The Immune System, Autoimmune Disease, And You

What is it like to be healthy? As with many things, we can more easily answer that question when we have experience on both ends of the spectrum. Once we have had a cold or two, we can “feel it coming”. We know the signs that our immune system is fighting something off.

Our bodies are such an incredibly intricate network of moving parts, that to call it a “miracle” somehow doesn’t seem to do it justice at all. Every single thing about us, right down to the cellular level, has a purpose. Not only does it have a purpose, but it relates to some other part of you, to some other system, in some other way. This thing is not just necessary for this, it’s also necessary for that. And through these connections there’s this web, of sorts, that’s created… that web is us. The sum of all those moving parts, processes, hormones, and cells, is us. 

Though we are nearly identical in almost every way, from person to person… with genetic differences so minute as to almost be imperceptible… those nearly imperceptible differences can change the outcomes of whole processes, balances of hormones, and the health of cells. 

The way our bodies respond to pathogens, potential threats to our health, is somewhat a cut and dried process: see the threat, eliminate the threat. But the response itself, the body’s plan of attack, varies from person to person. 

Because, though even under a microscope it’s hard to see the differences between us, the way those differences manifest is actually quite great. What one body perceives as a threat, another may not at all, and still another might simply deploy a quick defense campaign and call it a day. And all of this happens with us never even noticing a thing, because our bodies are an incredible miracle, plus some.

Any of these answers to a bacterial or viral invader may be the right answer for our own unique bodies, and a healthy immune system can claim some latitude in its response, because again: Miracle. Plus some. 

But what happens when the immune system itself gives the wrong answer to the invader, offers the wrong plan of attack? What happens when your body decides on a Hail Mary play when all that’s needed here is a little hand-off? Autoimmune disease is still a huge mystery in a lot of ways, partly because of the complexity. Though almost any autoimmune disease could be put under the umbrella of “inappropriate immune system response”, it’s a lot more than that. To make matters worse, this immune response is exactly as unique as any healthy immune response. So how on Earth are you supposed to function with autoimmune disease? That’s the million-dollar question.

Autoimmune disease: fast facts

What Is The Immune System? 

The main job of the immune system is to keep you healthy and free from infection. Your immune system is constantly trolling for two sets of information: whatever irregular or unhealthy cells you have roaming your corridors, and whatever bacteria and viruses are being introduced from the environment. Unhealthy cells have certain markers about them, just like things have distinct smells. Viruses too, have a distinct “smell” about them… some of which your body has encountered before. When your immune system comes across something a little different, it decides what to do: nothing, or something.

Sometimes, it needs to do something but there isn’t enough power for some reason. The immune system is either too weak, or the threat is too great. Illness or infection is the result in that case. Other times, it doesn’t need to do anything but it does anyway. Allergic reactions, sneezing fits, are an immune overreaction we’re all familiar with. Autoimmune disease is another example of this unnecessary overreaction.

What Is Autoimmune Disease? 

An “unnecessary immune reaction” is probably the closest one can get to describing and encompassing all the autoimmune diseases out there. The immune system is attacking healthy tissue… it is seeing its own self as a threat… but how it goes about attacking is totally unique and can manifest in any number of disorders: rheumatoid arthritis, type I diabetes, psoriasis, alopecia, lupus, thyroid disease, Addison’s disease, pernicious anemia, celiac disease, multiple sclerosis, myasthenia gravis, Guillain-Barre syndrome — these are just a few of them. Other strong suspects are chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia.

Autoimmune Disease And Women 

Approximately 80% of all autoimmune disease diagnoses are women, with many of the disorders manifesting during times of great physical stress or hormonal imbalance, such as pregnancy. While the exact mechanism that causes autoimmune disorders to be so prevalent in women is still unknown, it seems to come down to that one little extra “X”. 

Essentially, most humans are born with 23 pairs of chromosomes, and the only differentiating factor between males and females is the sex chromosomes. Females possess XX, males have XY. The X chromosomes are bigger and are packed with up to 60 different genes coded for all kinds of things including immune functions. Because women have 2 X chromosomes, they have double the chances of improper gene mutations, and since a lot of those genes involve immune function, the issue(s) from improper gene mutation stand a greater chance of manifesting around immune response and function.

