Autoimmune Conditions and Allergies: Immune System Dysfunction
Seems strange to lump these together, right? The fact is, though, that both allergies and autoimmune diseases represent dysfunction of the immune system.
There are two parts to your immune system, called “non-specific” (this responds right away to toxic exposure, bee stings, trauma, etc) and “specific” (which takes some time, but is more targeted against specific invaders). Think of non-specific immunity like a sledge hammer, while specific immunity is more like a scalpel. The sledge hammer is quick and dirty, and (as you might imagine) will cause a lot of inflammation even in surrounding healthy tissues. The scalpel, on the other hand, won’t cause as much collateral damage, but it will have to be very carefully directed in order to do any good.
Because your specific immune system (the scalpel) needs careful direction, two kinds of cells are necessary: the T and B cells.
If I can mix my metaphors, think of the T cells as the managers and the B cells as the worker bees (no pun intended) – that is, the B cells actually produce antibodies against specific invaders, while the T cells tell the B cells what to do.
Now there are three types of substances (called antigens) that have the potential to provoke your specific immune system to make antibodies against them. There are soluble antigens (these come from your diet and your environment), insoluble antigens (these come from microbes and pathogens), and self antigens (these come from your own cells).
Reactions against soluble antigens are called allergies.
Reactions against self antigens are called autoimmune diseases.
Reactions against insoluble antigens is normal immune function.
Those T and B cells that produce the wrong kinds of antibodies are supposed to be destroyed before they ever enter the bloodstream, but since some get out anyway, there’s a built in checks-and-balances system: the Regulatory T cells.
Fortunately, Regulatory T cells are produced in proportion to the number of rogue immune cells (mixing metaphors one more time: if you have more criminals, you need more cops). But your gut can also produce Regulatory T cells under the right set of conditions. In fact,80% of your immune system is in your gut. This makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, your gut is your body’s first line of defense, since that’s where your organs first come in contact with the outside world.
So, with both allergic and also with autoimmune patients of almost any diagnosis, I usually start with the gut (and if I don’t start with it, I always address it at some point). The goal is to a) produce more Regulatory T cells (more cops) to stop the antibodies against self or soluble antigens (criminals), and b) to increase the production of antibodies against insoluble antigens – the true foreign invaders.
Back to the sledgehammer (non-specific immunity): in the case of both autoimmune and allergic patients, although it’s the specific immunity that’s gone awry (the scalpel is targeting the wrong things), the sledgehammer tries to pick up the slack. As a result, there’s always a lot of inflammation going on in these patients too. My first approach is to identify and remove sources of inflammation, ensuring a good diet that’s chock-full of anti-inflammatory oils and antioxidants. It’s of course very helpful to also reduce exposure (in the case of allergies) to decrease this inflammatory response when possible. When exposure is unavoidable, we may try to build an immune tolerance instead, using very small but increasing exposure to the antigen (with oral allergy drops). Some studies suggest that small but increasing exposures to self-antigens may have a similar tolerance-building effect in autoimmune conditions as well.
Want to know how to apply this to a protocol that’s right for you? Make an appointment today!