the diabetic-alkaline lifestyle include lemons, limes, tomatoes, grapefruit and avocados.]
Keep in mind that it is always better to eat fresh fruits rather than dried fruits. Dried fruits are heavily concentrated in natural sugars that can put stress on your blood sugar-regulating mechanisms, which can increase your risk of suffering from diabetes and other forms of cardiovascular disease.
Now let's take a look at a three suggestions related to lifestyle choices that are not related to your diet...
Ensure Adequate Physical Rest
Do not overlook the importance of getting adequate physical rest as you seek to recover from autoimmune illness. Simply put, the more you rest, the more energy your body can devote to repairing damaged areas, including your digestive tract.
What’s most important is to get deep, restful sleep each night. It is during deep, restful sleep that your body produces large quantities of hormones that are directly or indirectly responsible for facilitating healing and growth of your tissues.
These hormones are growth hormone, testosterone, and erythropoietin. Your body produces these hormones in small quantities while you are awake and active, but in order to produce them in optimal quantities for healing moderate to severe degrees of autoimmune illness, you need deep, restful sleep on a regular basis.
Ensure Adequate Exposure to Natural Sunlight
Ensuring adequate vitamin D status is extremely important to treating and preventing autoimmune illness. And the safest way to ensure adequate vitamin D status is to regularly expose your skin to sunlight without getting burned.
UV-B rays in sunlight can convert cholesterol that is found in your skin to natural vitamin D. amazingly, once you produce enough vitamin D through this mechanism, your body will not manufacture additional vitamin D until you need more, even with continued exposure to sunlight. This natural "stop" mechanism is important because you do not want to have more vitamin D than your body needs on a moment-to-moment basis; vitamin D is fat-soluble, and can therefore be stored to levels that are toxic to your body.
When sunlight is not regularly available, as is the case in the northern hemisphere throughout the late fall, winter, and early spring months, it is important to ensure adequate vitamin D intake through foods that are naturally rich in vitamin D.
Although some commercially available foods like pasteurized dairy and some cereals are fortified with synthetic vitamin D, it is best to eat foods that are naturally abundant in vitamin D. Foods that are naturally rich in vitamin D include wild salmon, sardines, cod liver oil, and organic egg yolks.
Get Clear on Why You Want To Be Well
Have you ever experienced a frightful dream that was so real that you woke up with a pounding heart or a coat of sweat on your skin?
Have you ever experienced a gush of saliva in your mouth while thinking about eating something tart like a fresh lemon?
These and other everyday experiences are proof that your thoughts and emotions can create real physical change throughout your body. Every single thought and emotion that you experience triggers countless chemical reactions throughout your body via your nervous and endocrine systems.
Using your thoughts and emotions to be well must begin with a careful evaluation of your core life values, beliefs, and desires.