How (And Why) The Immune System Attacks Itself 

Obviously, there is a clear connection between genetics and autoimmune disease, but in spite of this, a large part that’s missing is the “how”, and a bit of the “why” too. For example, there is no clear indication that a person will end up with lupus just because their aunt has it. In fact, that person can even test positive for markers of lupus, and still not have any manifestations of the illness. It seems the old adage is true here in some way: “genetics loads the gun but environment pulls the trigger.”

But why?

Apart from the clear genetic connection, which is not actually all that clear, researchers have been able to pinpoint that some autoimmune diseases manifest after fighting a tough infection. And since we know that autoimmune disease is basically just our body attacking its own self, the question arises of whether, in some cases, the body’s just tired. It’s done fighting, running on fumes. This can happen after a viral infection or a host of other events.

For example, after a serious bout with strep throat, it’s fairly common for people to develop psoriasis. This is an autoimmune disorder that manifests as rough patches of dry, scaly skin. Scleroderma, which affects the skin and connective tissue, is common in areas where the body has fought (and won) against cancer. The theory is the scleroderma is the body’s way of fighting residual inflammation.

So, how do we create the right environment for autoimmune disease NOT to flourish, for that trigger not to be pulled?

Prevention Of Autoimmune Disease 

Well, back to what a complete and utter miracle our bodies are, not only are we running on what amount to complex networks, relays passing cellular batons from process to process, but some of those cells can act… choose… what the situation calls for: an inflammatory response or an INflammatory response. CD8+ T effectors are one such incredible little cell. These t-cells can promote or prevent autoimmune disease through their ability to act as suppressor cells, or as cytotoxic effectors.

CD8+ effectors may promote disease when they begin to secrete inflammatory cytokines, or when they cause apoptosis (destruction) of cells at inappropriate times. Apoptosis is a natural part of the life cycle of a cell, but one of the neat things about it is that the cell “decides” when it’s time to die. CD8+ effectors that “aren’t right in the head”, will induce apoptosis when the time isn’t right.

The flip side is that CD8+ effectors can (and should) work to discourage autoimmune disease through their own natural elimination of self-reactive cells, and self-antigen sources. A bit like trimming one’s hair, a healthy cell will know when it needs to take a little off the top. Perhaps it is too reactive, and it’s being too inflammatory. Our incredible cells, many of them… not just these CD8+ t-cells… possess enough “consciousness” to know when they are harming the greater good, and to die off instead of cause more harm.

CD4+ T regulatory cells (Tregs) have been described as the most potent immunosuppressive cells in the human body. Though the what/why/how of understanding and preventing autoimmune disorders is still in the future somewhere, it’s clear that regulatory t-cells play a role. 

They seem to be a promising tool for the future treatment of, and ultimately the cure for, autoimmune diseases of all stripes. No matter what the impetus, whether a virus or something much more sinister, it’s wonderful to think that total understanding (and therefore a solid, meaningful cure) is somewhere on the not-too-distant horizon. And that we likely already know the root: t-cells.

Living With Autoimmune Disease 

The picture around autoimmune disease seems bleak, but I think part of the reason why, is that “autoimmune disease” is a huge umbrella to stuff a whole lot of things under. And because there are so many disorders, which present with such a wide variety of conditions, there isn’t any way to speak to (for example) both lupus and multiple sclerosis in any other way apart from high level. They’re too different. They are both autoimmune diseases, but that’s the extent of many of their similarities. 

If you break them apart and look at their numbers individually, MS and lupus patient numbers pale in comparison to, say, heart disease patients. 

As of 2018, 30.3 million U.S. adults were diagnosed with heart disease. Multiple sclerosis affects about 400,000. Lupus is estimated to affect around 1.5 million Americans. When looking at it this way, it’s easy to understand the urgency of helping 30 million people over 2 million. But those 400,000 people with MS and the 1.5 million with lupus are experiencing real and sometimes devastating effects from their diseases. They matter too. 

