What Your Doctor May Not Tell You
About Autoimmune Disorders
By Stephen Edelson, M.D.
Read the transcript of Dr. Stephen Edelson (Coming soon)
What Is Autoimmunity?
An Excerpt from Dr. Edelson’s book,
What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Autoimmune Disorders
You’re alone, walking down a dark alley late at night. You’re feeling strong and confident; there’s a spring in your step, and you’re striding with determination. Suddenly, out of nowhere, you’re attacked from behind. Immediately you burst into action. You maneuver your way out of the stranglehold bear hug. You turn and quickly release a strategically placed kick. You send the invader to his knees, then pin him down just as reinforcements arrive to haul him away. And you didn’t even break a sweat or a nail. You just did what you were trained and ready to do: protect yourself.
THE IMMUNE SYSTEM
Protecting and preserving your health is exactly what your immune system is designed to do. Your immune system is a complex network of organs, glands, and special cells that encompass your entire body. Its purpose is to guard you against invaders that can harm you or compromise your body’s ability to function in a healthy way. When your immune system is operating optimally-when all its components are healthy and alert-it can effectively fight off many different types of enemies, such as bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi, and the harmful effects of stress, household chemicals, secondhand smoke, pesticides, and food additives. Like a well-placed kick, the immune system fights back . . . and you win.
Unfortunately, people with an unhealthy immune system don’t feel like their immune system is kicking back. Bea, a thirty-three year-old mother of two girls, says she felt like she was the one being kicked. “I was exhausted and achy all the time,” she says. “I felt like I was letting my husband and kids down because I was always too tired to go out. They were always going to the mall and to the park without me. I even missed my daughter’s school play because I was too tired and depressed to leave the house.”
“I was embarrassed to make any more excuses to my friends,” says Lila, a forty-two-year-old graphic artist. “I had to make sure I was near a bathroom everywhere I went, because I never knew when the stomach cramps and diarrhea were going to hit me. It was safer to just stay home.”
Bea and Lila are not alone. Millions of people are burdened with chronic, life-altering symptoms that often are manifestations of something gone awry with the immune system, causing it to turn against the body’s cells. In Bea’s case, the fourth doctor she saw diagnosed her with lupus before she came to see me. Lila found her way to the Edelson Center before getting a diagnosis, which we identified as Crohn’s disease. Both women responded well to our treatment program.
What makes the immune system turn against the very body it inhabits? To understand this process, it helps to first know how the immune system works when it’s healthy.
Meet the Players
The number and types of players involved in maintaining a healthy immune system are great-greater than can be described in detail here. But a basic knowledge of how they operate is important to understanding autoimmunity and any symptoms you may be experiencing. Therefore we explain the purpose of the main players below, since they are referred to again and again throughout this book.
Just as you would use a certain move to shrug off a bear hug and another to ward off an attack to your face, these players have specific moves that contribute to keeping your body functioning optimally. For example:
- Thymus. This is the master gland of the immune network. Located above the heart, it secretes various hormones that are responsible for regulating immune system functions. It also produces T-cells, which are another major player in immune system functioning (see below). The thymus is extremely susceptible to damage from stress, environmental toxins, infections, and chronic illness.
- Skin and mucous membranes. Your body’s largest organ is the skin, which is also its first line of defense against intruders. Whenever it is compromised, say, with a cut, burn, abrasion, or puncture, there is an open door for disease-causing organisms to enter. The mucous membranes of the gastrointestinal tract, lungs, vagina, nose, mouth, and so on, are the body’s “internal” skin, and are also a line of defense against invaders.
- Bone marrow. The center portion of bone is an area rich in blood vessels and other substances. It is here that many types of immune cells are manufactured.
- Spleen. This dark red organ, located on the left side of the upper abdominal region, manufactures lymphocytes, attacks bacteria, and recycles damaged blood cells.
