Are You Sick of Feeling Sick? These 4 Steps Can Help You Naturally Heal Your Immune System
Autoimmune disease is caused by an overreaction of the body’s immune system. This happens when systemic inflammation triggers your body’s cells to attack themselves. Inflammation is usually understood as some combination of pain, swelling, redness and heat. It might be easy to observe on the outside of the body, but when it happens inside the body, we usually know something is wrong, but we are not quite sure what it is.
As many as 50 million people suffer from autoimmune disease, ranking it in the top 10 causes of death for women under the age of 65. There are more than 80 recognized types of autoimmune disease, includng Celiac Disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Hashimoto’s, Graves Disease, and many more. Many autoimmune diseases have an underlying genetic component that is then expressed in the presence of toxins or chronic inflammation tied to food sensitivities or leaky gut. Do you think you might have an autoimmune disease? Listen to the Lucid Planet Radio podcast on Autoimmune disease or read this article on 10 signs you might have autoimmune disease
When I spoke to functional medicine doctor Susan Blum on Lucid Planet Radio, she shared these 4 tips based on her years of practice treating inflammation by using as food as medicine. You can listen to the whole interview and also hear about my personal experiences with auto-immune disease on the podcast. Whether you have auto-immune disease, asthma, allergies, or you just get sick a lot, these tips can help you feel better and get your immune system back on track!
Step 1: Try an Elimination Diet
Food can trigger inflammation in the body.
Certain foods (depending upon an individual’s sensitivities) can cause the release of chemicals from cells that triggers their inflammation responses. According to Dr. Blum, gluten is one of the key foods that has been known to trigger inflammation through multiple mechanisms, and can become part of the process that triggers auto-immune disease. For example, in a process known as molecular mimicry, the body can mistake gluten for thyroid tissue and begin to attack it’s own thyroid, leading to conditions like hypothyroid (this is exactly what happened to me two years ago!) Other foods that can trigger inflammation according to Dr. Blum include dairy, corn, soy, and eggs, as well as more obvious contenders like meat, sugar, and alcohol.
In order to figure out which foods can cause sensitive reactions in your body, and to enhance your overall immune functioning, Dr. Blum recommends removing the common foods that trigger inflammation for three weeks. Then, eat them again one at a time, very slowly, and see when you feel inflammatory reactions. While one patient may have no problems eating corn, another may be unable to get out of bed the day after eating it. Our bodies are all so different!
It is also important to eliminate genetically modified food from your diet, which Dr. Blum says can cause leaky gut and damage the intestinal lining. Organic is always best, but organic foods may not eliminate your sensitivities. In other words, if you are sensitive to eggs, then even organic eggs can still trigger an inflammatory response.
Step 2: Repair Your Healthy Gut Flora
When our guts feel off, we feel off. Dr. Blum reminds us that 70% of our immune system (i.e., our maturing and active immune cells) lies beneath the intestinal lining. There is a living, thriving ‘microbiome’ in our gut, in fact, there are more mircobacteria in our gut than there are cells in our whole body!
If you have chronic diarrhea, constipation, severe gas, bloating, abdominal pain, cramps and other gut problems like diagnosed chronic IBS, ulcerative colitis, GERD, or acid reflux, the chances are your gut flora is off. Years of unhealthy practices such as frequently eating antacids, consuming too many antibiotics, taking too many painkillers, or drinking too much alcohol can also cause imbalance to our gut flora, as can chronic yeast infections/ candida. Dr. Blum explains in the podcast that when the barrier between our intestinal mucosal lining becomes damaged due to these poor practices, we can end up with what is called a “leaky gut.”
When leaky gut occurs, undigested food particles can travel more easily into the body and create an immune reaction, making us feel sick or even triggering autoimmune disease.
The simplest way heal our gut is to take probiotics to repair our healthy gut flora. However, consider the analogy of your intestines being a garden that needs to replanted with healthy flora: First, we must ensure there is good, fertile soil in the garden by eating clean healthy foods including organic fruits, veggies, fiber, protein and healthy fats. We must also ensure that the are no weeds in the garden, including yeast (candida) and bad bacteria, by cleansing using herbs such as oregano, grapefruit seed oil and more (herbal treatments are more are listed in Dr. Blum’s book, The Immune System Recovery Plan). After a month of tilling the soil and removing the weeds, you are ready to replant the flora using probiotics.
According to Dr. Blum, research is ongoing to determine the best strains of probiotics to take for different gut conditions. For now, she recommends a broad spectrum formula with multiple species of lactobacilius and bifidum, you can work your way up to as many as to 100 billion per dose! She recommended that I take the over-the- counter brand VSL 3, suggesting I work up to the to full dose over the course of the month. If you are on antibiotics, you can still take probiotics, just do it at different times of day. Introducing cultured foods like kombucha or sauerkraut can also help to rehabilitate your gut flora. (We talk much more about proper probiotic usage in the podcast!)
Step 3: Clean up Your Act (And your Liver!)
We are a sum of all of the toxins we have been exposed to during our lifetime. Our liver is in charge of clearing out toxins, but its engine needs proper fuel, as in healthy fruits and veggies, vitamins, antioxidants, proteins and healthy fats, in order to clear out the toxins.
These toxins range from the myotoxins in mold, to the heavy metals and pesticides found in our environment. According to Dr. Blum, the fish has been a huge contributor to mercury toxicity for many of Americans, begging the question, have we become “sushi addicts” with detrimental consequences? Mercury has been known to cause immune system dysfunction. It can even get taken up into the thyroid gland and causes damage. Dr. Blum has noticed a link in her practice between teenagers having mercury fillings being diagnosed with thyroid disorders, because the mercury can end up in the lymphatic system and get drained straight into the thyroid!
The liver has to deal with all the pesticides and toxins in our foods and in our environments. We must support our liver by giving in the fuel it needs, including: lots of greens, cruciferous vegetables and cabbages, and colorful antioxidant rich foods including peppers, berries as well as proteins and amino acids. Dr. Blum argues that we have very much become a human race stewing in toxins, and that we must work on cleaning up our environments and also helping the earth be cleaner if we can to feel sick less often. For more on reducing toxins in your foods and in your environment, visit the Environmental Working Group Website.
Step 4: Keep Your Stress in Check
Dr. Blum explains that in many of her patients’ stories about the triggers of their autoimmune reactions, stress is the final straw that breaks the camel’s back. In other words, we might be functioning alright, with autoimmune problems brewing just below the surface. Cue a stressful life event, and suddenly, we reach a tipping point where the symptoms suddenly begin to manifest and the disease becomes real. For example, I can trace my diagnosis of hypothyroidism back to a very stressful life event: Moving across the country. I had been fine, and then suddenly during my move, my thyroid began to swell up and after a biopsy was taken and cancer diagnosis had been ruled out, I was diagnosed with hypothyroid.
We know stress can be harmful to the immune system and to the functioning of our digestive system, and it is therefore important to take care of our mental states and engage in behaviors and activities that help to reduce our stress, including exercise, yoga, meditation and creative activities. If you have been sick a lot or if you are suffering from autoimmune disease, it is also important to know the role that stress might play in your illness, and how it has kept you from healing. If you can understand why stress pushed you over the edge, and observe what other factors there are in play, you can begin to better engage in your healing process.
Remember, everyone is different. Becoming aware and learning what works for your body and what does not work for your body is absolutely crucial for healing inflammation and living a healthier life.