Further, when you add up all the people under the “autoimmune disease umbrella”, the numbers become staggering. Estimates range from 24 million to more than 50 million Americans affected by some form of autoimmune disease. The National Institute of Health put out some research in early 2020, suggesting that autoimmune diseases are on the rise, thanks to the prevalence of a particular biomarker for autoimmunity. “The reasons for the increases in ANA are not clear, but they are concerning and may suggest a possible increase in future autoimmune disease,” said corresponding and senior author Frederick Miller, M.D., Ph.D., deputy chief of the Clinical Research Branch at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of NIH.

Things You Can Do To Improve The Immune System And Prevent Autoimmune Disease 

In a perfect world, it all just runs well. We are miracles, plus some. Threats to our immune system come and go, but everything is working as it should to ensure the right response to the right things in the right place at the right time. But we know that there are, literally, billions of ways that things can go wrong. Every cell has to do the job it was created to do… think about that for a moment. Every single individual cell in your body, billions of them, have a purpose. Brilliantly, incredibly, they “know” their purpose. They are aware of their job, and they do it. In a perfect world, no one ever strays. But sometimes cells do. They choose a different path, they don’t do their job, don’t fulfill their purpose. The fact that a cell doesn’t go through apoptosis at the prescribed time, suggests a consciousness that is hard to ignore. To me it’s almost like a cry for help, a body’s way of getting your attention.

Something about the environment the cell is living in, is causing discontent.

Diet For Immune Health

Though the treatment of a particular autoimmune disease will look different depending on the ailment and the individual, there is no denying that a healthy diet is one key to a healthy everything. A plant-based diet is much easier on our bodies and is anti-inflammatory, while a diet that is heavy on animal products is exactly the opposite. Sugars and processed foods are not things our bodies recognize as fuel for them, so we can expect to feel malnourished when our diet is heavy on those things. Headaches, body aches, poor sleep, you-name-it can result from a poor diet. 

This isn’t to say you can never have your cake and eat it too. You actually can, especially if it’s good for your soul, and you really believe that it is. A fascinating study from 2013 looked at dieters, guilt, and traditionally “forbidden” foods, and found that dieters who felt no guilt around treating themselves to a piece of cake, also didn’t experience the wild swings in blood sugar and other physical effects that the “guilty dieters” exhibited. The point? Eat well, always, and treat yourself well too. Your body is listening to what you think about the things you do.

While it can’t necessarily prevent an autoimmune disease, a healthy diet that is appropriate for your body will certainly help make living with it easier. Why make it harder on your body than it has to be? Why make it fight off your lunch when you can love your body every time you sit down at the table? Our bodies are listening, all the time. When you send goodness in, magic is made. Garbage in, garbage out is another way that one can go. It doesn’t seem like it matters, but how you fuel your body matters a whole lot.

Speaking of garbage in garbage out, these days there is a lot of study coming out around glyphosate (the most widely used pesticide worldwide), and the role it plays in the development of autoimmune disease. It’s not looking good at all… in fact, in July of 2020, New York State banned the use of glyphosate on state land. That should say a lot.

Meditation For Immune Health

Not only is your body listening all the time, but so is your brain. Your brain, like your body, is incredibly plastic… malleable. And you are the Captain of the whole ship. You can build your brain with meditation in the same way you build your body through diet and exercise. Meditation, in a nutshell, is simply training your brain to focus on a specific thing. Guided imagery, repeating mantras, walking a labyrinth: these are varying examples of meditation. It doesn’t have to involve sitting on a cushion and chanting “Om”, although it could. Meditation is watching your thoughts, and bringing them back to the intention at hand, when they wander. 

How and why would meditation matter for your immune health?

Because every cell in your body is listening. It hears your thoughts and it knows your deepest fears. It knows if you believe the cake is bad for you, that you’re “cheating” and should be punished. And if you keep focusing on those things, you’ll end up making them happen on some level. It’s the law of attraction, and you are one powerful being, baby. So train your brain on goodness. Train it in the direction of love… love for you and your body and the whole crazy toxic mess of an environment we live in. Love it all. 

Bodywork & Exercise For Immune Health

I put bodywork and exercise together in one category because to me in a lot of regards they are one and the same. Yoga and Pilates are typically thought of as “bodywork”, alongside massage and acupuncture, etc. Exercise is often thought of as hitting the gym, lifting weights, going for a run, or a fitness walk, and that’s all true too. 

