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Dr. Elena Koles, MD

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Autoimmune Diseases - Natural and Holistic Treatments

    Autoimmune diseases are the leading cause for death in the United States, especially among women. However, their exact impact is unknown because the National Statistical Center did not include all the diseases in their list of possible causes for death; thus doctors do not list them on the death certificates. At the same time, analysis of the data from the Center of Disease Control from 1995 show that this group of diseases is in the top ten (Am J Public Health, Sep, 2000). According to the National Health Institute, 23.5 million of Americans suffer from autoimmune diseases; this is 1.5 million more cases than cases of cardio-vascular disease and 14.5 million more cases than cases of cancer. Every year, $100 billion are spent on treating autoimmune conditions. However, financing for autoimmune research is limited and programs for medical students include minimal information.

    As recently as twenty years ago, diagnosis of autoimmune disease was very rare. Now it is known that 5% of the world’s population suffers from this kind of illness and the number is constantly growing. For example, in the past ten years the number of patients affected by Crohn’s Disease in the United States has tripled and predominantly affects people between the ages of 20 and 30. 

    There are approximately 80 known kinds of autoimmune diseases, among which are rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, lupus, Type 1 Diabetes, Multiple Sclerosis, dermatomyosite, psoriasis, etc. As immunodiagnostic techniques improve, we have more and more data of immunological foundations for many diseases (i.e. atherosclerosis), which until recently were not considered autoimmune in origin. 

    The majority of autoimmune diseases are considered to be caused by a defective gene that is dormant until an unfavorable factor (virus, toxins, ultrasound, electromagnetic waves, etc.) triggers the pathological process. This process is characterized by the forming of antibodies, that instead of fighting for genetic uniformity of the organism and suppressing foreign bacteria, viruses and diseased cells (as a healthy immune system is intended), they initiate inflammatory reactions against it’s own cells. 

    It has been proven that autoantibodies are formed before birth. Research conducted in Israel on the blood from umbilical cords showed that antibodies present in the blood of a newborn are able to connect with 305 kinds of cells in it’s own organism. Thus, the presence of antibodies in an organism are more normal than pathological. Even though the biological role of these autoantibodies is not clear, it is apparent that they are capable of increasing their own concentration in an organism’s blood, and influencing the development of autoimmune pathology in adults. 

    The immune system in mammals is an immensely complicated structure: it includes a vast number of different cells, proteins and mediators whose common task is the protection of the organism from disease carrying microbes and toxins, as well as the elimination of diseased cells. For this purpose, there are special cleansing mechanisms that are carried on by special cells in the immune system- autoimmune lymphocytes.    

    In every cell there are particular protein molecules that mark cells to show that they belong to this specific organism. This is how the immune system recognizes “it’s own” and doesn’t attack them. The number of our “protectors” is approximately 1 trillion. Usually, all the soldiers of this “army” work together, but in the instance that there is a genetic defect or if the organism is weakened, the immune system can turn on itself and attack it’s own tissues. As a result, many biologically active and toxic substances form and the inflammation occurs. Thus, it is not surprising that these kind of diseases are accompanied by serious malfunctions in the organism. For example, rheumatism is accompanied by damage to the myocardium and heart valves, with lupus- internal organs and skin are affected. Vitiligo (a condition where a pigment called melanin is lost and irregular white patches appear on the skin because cells producing melanin are destroyed) often goes together with diabetes. As Crohn’s Disease progresses, joints and eyes are often affected. 

    Which autoimmune disease will develop is determined by those cells that are no longer controlled by the organism. If the cells are specific to a protein called myelin that covers nerve fibers, multiple sclerosis develops. If the cells are specific to tissues of joints-  rheumatoid arthritis develops. If the cells are specific to the pancreas- diabetes develops. 

    Lately, more attention is being paid to an organism’s autoimmune reactions, considered either a hyperimmune condition (pathologically strengthened immunity), either an immunological imbalance with malfunctions of a “selective” (autoimmunity suppressing) functions of the thymus gland, or the disruption of interactions between cells responsible for suppressing the autoimmune reactions. 

    The reason why autoimmune diseases are more frequently found in women is the influence of female sexual hormones, which amplify any inflammatory effects and provoke more active immune system responses. 

    Scientists from the medical center at Duke University propose a “hygienic” theory explaining the growing epidemic of autoimmune diseases. They believe that people have become more hygienic, especially in the Western world, and the lack of contact with microbes is eliminating the need for heightened immunity. Our weakened immune systems are trying to actively compensate for this weakness by attacking our own tissues, which they view as “internal foreign bodies.”  

    Comparing the immune reactions of animals living in a natural environment with microbes to animals living in a sterile laboratory environment, scientists discovered that both groups have identical antibodies but those in the wild animals are not aggressive towards their own tissues, and are able to fight off parasites, while those in the “lab animals” are not. The “lab animals” also suffered from allergies and other autoimmune disorders. This research leads us to consider whether the wide spread belief that antibacterial substances and vaccinations against previously harmless children’s diseases are good is true or false. 

