Natural Medicine Approaches to Auto-Immune Disorders
with Belle McCALEB
Auto-immunity refers to the underlying immune dysfunction found in many medical conditions including psoriasis, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), ulcerative colitis, hypothyroidism and Coeliac disease to name only a few. In auto-immunity the immune system is unable to differentiate between self and other leading a cascade of immune reactions which cause damage tissues and organs. Auto-immune conditions are more prevalent in women than men and are thought to affect up to 20% of the total population although only 5% of people are actually diagnosed and under medical treatment1. Medical treatment of auto-immunity mainly involves management of the inflammation associated with the auto-immune disease Commonly prescribed medications include non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, steroids and other medications. These medications have their own side-effects and associated problems.
The natural medicine approach also considers inflammation as a key target but from a more wholistic viewpoint. The idea is to get to the drivers of the inflammation as well as to treat it directly via herbal and nutritional medicine. Key drivers of inflammation in the body include a poor diet, obesity, lack of exercise, infection, gut dysfunction, a high toxic load, high levels of oxidation, poor sex hormone metabolism in women and high levels of stress. Through complex mechanisms these inflammatory drivers lead to imbalance in the immune system that ultimately results in “self attack”.
Successful management of auto-immunity from a natural medicine point of view must address all of the areas mentioned. Obviously fully addressing this is beyond the scope of this article however I will address the key points.
Diet & Exercise: Following a low stress, plant based diet is best for many. It is recommended that all gluten, dairy, sugar, alcohol, red meat, processed meat and processed food be completely eliminated. Sometimes it is also necessary to completely remove grains at least for a while. Water intake is extremely important and it is generally recommended to drink about 33 ml per kg of your body weight daily. Vegie juicing is highly recommended but not a lot of kale, cabbage or broccoli as these taken raw are thyroid disrupters (steamed or stir fried is fine). Obesity and lack of exercise are an epidemic in the Western world. It is important to understand that obesity, particularly around the abdomen, is a key driver of inflammation leading to all sorts of diseases including auto-immunity. Keeping weight down by following a relatively low carbohydrate diet helps as does regular, sustained exercise. It is important to note that excessive exercise is also a driver of inflammation so look for balance here.
Gut dysfunction/toxic load: In my experience treatment of the gut though rebalancing of the flora, treatment of bacterial and/or parasitic overgrowth/infection often results in a relatively quick improvement of symptoms. This is because on of the key mechanisms behind auto-immunity is very much regulated at gut and liver levels. This is known as T-helper dysregulation. By re-establishing micro-flora balance with specific probiotics/prebiotics; directly treating gastrointestinal inflammation with herbal medicines and supporting the liver in its detoxification cycle this T-helper dysregulation is at least partly addressed. In addition we have specific practitioner only herbal medicines that directly influence T-helper activity.
Oxidation: Oxidation can be thought of as cellular “rust”. It is caused by reactive molecules released in high amounts in inflammatory states and oxidation itself is a key driver of inflammation – a vicious cycle. It is postulated that oxidative damage to DNA may lead to the production of auto-antibodies. A diet high in antioxidant foods helps to stave off oxidative damage. High antioxidant foods include Green tea, all the berries, garlic, cacao and curcuma (turmeric). High antioxidant herbs include Grape Seed, Ginkgo, Rosemary and St Mary’s Thistle. Supplementing with a good antioxidant formula including Vitamins A (or betacarotene), E, C and minerals Selenium, Zinc and Manganese is also recommended.
Estrogen metabolism: High levels of certain estrogen metabolites are more likely to be found in women with auto-immunity. These metabolites are associated with increased inflammation and immune activation. In men relatively low testosterone and relatively high estrogen is also associated with some forms of auto-immune disease. Treatment of the gut and liver is again the first port of call for improving estrogen clearance from the body and promoting the production of a less harmful metabolite. In addition, specific herbal medicines can help shift the metabolite ratio in an optimal direction. It is also important to reduce estrogen contamination from environmental sources such as many household and garden chemicals, plastics and prescription medications such as the Pill or HRT.
Stress: And finally the impact of stress on auto-immunity cannot be overlooked. The physiologic stress response affects many of the hormones known to be involved with modulating the immune system. Stress, particularly chronic or extreme/acute has been associated with an increase in auto-immune disease. It is vital that life-style measures are adopted to assist with stress release and to improve resilence to life stressors. Such measures include regular exercise, meditation, yoga, Tai-Chi or other spiritual practice which centres, calms and de-stresses.
Inflammation: In addition to all of the points addressed below it is very useful to treat inflammation directly particularly with herbal medicines. These include Curcuma formulations (from Turmeric), Boswellia (Frankincense), high quality fish oils, Quercetin formulas and a large number of other herbal anti-inflammatories specifically targeting the affected organs/tissues.
So in summary, auto-immunity is a whole system condition. It is not just the immunity per se that needs to be addressed. Successful management of these conditions requires attention to all levels of health and well-being.
1The Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA)
For women’s health go to www.mccalebhealth.com.au. Belle McCaleb ND, RN, MSS-C, BSN, RYT has been a registered health professional since 1986. She is a naturopath, herbalist, Master’s prepared counselor, Registered Nurse and Registered Yoga Teacher. Belle firmly believes total health and wellness are only achievable through the integration of body, mind and spirit. She specializes in women’s health and cancer support and holds advanced nursing qualifications in obstetrics, gynaecology and reproductive endocrinology and infertility.
Belle has specialised in cancer support since 2003, is the founder of the Cancer Support Alliance (www.cancersupportalliance.com.au) and was the Consultant Naturopath for Cancer Care Centre for seven years.” She has a particular interest in keeping cancer patients well during their chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments, combining knowledge from her extensive nursing background with natural medicine and dietary approaches. Belle teaches gentle yoga classes at her private studio, Serenity Yoga and also offers individual therapeutic yoga sessions for particular health issues. She is currently undertaking a Postgraduate Diploma in Yoga Therapy.
Belle is located in St Georges (Burnside), SA.
For more info see www.mccalebhealth.com.au.