As a practicing physician, I’m on the front lines when it comes to spotting trends in health and illness. And one thing I’m seeing on the rise is the number of people with autoimmune disorders, something that scientists say has been occurring for the past half century.
In part, I suspect the increase could be due to the huge increase in environmental toxins and chemicals that did not exist just a few decades ago. But whatever the cause, I’m seeing more and more people with difficult-to-diagnose symptoms that eventually turn out to be related to immune system malfunctions.
There are more than 100 conditions that are classified as autoimmune disorders, including:
- Multiple sclerosis
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Addison’s disease
- Celiac disease
- Type 1 diabetes
- Crohn’s disease
- Graves disease
- Sjogren’s syndrome
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
Millions of people, most of them female, live with autoimmune diseases. When the immune system goes awry, it mistakenly identifies the body’s own proteins as enemy forces and mounts an attack on what are actually healthy cells and tissues. Sometimes, genetics and family history play a role in these conditions, but not always.
The silver lining is that there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of autoimmune disorders. If you think that’s an empty promise, please review my earlier newsletter on how Dr. Terry Wahls managed to turn around her own advanced case of multiple sclerosis, primarily by changing her diet.
How the Immune System Works
A healthy immune system fights off assaults to your body from a wide range of enemies, including everything from virus and bacteria to cancer. The immune system consists of specialized infection-fighters that are distributed throughout the body, including the spleen, bone marrow, the lymph system, thymus gland, and digestive tract. Some of these specialized cells are designed to tackle foreign agents, while others produce protective substances known as antibodies, which shield you against repeat visits from substances that have made you sick.
When your immune system is working properly, it’s a marvel of efficiency. But things can go wrong. In people suffering from autoimmune illnesses, the immune system attacks the body’s own proteins, creating a disease in the process. Some of the early symptoms of immune system problems include fatigue, fever, rashes, weight loss, and/or an overall feeling that “something’s not right.”
Since women’s immune systems tend to respond more strongly to threats than men’s, women are also more prone to developing immune system disorders, making autoimmune conditions one of the top ten causes of death in women age 65 and older.
How To Avoid Problems with Your Immune System
If you’re determined to keep your immune system strong and healthy, I suggest you start with the same six pointers I give my patients:
- Eat a nutritious whole foods diet instead of fast or processed foods;
- Exercise moderately most days of the week;
- Get at least 8 hours of high-quality sleep each night;
- Take appropriate supplements, such as vitamin D3 and probiotics, to support healthy immunity;
- Reduce or learn to manage stress;
- Whenever possible, detox and/or reduce your exposure to toxins and pollutants of all types, including those in food, conventional cleaning products, pesticides, and drugs.
I’ve written about these topics before, but let’s take a quick look at each suggestion individually.
Diet is crucial to healthy immunity. A nutritious, varied diet built around plenty of vegetables and fruit, lean protein, good fats, and grains is really the foundation of health. I strongly urge you to purchase organic food and ingredients whenever they’re available. Conventionally grown foods are tainted with immune-disrupting pesticides. Fast and processed foods are even worse, since they’re made with low-nutrition ingredients, such as refined flour and sugar, preservatives, dyes, and flavor enhancers that are simply more chemicals that you do not need.
Gluten is another concern for anyone with an autoimmune disorder. A protein found in wheat, gluten appears to aggravate food sensitivities in many people who do not have celiac disease. Like sugar, wheat is used as an ingredient in so many things today that it’s very difficult to avoid. But when patients come to me with troubling symptoms that don’t respond to various treatments, I often recommend avoiding wheat for a month or so, to see if the symptoms go away. More often than not, my patients notice a big difference without wheat.
Last, but not least, watch your salt intake. You probably know that too much salt can contribute to serious conditions, including high blood pressure. But did you know that a heavy hand with the salt shaker can also lead to autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis, Type 1 diabetes, and multiple sclerosis? It’s true, so please watch your salt intake carefully.
