Thoughts on Auto-Immune Disease

Auto-immune (AI) diseases are characterized by an inappropriate destruction of “self” tissue by the immune system.  In Lupus, for example, your own immune system would attack the nucleus of a variety of cells, and “anti-nuclear antibodies” (ANA) are found in the blood when tested.  This is a common screen for auto-immune disease, although having a positive ANA doesn’t always mean you have an auto-immune disease.  Rheumatoid arthritis is an “AI” in which your white blood cells, the workhorses of the immune system, attack the synovial fluid in small joints, often the knuckles and finger joints.  Type 1 diabetes is also an AI destruction of the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.  Possibly the most common AI is Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, a very common reason for low thyroid function.  Some researchers consider celiac disease an AI, with antibodies to the “endomysial” cells, which are part of muscle structure.  People with severe celiac often have a blistering and very itchy skin condition called dermatitis herpetiformis, which is produced by deposition of the antibodies in the skin.  Complete avoidance of gluten is the cure.  Other than celiac, which is more common in men, most AIs are much more prevalent in women.  Because of this known fact, some researchers consider estrogen to be implicated in auto-immune disease.  The Nurses’ Health Study, for example, found that women on estrogen replacement therapy are at higher risk of developing lupus than women not receiving estrogen.  Dietary choices can also promote excess estrogen.  Any food from a mammal (beef, veal, pork, cheese, milk, icecream) is “estrogenic” and I highly recommend a vegetarian diet for several years after receiving a diagnosis of an auto-immune disease.  One way to understand this is that in AIs, the immune system is “confused” because it is attacking self.  Mammalian tissue from food is remarkably similar to your own tissue, at a molecular level, and eating animal food may provoke an auto-immune flare.  A vegetarian diet is also likely to  be low-fat.  Animal fats are implicated in inflammation, whereas vegetable oils, and certainly the pigments and vitamin/mineral nutrients in vegetables are anti-inflammatory.  Roy Swank MD has published many studies showing that low-fat diets benefit patients with MS.  The best choices for oils in auto-immune disease are flax, olive and coconut.  Human clinical studies have also shown that fish oil can induce clinical remission of MS, rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory diseases such as ulcerative colitis and psoriasis.  Anti-oxidants are also important in reversing immune system confusion, but they must be taken synergistically.  Vitamin E taken alone can potentially oxidize, since it’s a polyunsaturated fat.  However, taken with Vitamin C and selenium, oxidation is prevented.  Consider Vit E in high doses to 1600 IUs per day, with 3-5 grams of Vit C and 400 mg of selenium.  I also really like Glutathione as a potent anti-oxidant, especially complexed with lecithin so that it can quickly penetrate the fatty structure (cholesterol) of all cell walls.  Vit A, 25-50,000 IUs or beta-carotene 50,000 IUs is another important anti-oxidant which tends to be underutilized and often missing from diets shy on veggies.  Some practitioners also recommend DHEA and melatonin in AIs.  I would assess DHEA levels before supplementing, and use melatonin in particular where sleep quality is also an issue.  Melatonin is quite helpful where sleep onset is difficult.  An interesting and not-well known fact is that most of the melatonin in the body is not produced in the pineal gland, but in the small intestine.  So where GI problems are part of the picture (such as Crohn’s, IBS or peptic ulcers) melatonin is often a useful therapeutic adjunct.  None of the food-based suggestions made here will interfere with conventional approaches to AIs.


One more critical aspect of reversing or managing auto-immune diseases is the psycho-spiritual component.  By this I mean it is very important to recognize that your own immune system is being confused about what is “self” and what is “not-self.”  In general, we want our immune systems to attack and destroy anything in our bodies that is “not-self” and needs to be digested and eliminated.  Attacking “self” is a problem.  So, get really clear in your life about what is authentic for you.  Don’t stay in a bad relationship.  Don’t try to be something you’re not for someone else.  Discovering who you are is the most important “job” you have in life: explore and enjoy who you really are.  This is an evolving proposal.  We are not born knowing what we’re supposed to do and be.  You must enquire and explore!  Be devoted to yourself.