- Lymph nodes. These tiny, glandlike structures are found throughout the body, including under the arms, in the groin, and behind the ears. If you’ve ever had “swollen glands,” what you actually had were inflamed lymph nodes. And the reason they were swollen is because the lymph nodes act as an inspection station for foreign substances, which they remove from the body’s tissues.
The lymph nodes prevent these substances from entering the bloodstream and finding their way to the organs.
- Lymphatic system. This network consists of lymph vessels, lymph nodes, and lymph, a thick fluid that is made up of fat and white blood cells. While the circulatory system is the transportation system for blood, the lymphatic system carries immune cells to parts of the body where they are needed.
- Lymphocytes. A type of white blood cell, lymphocytes are produced in the bone marrow and are found in the blood and in the spleen, lymph nodes, thymus, and other tissues. Lymphocytes perform four primary functions, all of which must work properly for a healthy immune system. They (1) recognize the invaders; (2) prepare a line of defense; (3) communicate with other essential immune system cells by producing cytokines and deploying them to act against the invaders; and (4) stop the action of the immune cells once their job is done. If any one of these steps goes awry, disease, including autoimmune conditions, can be the result. You’ll be reading more about lymphocytes and their role in autoimmune conditions later. For now, here are some of the major types of lymphocytes and what they do:
B-lymphocytes (B-cells) work along with T-cells as the main line of defense for the body. They look for invading foreign proteins (called antigens) and “tag” or mark them with proteins called antibodies. This tag lets other immune cells know that an invader is in their midst so they can destroy it.
T-lymphocytes (T-cells) reach maturity in the thymus and then circulate throughout both the lymphatic system and bloodstream. They initiate attacks against antigens, direct the fight, and then stop the destruction. T-cells are divided into several types. The ones we will concern ourselves with here are CD4 (helper T-cells), which act as cheerleaders and urge other immune cells to attack; and CD8 (suppressor cells), which make sure the helper T-cells don’t overreact.
Natural killer cells perform the dirty work. While B-cells simply “tag” the invaders, natural killer cells live up to their name and destroy them. They also produce hormonelike chemicals called cytokines.
Macrophages are known as the recyclers of the immune system, because they consume invading organisms, tumor cells, and dead red blood cells. They also produce cytokines.
- Immunoglobulins. Each B-lymphocyte produces a specific antibody, or immunoglobulin. There are five main types of immunoglobulins, which are named according to their presence in the blood: IgG, IgA, IgM, IgD, and IgE.
- Interferon. Interferons are a type of cytokine that you will read more about later in this book. There are several types of interferons, including alpha interferon and gamma interferon. For now, it’s important that you know that interferons are powerful antiviral substances and that they are often used to treat cancer and hepatitis.
COMMUNICATION IS THE KEY
These components, along with dozens of others, make up the immune system network. It’s easy to see why with so many components, it would be easy for things to go wrong. For the most part, the immune system functions well because its cells communicate with each other, the brain, and other parts of the system. Their method of communication involves cytokines, hormonelike substances that transmit information among immune cells. Although immune cells don’t have ears, they can detect minute changes in cytokine production, which in turn stimulates them to respond in certain ways, say, by launching an attack against certain invaders.
Some cytokines communicate not only with immune system cells but with nerve cells as well. These specialized cytokines, called interleukins, perform many critical and interesting tasks, some of which help support the idea of the mind-body relationship in medicine. Scientists know, for example, that the brain (a part of the nervous system) plays a key role in controlling our immune system and physical health. (In fact, the microglia in the brain is part of the immune system.) This is obvious when we consider the effects emotional stress and tension have on our body, causing headaches, neck and back pain, stomach distress, and many other symptoms. Thus, interleukins link the immune and nervous systems, a concept that will become more obviously important later when we discuss the effects of stress in people with autoimmune conditions.
Speaking of autoimmune conditions, now let’s talk about when something goes wrong with immune system functioning.