    Every day stress plays a big role in the development of imbalances in our immune system. It has been proven that our sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the so-called “fight or flight” reaction and controls the T-lymphocytes. These T-lymphocytes are regulators of “war” against uninvited occupants and stop inflammation as soon as the “enemy” is beaten. 

    Scientists from the University of Connecticut identified a particular protein called TGF-beta that is responsible for producing T-lymphocytes. Animals residing in laboratories cannot, for example, get Multiple Sclerosis if their sympathetic nervous system was stimulated. However, their “untreated” compatriots easily fall subject to this disease. This experiment shows that the sympathetic system can either provoke the disease or enable the recovery. 

    The main mass of immune cells protecting us from invaders is located in the wall of the gastrointestinal tract. This is the initial protection from potential enemies. It is the work of close collaboration between blood cells (lymphocytes), tissue cells (macrophages), friendly flora and the external epithelium of intestines.  

    The most common food sensitivity is to gluten. If one is sensitive to gluten, then the irritation of the mucus in the gastrointestinal tract causes the production of a substance called zonulin, a protein that widens the spaces between cells. As a result, little particles and toxins are able to filter into the blood and the organism starts to produce antibodies against these uninvited guests. 

    Intolerance to gluten is an autoimmune disease that provokes different symptoms. The most severe form of gluten intolerance is a disease called Celiac Disease. With this disease, not only is the gastrointestinal tract affected, but also the skin and internal organs. If the patient does not eat gluten, the secretion of zonulin decreases, the number of antibodies decreases and the patient feels fine without the use of medications (Lancet 2000, 355). 

    These observations show the importance of a diet and a proper digestive process in the treatment of autoimmune disorders. Practically, every autoimmune disease has it’s own specific provokers- for instance, bacteria may provoke rheumatoid arthritis, mercury and milk may provoke multiple sclerosis (Neuroepidemiology 1993; 12) and mold and mercury may provoke thyroiditis. These provokers can push the immune system to attack itself. 

    Microbes play a special role in the pathogenesis of these disorders. For example, many people are carriers of the herpes virus HHV-6 without exhibiting any symptoms. However, if the immune system is compromised, this virus can provoke an autoimmune reaction such as Multiple Sclerosis. Another very common virus, cytomegalovirus (CMV), may provoke autoimmune hepatitis. Specific L-form microbes, that do not have cellular membranes and do not grow well in laboratory media, are suspected to cause autoimmune reactions in patients with Crohn’s Disease. Crohn’s Disease can be exacerbated by bacteria that, though it may not be friendly, is common to our intestinal flora; for example, mycobacterium, listeria, candida, Chlamydia, etc. Clostridia bacteria causes the formation of antibodies capable of destroying collagen, thus contributing to the development of ankylosing spondilitis in case of enterocolitis. 

    De Hertogh (2008) offered the theory of “unidentified permanent pathogens” that cause the autoimmune process in patients with Crohn’s Disease. He based his theory on the analysis of information collected concerning epidemiology, clinical pathology, genetics and laboratory findings of this disease.  

Recently, a specific colitis was identified in children with Autism, similar to Crohn’s Disease and accompanied by abdominal pain, diarrhea and chronic intestinal inflammation. They suspect the live virus from the MMR vaccine is a cause of this disease. 

    As it was declared at the 62nd Annual American College of Rheumatology Conference (1998,CA), vaccination against hepatitis B can increase the risk for an autoimmune disease. Thus, this vaccine is no longer given to children in France. Dr. Classen found a connection between the vaccine for hepatitis B and the development of type 1 diabetes in children (Br Med J Oct, 1999). Dr. Mercola and many other physicians believe that introducing antibodies directly into human blood, which never occurs naturally, immediately causes a disruption in the response reaction and instead of the physiological antibodies IgA the organism starts to produce autoantibodies IgG and IgM (mercola.com). 

    Unfortunately, Western medicine, which is very successful in most areas, often treats chronic diseases in primitive ways and does not go beyond the simple “symptom-medication” relationship. Thus, the main treatment of autoimmune diseases is the prescription of the strongest medication available that “kills” the mischievous immune system without investigating the causes of its malfunction. Not surprisingly, the effectiveness of such a primitive approach is usually minimal. At the same time, numerous researchers (only a few of which are mentioned above) show that all the factors are important in the successful treatment of autoimmune disorders. This includes, the fight against stress, toxicosis and disbacteriosis, individualized diet, vitamins, minerals, hormones, enzymes and many other protection activating means. (J. Neuroimmunology 1998 Dec; Multiple Sclerosis 1997 Apr; Human Reproduction 2000 Jun). 

    For any person of sound mind, who understands the complexity of the human structure, such a primitive approach is unsatisfactory.