Is Your Immune System At Risk?

Is Your Immune System At Risk?by Suzanne Wilson, Naturopath

The immune system’s prime function is to protect the body against infection and the development of cancer.  Support and enhancement of the immune system is perhaps the most important step in achieving resistance to disease and reducing susceptibility to colds, flus and chronic disease.  However, when the immune system becomes compromised with exposure to viral/bacterial infections, certain chemicals, drugs and mechanical injury, it can cause the immune system to attack itself in susceptible humans.  When the immune system shifts from normal immune function to attacking itself, autoimmune diseases can develop.  Commonly known autoimmune diseases are as follows:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Chron’s disease
  • Coeliac disease
  • Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
  • Grave’s disease (hyperthyroidism)
  • Type I diabetes
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)

Autoimmune diseases are poorly understood but are generally agreed to be multi-functional, involving a combination of genetic, environmental, hormonal and immune factors.   Once genetically susceptible individuals have been identified, disease may be prevented, delayed or mitigated by avoiding or minimizing exposure to known triggers.  In a large Danish cohort study involving 37,338 twins, genetic factors were found to be less important than environmental factors (Sarris & Wardle 2010 p538).  The following environmental risk factors known to trigger autoimmunity are as follows:

  • Ageing – viruses have been shown in animal models to be potent triggers of autoimmunity and ageing of the immune system is associated with a decline of its ability to recognise itself from non-self
  • Exposure to chemicals: smoking is linked to rheumatoid arthritis as is mercury from dental amalgam may increase the production of auto antibodies in mercury-sensitive patients with autoimmune thyroiditis
  • Diet and lifestyle: exposure to cows milk too young has the potential to trigger Type I diabetes whilst exposure to grains and legumes are linked to rheumatoid arthritis
  • Hormones: SLE, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis are higher in women potentially because oestrogen acts to suppress inflammation however, stimulating autoimmune production
  • Stress: worsens symptoms in autoimmune diseases and has the potential to trigger autoimmunity due to its systemic endocrine effect on the body.  Chronic stress results in a chronically imbalanced and under-functioning immune system.

A naturopathic approach to autoimmune conditions aims to correct underlying imbalances by reducing chronic inflammation.  This is achieved by creating a diet that is rich in antioxidants and essential fatty acids.  Herbal remedies such as Tumeric, Cats Claw and Boswellia all have the potential to support the immune system and decrease inflammation.   Lifestyle factors must also be explored by accessing individual’s stress levels.  Overall, the naturopathic approach has the potential to decrease the onset of autoimmune diseases, support the immune system itself, and dampen flare ups of autoimmune diseases by taking into consideration the whole individual and not just the disease state.