Immunity is the body’s natural defense system against various infectious diseases. In heath, the immune system acts like a well-trained guard dog that only attacks enemies but respects its master and his friend. Autoimmune conditions occur when the immune system returns friendly fire on the body’s tissues and organs. What happens when our immune system goes awry, such as in an autoimmune disease? Friendly fire is a military term that refers to when an army inadvertently fires on its own soldiers or supplies.
Let me illustrate it this way. Pat Tillman was an NFL football player. When 9/11 came, he quit his 3.6 million dollar job and joined the army rangers and was stationed in Afghanistan. Corporal Tillman was popular. Tragically, Tillman was actually killed by friendly fire when Tillman’s team split from a second unit. They unfortunately detoured from their originally planned route. An army ranger did not correctly identify Tillman and his buddies and fired on him, mistaking him for the enemy. Seeing the gunfire and not realizing its origin, several other U.S. soldiers fired in the same direction killing Tillman and an Afghan soldier and wounding two other soldiers. Pat Tillman’s death by friendly fire is a good illustration of an autoimmune disease.
Autoimmune diseases (AD) target a variety of body’s part: joints, pancreas, thyroid gland, brain, nerves, kidneys, and blood vessels. Unfortunately, many autoimmune conditions damage more than one organ. If a person has one autoimmune condition, it is common for them to have another. Fifty million Americans have AD. That’s right—approximately one in five.
So far 100 diseases have been classified as autoimmune conditions. Type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, Crohn’s, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus are examples of common autoimmune conditions. Ninety per cent of hypothyroidism (low thyroid) is actually caused by the autoimmune condition known as Hashimoto’s. Autoimmune diseases affect women more frequently than men. Heredity, epigenetics, drug-induced auto-immune diseases, female hormones, and toxins can contribute to autoimmune conditions.
Profound fatigue is present in 98% of AD. Fatigue impacts nearly every aspect of AD patients’ lives including overall quality of life (89 percent), career/ability to work (78 percent), romantic aspect (78 percent), family (74 percent), professional relationships (65 percent), and their self-esteem (69 percent), among others. (1)
Reducing Your Risk
1. Your weight matters. Fat cells produce various inflammatory molecules that can disrupt the balance established by a normal immune system. Inflammation often fuels, sustains, and reinforces AD. Some experts consider obesity to be an autoimmune, inflammatory disorder.(2, 3)
2. Watch your salt intake. Increased dietary salt intake can promote the activity of a group of aggressive immune cells (Th-17 cells) that are involved in triggering and sustaining autoimmune diseases.(4, 5) When their numbers are not controlled properly, Th-17 cells can produce too much friendly fire that attacks the body tissues and leads to inflammatory diseases. Here is a serious fact. Many teenagers consume more salt than the recommended daily allowance — and that high sodium intake correlates with fatness and inflammation regardless of how many calories they consume. A recent study found that high-sodium consumers also had high levels of alpha tumor necrosis factor, which is secreted by immune cells. Excess amounts of this factor contribute to chronic inflammation as well as autoimmune diseases like lupus and arthritis. Additionally, the adolescents had high levels of leptin, a hormone produced by fat cells that normally suppresses appetite and burns fat, but at chronically high levels leptin can have the opposite effects. (6)
3. Emphasize a healthy plant-based diet. Plant foods contain phytochemicals which help the immune system maintain balance between its different components so that neither immune suppression nor autoimmunity occurs. Curcumin from turmeric and ginger; resveratrol in red grapes and blueberries; quercetin found in red onions, broccoli, cabbage, berries, and apples; and genistein from soy act as immune modulators and help to balance the activity of the immune system.(7)
4. Get enough sleep. Chronic insomnia requiring sleep-inducing pills may be associated with a 70 % increased risk for future AD.(8) Just losing sleep for only one night increases inflammation.(9)
5. Keep a regular schedule for meals and sleeping. The production of a key immune cell is controlled by the body’s circadian rhythm. (10) Disturbed circadian rhythm may increase the risk for multiple sclerosis and some other autoimmune conditions. (11, 12) Be sure your vitamin D level is normal. Vitamin D insufficiency is rather common in North America and Europe and can increase one’s risk for certain autoimmune conditions. Obesity decreases the bioavailability of vitamin D in the body. (13, 14, 15)
6. Watch environment triggers like hairspray and lipstick. Environmental pollution is also a cause for concern to those individuals who are genetically predisposed to an autoimmune disease. Second-hand smoke, food chemicals or chemicals in the air, jet fuel fumes, UV exposure, and other forms of environmental pollution are among the triggers considered to provoke the onset of autoimmune diseases.(16)
Author: Elizabeth Jane Hall
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Reviewed by P.S. on May 9, 2017
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2. Cell Press. “Immune cells may help fight against obesity.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 15 September 2015. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/09/150915135404.htm>.
3. American Friends of Tel Aviv University. “Obesity plays major role in triggering autoimmune diseases.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 10 November 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/11/141110110722.htm>.
4. Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres. “Excess dietary salt may drive the development of autoimmune diseases.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 6 March 2013. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/03/130306134358.htm>.
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10. UT Southwestern Medical Center. “How body clock affects inflammation: Discovery could accelerate body’s response to infection, autoimmune disorders.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 November 2013. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/11/131107170632.htm>.
11. Hedström AK. Shift work at young age is associated with increased risk for multiple sclerosis. Annals of Neurology, 2011; DOI: 10.1002/ana.22597
12. UT Southwestern Medical Center. “How body clock affects inflammation: Discovery could accelerate body’s response to infection, autoimmune disorders.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 November 2013. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/11/131107170632.htm>.
13. University of Cincinnati Academic Health Center. “Vitamin D deficiencies may impact onset of autoimmune lung disease.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 January 2011. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110104064020.htm>.
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