Exercise not only helps maintain muscles and enhance circulation, but also supports healthy immunity. Leave the long bouts of intense exercise, such as training for a marathon, to others. All you need to do is spend 30 or so minutes walking briskly, dancing, practicing Tai Chi or yoga, or engaging in another favorite activity. In other words, working up a sweat is the goal, not nailing a slot on the Olympic team.
Sleep is when your body repairs itself, so maintaining a healthy immune system requires at least 8 solid hours of quality sleep, ideally in a dark room. This allows the pineal gland to produce melatonin, an important hormone and antioxidant that is essential for good, deep sleep. Melatonin production tends to decrease with age, which is one reason why many older individuals have trouble sleeping.
Melatonin production is highest between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. But if you don’t get to bed until 1 a.m., you’ve missed the peak melatonin-producing portion of the night. In other words, Ben Franklin’s phrase “early to bed, early to rise” is a very good idea!
Supplements, including probiotics and vitamin D3, can make a tremendous difference for patients with immune issues. Probiotics are a safe, natural way to boost immunity, making them my first recommendation in many cases. A significant portion of the immune system is located in the intestinal tract, so anything that encourages good digestion and elimination is helpful. These friendly intestinal bacteria are especially useful for anyone who has taken antibiotics, which destroy both the good and bad bacteria in the intestinal tract.
There are dozens of different kinds of probiotics on the market today. I suggest staying away from the commercial yogurt products that advertise their probiotic content. These yogurts are filled with sugar and some even contain chemical ingredients. More importantly, the actual amount of probiotics in these products is low compared to what you get in supplements. I suggest looking for a product that contains at least 10 billion live organisms and following the dosage instructions on the product you choose.
As for vitamin D3, this superstar nutrient is demonstrating that it can prevent or ease symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS), among other things. Vitamin D3 deficiencies have also been linked to two other autoimmune conditions – type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis – as well as heart disease, an increased risk of certain types of cancer, and osteoporosis.
Our bodies need direct sunlight to manufacture vitamin D3, but that means exposing bare skin – without sunblock – to the sun’s rays throughout the year. Anyone who lives in a climate where sun exposure in winter is not possible is likely to be deficient in vitamin D3. People middle-aged and older are also prone to deficiencies, even if they do spend time in the sun, because you lose the ability to convert sunlight to D3 as you age.
The remedy here is simple: take vitamin D3 supplements. Start with 1,500 IU daily. You can also have a simple blood test to determine the appropriate dosage. This is a somewhat controversial area, but I recommend levels between 50 and 60 ng/mL.
Stress is one of the top enemies of a healthy immune system. Whenever your body perceives a dangerous situation, the stress response kicks in, ramping up your heartbeat, sharpening your senses, and delivering extra oxygen to your muscles, in case you need to escape. At the same time, your immune system is powered down. This is why people often catch colds or get a bout of flu a few days after a stressful experience.
Many of my patients turn to a daily drink or two to tune out stress, but research has found that alcohol seriously impairs the immune system’s ability to protect you from invading organisms. So if you’re having mysterious symptoms or have been diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, I urge you to give up alcohol and see if your symptoms improve.
At the same time, I recommend that anyone who is facing a great deal of stress learn stress management techniques, such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, or aromatherapy, for example. Exercise is an excellent stress reliever, too.
Detox helps you process and eliminate the many toxins and pollutants that would otherwise accumulate in your body. One way to encourage detoxification is by not overloading your liver with unnecessary drugs, processed foods, and alcohol. Getting lots of rest helps, too, because your body does the majority of its detoxification and clean-up work while you sleep.
If you or someone you care about has been diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, please be aware that it is not the last word. I’ve seen many people, like my patient Michael, turn their health around, simply by making lifestyle changes. And the best part is that not only do the autoimmune symptoms improve, but many other health measures do, too. And that’s something you cannot get from any prescription drug out there!