But these days I’m coming to think of everything as bodywork. It’s all fine-tuning my own body, and sometimes that looks like a yoga practice three times a week but a 6-mile fitness walk every single day, for a while, until my back is tired and I realize I need to pump up my Pilates routine again. To me it’s all a balance, and some days I have a lot of energy while other days I don’t. I think it’s important to honor it all, and if you can honestly say “today I just need to book a massage and drink some tea”, then that’s the bodywork for you today. That’s you having an honest conversation with your body… your cells… the ones that never stop listening to what your thoughts and energy are doing.

I used to work with a private yoga client who had MS. As is often the case with MS patients, he experienced tremors in his legs. They would get really bad as soon as he bent his legs, which you pretty much have to do if you want to strengthen them, so he was in this awful downward spiral of losing strength but not being able to build any because of the tremors that would start up as soon as he tried to do any exercise. So I did a little research and figured out that the signals, which were already having trouble making it from his brain to his feet, would not/could not make it when the signal was further hindered by bending the knees. By placing a block between his thighs and having him focus on grounding the feet and adduction of the legs, we were able to turn the tide on the downward spiral and build some strength and muscular intelligence, and memory back into those fabulous gams of his. 

That was his work, his exercise and his bodywork. For his more able-bodied husband, to keep him challenged as we all worked together, we changed his relationship to gravity and just made him do the same blockwork in a plank position, thereby ratcheting up the intensity without changing much of anything. And that became his bodywork: the mission specific to his particular body.

Just as it’s important to honor your ever-listening body with a quality diet and a relationship with your brain, it’s important to honor it with bodywork that actually matters to it. We don’t train a puppy by beating it with a newspaper. We train them with love, and with firm correction where it matters. Ask your body what it needs, and it will tell you.

Rest & Relaxation For Immune Health

There is nothing like a good night’s sleep, am I right? When it comes to keeping yourself healthy, quality rest is huge. This too, like diet, bodywork, and even meditation, is a personal thing. Most humans need somewhere between 7 and 9 hours of sleep every night, and the more regular the hours you keep, the better. 

Contrary to what some have suggested, you can’t “bank” sleep. If you don’t get enough, you start showing signs. The longer it goes on, the stronger the signs get. In fact, even if you got a great night of sleep, your brain will start showing signs of fatigue after you have been awake for more than 12 hours. 

So, it’s crucial to get good sleep. 

But it’s also important to just chill out, man. You don’t have to be “doing something” every moment that you’re awake. It’s OK to just take a break and enjoy the scenery, close your eyes and bask in the sun, or just have a quick chat with your neighbor. It feels good, and it’s good for you too.

Improving The Pain And Fatigue That Comes With Autoimmune Disease

We’ve talked about supporting your immune system and good health through all the basic ways that we know the proper care and feeding of a human to be. And you’re doing all of that, but still living with an autoimmune disorder. What else is there to be done? 

It’s time for personalization, targeted therapies that mean something to you individually: the person living with this particular thing, whatever it happens to be.

As discussed, there could be upwards of 50 million Americans living with some kind of autoimmune disease. That is a lot of people, a lot of symptoms, and frankly, a lot of mystery. There’s no such thing as an autoimmunity specialist, and with the wide variety of ways that a wide variety of disorders can manifest, it’s just hard to wrangle no matter how you look at it. 

We can do all the right things diet, exercise, and brain-wise, but if there are symptoms, there are symptoms… and those should involve their own unique set of protocols, specific to the person. For example perhaps there is muscle soreness… stretching might be one way to alleviate that, or massage might be another. Adding a supplement to your diet could be an option. What about Thai massage? Or learning how to use a foam roller?

Some autoimmune diseases have symptoms that present all throughout the body, and for those in particular, a multi-pronged approach is likely the best and most approachable course of action. I’m thinking of how we have a gut microbiome and an oral microbiome too. We have two different “sets” of microbes, with totally different constitutions, and to compound things further, the microbes in the front of your mouth (for example) are not the same as in the back of your mouth. The bugs at the top of your digestive tract are not the same as in your colon. My point is that just because you are encased in this one body, does not mean even remotely that your various parts are composed of the same thing(s). Remember, you are a miracle, plus some. Your big toe possesses a whole different kind of magic than your guts or your brain. So to my mind they need to be addressed differently.