WHEN THINGS GO WRONG WITH THE IMMUNE SYSTEM
Let’s go back to that dark alley. This time your head is down and you’re dragging your feet. You’ve been working hard, you’ve been eating lots of processed fast foods, and you’ve been spending too much time in smoky nightclubs. This time when you’re attacked, the mugger gets the best of you. Your immune cells fight back, but they’re not as effective as they could be. So you get to spend a week feeling miserable with the flu, a stomach virus, or a bad cold.
No one’s immune system operates perfectly all the time. It’s virtually impossible to find a person who has never had a cold, suffered with the flu, had a toothache or ear infection, or gotten an infection from a cut or burn. But in most cases, the body’s immune system eventually overcomes the invaders and the body returns to relative harmony.
Unfortunately, there are millions and millions of individuals whose immune systems do not respond normally to an attack. Instead of attacking foreign invaders with antibodies-substances produced by the immune system to fight invaders-the immune system components attack the body’s own healthy cells-perhaps bones, joints, blood, brain, nerves, or other body parts-as if they were the enemy. When the immune system reacts in this way, it is producing autoantibodies-substances that attack healthy cells instead of foreign invaders. This situation is known as an autoimmune response.
More than eighty separate medical conditions have been recognized as being the result of an autoimmune response. Some of them are quite common; others are rare. In this book we concern ourselves with the more common conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, hypothyroidism (Hashimoto’s thyroiditis), hyperthyroidism (Graves’ disease), Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, type 1 diabetes, autism, chronic fatigue syndromes, ankylosing spondylitis, autoimmune hepatitis, autoimmune kidney disease, polymyositis, scleroderma, silicone immune toxicity syndrome, Sjögren’s syndrome, and vasculitis.
On the surface, these conditions seem to be quite different. The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (inflamed, painful joints, limited mobility) are different from those common to Crohn’s disease (chronic diarrhea, abdominal pain, fever). Yet the vast majority of autoimmune diseases share several important similarities:
- a genetic susceptibility for specific autoimmune conditions. It is unknown how many people have a genetic predisposition for autoimmunity and who will experience an autoimmune response; and
- environmental toxins that trigger the autoimmune response
It is these similarities, which we will discuss in the pages that follow, that have drawn me and other like-minded health professionals to successfully treat these autoimmune conditions using techniques not normally employed by conventional physicians. While conventional medicine simply treats the symptoms, we heal the body by going directly to the origins of the disease-the autoimmune response at the cellular level. To get a better understanding of how we do that, it’s first important to understand why autoimmune conditions develop in the first place. The reason, I believe, is simple: direct damage and free-radical damage to cells from environmental toxins (heavy metals and chemicals).
Free radicals are highly charged molecules that have an unpaired electron in their outer orbit. They are naturally present in the body and, in relatively small numbers, they perform essential tasks, such as destroying harmful bacteria. But when they increase in number, they can damage DNA, cell membranes, enzyme systems, and immune system functioning.
Because the natural order of the universe is toward balance, and free radicals are unbalanced molecules, they constantly steal electrons from other molecules, which in turn creates more free radicals. Unfortunately, our environment is increasingly becoming tainted with free radicals because of environmental toxins, such as pesticides, radiation, household chemicals, viruses, secondhand smoke, toxic waste, food additives, alcohol, and drugs. When these and other free radicals invade the body, they go on to create even more free radicals and thus have the potential to cause much damage to the body’s cells. The damage that free radicals cause is called oxidation. (Such damage can be avoided or reduced if the body produces or takes in enough protective molecules called antioxidants.
Our bodies are constantly under attack by negative environmental factors, which means we are constantly fighting the effects of oxidation. Being in this state of oxidative stress is what makes us sick. For some people, for various reasons we will discuss later, free-radical damage and oxidative stress cause an autoimmune process and autoimmune disease.
By Power-Surge guest:
Stephen Edelson, M.D
Read the transcript of Dr. Stephen Edelson (Coming Soon)