Introduction to Autoimmune Disease
Welcome to part 1 of the Women’s Autoimmune Series. This series that will provide easy to understand information about autoimmunity and strategies to help manage it naturally.
Women and Autoimmunity
Autoimmune disease has reached epidemic proportions and I believe that it is the most serious health problem women face today. I consider it to be a greater threat to women’s health and quality of life than any other group of diseases. While it is true that it does not get the publicity or attention that cancer and heart disease do, it is a top 10 cause of death for female children and women. The American Autoimmune and Related Diseases Association estimates that 50 million Americans suffer from an autoimmune disease and autoimmune disease is the #1 most popular health topic requested by callers of the National Women’s Health Information Center. Yet, only $590 million dollars are spent by the NIH (National Institutes of Health) on autoimmune disease research compared to the $6 BILLION spent on cancer. Even though the NIH estimates that almost 3x as many Americans suffer with an autoimmune disease than cancer. It is not my intention to make autoimmune disease to seem “more important” than cancer as a health concern…I want to point out how terribly underfunded and researched it is. One reason it does not get the spotlight that it deserves is because traditional healthcare has very little to offer those suffering with autoimmune diseases. In many cases no treatment is even recommended, and the reason is that treatment is so destructive to the immune system and the body. The only treatment available today in medicine is immunosuppression. This means immune system function is squashed to spare the body…it is an attempt to save the body from the immune system. The problem with this approach is that the consequences of this “suppression” leaves your body susceptible to other diseases; some of which are more life-threatening than the autoimmune disease itself.
It is estimated that there between 80-100 different autoimmune diseases. The exact number of diseases is difficult to determine because we do not currently have diagnostic testing to identify them all. It very likely that there could be more than this estimate. So, it is not only the autoimmune disease you have been diagnosed with that should concern you, because having one autoimmune disease makes you susceptible to others…others you may not even be aware of. You are probably wondering WHY this is the case. Let’s look at what happens when autoimmune disease occurs in your body.
What Causes Autoimmunity?
If you have an autoimmune disease, then your concern is probably focused on the part of the body that is being “attacked” by your immune system. This makes sense, based on the information you have. Let’s take a common autoimmune problem like Hashimoto’s disease. This is disease where the immune system is attacking the thyroid gland. Naturally, your focus is on the thyroid gland, but the problem does not lie with the thyroid gland. It is just the victim. The thyroid is not diseased; the diseased system is the immune system. This applies to ANY autoimmune disease…rheumatoid arthritis, vitiligo, multiple sclerosis…the CAUSE, the origin, of these diseases lies with the immune system itself. Therefore, system that needs help is the immune system! If you have an autoimmune disease, what you have is diseased immune system. With this new perspective, do you think a system that is diseased and struggling should be harmed, suppressed or squashed in any way? That does not make sense does it? Well, that is the only solution offered by traditional medicine.
Is Your Immune System “Overactive?”
If you have an autoimmune disease, then you may have been told that you have “too much” or “increased” immune function. I have also heard patients tell me that they have been told their immune system is “too strong” or “overactive.” This simply is not true and is NOT why you have an autoimmune disease. What you DO have it a poorly regulated immune system. Your immune system is not controlling itself and it has selected YOU as an enemy to be destroyed. It has targeted specific areas of your body to be destroyed. So why would it do this? It does this because it is diseased; it is not functioning the way that is should. This is where functional medicine can be very helpful. With functional medicine, we are seeking to support, nourish and bring aid to your immune system. Functional medicine takes an approach that is the direct opposite traditional medicine.
What Does Your Immune System Do?
Your immune system is one of your body’s most important systems. You need it to heal, it fights infections from bacteria, fungus and viruses. It is the system that identifies and destroys cancer cells (which we produce daily). It is central to inflammatory regulation and influences the nervous system. Let’s take a quick look at 3 major disease and how they are all linked to the immune system!
Autoimmune Diseases: failure of the immune system to regulate itself, resulting in damage to the one or more body tissues.
Cancer: failure of the immune system to identify and destroy cancer cells (so instead we use chemotherapy and radiation to destroy the cancer cells).
Heart disease: inflammation (which is ultimately regulated by the immune system) is the first stage of cardiovascular disease which ends in heart disease, heart attack/stroke. Inflammation and damage to the lining of blood vessels occurs BEFORE cholesterol beings to “stick” to it.
Do you understand why I see autoimmunity and poor immune health as the #1 threat to women’s health!
The point I’m trying to make is that your immune system is involved in many health-promoting and life-saving activities. We all need to take good care of our immune system, but it is often ignored because we can’t “see” it. We know we should take care of our heart, brain, bones and skin…we can see these, and they are more “real” for us. The immune system is more difficult to grasp conceptually because you can’t point to it and say, “here is my immune system.” Nevertheless, it is just as important as you brain or your heart.
In Part 2 of the Women’s Autoimmune Series, we will discuss the importance of digestive health in managing autoimmune disease and optimizing immune function and regulation.
If you would like more information about autoimmunity, functional medicine or Dr. Sexton contact our Naperville office or go to www.napervilleintegratedwelness.com
Do your own research, inform yourself and ask lots of questions. When collecting information you MUST consider the source. There is no shortage of false, misleading, outdated, profit-driven and utterly biased information in healthcare today; even from the most respected sources and organizations.