In the past when researchers and doctors were learning about autoimmune diseases and exploring ways to combat them, bone marrow transplants became a hot topic. At first blush it makes a lot of sense: since those t-cells all get their start in the bone marrow, the idea was to flush that… give it a whole new start, and hopefully the immune system would do better with it the second time around. 

This isn’t what ultimately happened though. Similar to how a blood transfusion, replacing your own blood with that of another, doesn’t actually change your DNA, marrow transplants don’t do that either. Neither do organ transplants. It’s incredible, but sad too. It would be so great if it were that easy. And it seems like it should be. But our own DNA, in spite of being so changeable, eclipses whatever DNA you introduce. 

What is the ultimate answer going to be?

The Future Of Immune Disease And Immunotherapy

Down the road, it seems likely that gene therapy is going to be a key factor in wrangling autoimmune diseases. As we understand it now, genes are at the root of the issue, so it makes sense to head this direction. In the future, CRISPR gene editing technology may be a real boon for some people. Can you imagine just being able to edit that debilitating pain with a shot or two?

Currently, there are studies which show a lot of promise around the therapeutic potential of regulatory t-cells… that’s introducing healthy t-cells at regular intervals to help a patient’s body get some traction on the disease.

As you are no doubt aware, these days the fields of science and technology are practically moving at the speed of light, so it’s only a matter of time before the healing science is truly understood and can be applied. Until then, it’s important to remember that spark of magic that we really are. There is a balance to be found in each of us, and I think one of the keys to finding it is addressing that uniqueness. 

Identifying what your unique body, and physical makeup, require in this moment to find balance. 

With autoimmune diseases, it seems that science may eventually take care of the what, why, and how… maybe we are best served by really getting into the who… the one in need of healing… the immune system that requires protecting, and how to nourish and support that.

*****

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Sources:

What is the immune system?

https://www.niaid.nih.gov/research/immune-system-overview

Autoimmune diseases

Symptoms of autoimmune disease

https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/what-are-common-symptoms-of-autoimmune-disease
https://www.webmd.com/rheumatoid-arthritis/default.htm

https://www.webmd.com/diabetes/type-1-diabetes-guide/default.htm

https://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/psoriasis/default.htm

https://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/guide/alopecia-areata

https://www.webmd.com/lupus/default.htm

https://www.webmd.com/women/picture-of-the-thyroid

https://www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/celiac-disease/default.htm

https://www.webmd.com/multiple-sclerosis/default.htm

Heavy suspects but not confirmed:

https://www.webmd.com/chronic-fatigue-syndrome/default.htm

https://www.webmd.com/fibromyalgia/default.htm

Autoimmune disease and women

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3328995/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7292717/

How (and why) the immune system attacks itself

https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/autoimmune-disease-why-is-my-immune-system-attacking-itself

Prevention of autoimmune disease

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0896841113000784

New York bans glyphosate https://childrenshealthdefense.org/defender/new-york-state-bans-roundup-weedkiller-state-land/ 

CD8+ T Cells

T-cells and autoimmune inflammation https://arthritis-research.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/ar1703 

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10837060/

Living with autoimmune disease

https://www.webmd.com/women/features/life-with-autoimmune-disease

https://www.healthline.com/health/heart-disease/statistics#:~:text=As%20of%202018%2C%2030.3%20million,out%20of%20every%204%20deaths%20.

https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/autoimmunity-may-be-rising-united-states

Cake study: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24275670/ 

Improving the pain and fatigue that come with these diseases

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6691096/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4593220/

The future of immune disease and immunotherapy

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31104510/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25881491/

Published by Emily Murray

I believe in our strength and adaptability as humans, and in the serious work involved in becoming who we dream of being. Self-care is a huge component of self-love, and The Changing Room is all about finding new ways of growing and healing. Seeing beauty in ourselves and in each other, and translating that to living our best lives. Become a sponsor of The Changing Room! https://www.patreon.com/thechangingroom

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