prevalence of autoimmune disease has increased exponentially
over the last 20-30 years. It is reported that roughly 700
million people around the world are living with some sort of
“There’s no sign of this trend slowing down; on the
prevalence of autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes,
inflammatory bowel disease, and multiple sclerosis is increasing at
an alarming pace. From 2001–2009 alone, the incidence of type 1
diabetes increased by 23 percent!”
To add concern to the growing number of individuals living with
the condition, it appears that conventional treatment has little to
offer in reducing the severity and discomfort that accompanies
What is Autoimmune Disease?
The human body is designed with a
specialized immune system composed of a complex network of
special cells and organs. These cells and organs are designed to
defend the body from germs and other foreign invaders.
At the core of your immune system is the ability to
differentiate between “self” and “nonself”, or what is you
versus what is foreign matter. Autoimmune disorders, or disease,
occurs when the body’s immune system begins to attack and
destroy healthy body tissue by mistake.
diseases are born when your body is working hard to defend
itself against something potentially dangerous, such as an
allergen, a toxin, an infection, or even a food, and it fails to
differentiate between the intruder and parts of your own body.
Mistaking certain types of tissues for harmful substances, your
body turns these antibodies against itself, wreaking havoc on your
Autoimmune disorders usually fall within
one of two categories: systemic or local. Here is the
Systemic autoimmune diseases are linked to the production of
non-specific tissue autoantibodies, leading to a spectrum of damage
which can affect a wide range of tissues, organs, and cells of the
Localized autoimmune diseases, on the other hand, lead to
organ-specific conditions, affecting a single organ or tissue.
It is important to note, however, that the boundary between
systematic and nonsystematic disorders can become a bit fuzzy as
the disease runs its course. In other words, as the effect and
scope of localized autoimmune disorders takes hold of the body, it
is not uncommon for the damage to extend beyond the initially
Immune System 101
To better understand how your body has the ability to “attack
itself”, leading to the development of an autoimmune disease, it
helps to know the basics about immunology. Let’s briefly look
at the various organs, the cells they produce, and the role these
specialized cells play in protecting you from illness.
Bone marrow – found within your bones, where immune
cells are derived.
Thymus – A flat, pinkish-gray gland, found in the upper
chest in front of the heart. This is where your T-cells pass
through and mature.
Lymphatic system – A critical system for the elimination of
toxic waste from your tissues. This system is made up of lymph
fluid, lymphatic vessels, bone marrow, lymph nodes, spleen and
T-cells – These immune system cells function like
“warriors” and mature in the thymus. Once mature
t-cells enable each individual T-cell to recognize only one of
millions of antigens, at which time they migrate into your
lymphatic system and circulate in the blood.
B-cells – These immune cells are produced in and by your bone
marrow and are responsible for the secretion of antibodies.
You’ll notice the term “t-cells” used multiple times in
the above list, and as you may have already gathered T-cells are of
great importance. (#) These cells
are taught to recognize invading cells, or non-self cells, from
your own cells.
Remember, a normal functioning immune system only attacks
substances and infections that are thought of as foreign invaders,
such as cancer cells. When the immune system is “confused”,
it begins to attack healthy cells found within the body.
Target Organs and Tissues
The triggers for autoimmune disorders are rather variable, and
may be brought on by the following conditions:
Environmental exposure to chemical solvents
A drug response
Contraction of a viral or bacterial infection
Sunlight or radiation
Just as the triggers for an autoimmune reaction are varied, the
debilitating effect vary as well depending on the target organs and
tissues affected by disorders. (1) With
more than 80 types of autoimmune disorders, some common tissue
types and bodily sites that the immune system can begin to attack
endocrine glands (i.e. thyroid or pancreas)
red blood cells, and
Keep in mind it is possible to have multiple tissues and organs
attacked by the immune system, resulting in the diagnosis and
presence of more than one autoimmune condition at the same
Signs and Symptoms of Autoimmune Disease
There is some amount of mystery and confusion behind certain
autoimmune conditions, such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid
arthritis and thyroiditis. (2)
Part of what contributes to the unknown lies in the fact that
the biological basis, and some of the most common symptoms that
accompany such debilitating illnesses, may not be linked to one
“Despite its prevalence, the level of basic autoimmune
research funding is below 3% of the National Institutes of Health
(NIH) total budget, which may explain why we understand so little
about the roots of these diseases. Indeed, AARDA reports that the
whole arena of autoimmune research is in its infancy…We do know
there are factors at the root of autoimmune
disease development, which include both genetic and
While the biological or genetic and environmental factors
contributing to the development of an autoimmune disorder may not
be well understood, there are some well documented signs and
Experiencing any of the symptoms listed below may indicate the
presence of an autoimmune disease; however, experiencing more than
one of these symptoms could increase the likelihood of an
Joint pain or muscle pain, accompanied by weakness or
Unintentional weight loss or weight gain
Intolerance to heat or cold
Recurrent rashes or hives or sun-sensitivity
Brain fog, difficulty concentrating or focusing
Abdominal pain, bloody stools, diarrhea
White patches or ulcers in and around your mouth
Dry eyes, mouth, or skin
Numbness or tingling in hands or feet
Multiple miscarriages or blood clots
It is estimated that up to 1/3 of the risk factors for
developing an autoimmune stem from heredity and genetics; however,
gender plays a very large part in the development of autoimmune
Interestingly enough, the female population accounts for about
75% of Americans afflicted by autoimmune conditions. (4) On
top of that, autoimmune disease constitutes some of the leading
causes of death and disability in women, up to the age of 65.
Though the relationship between sex and the prevalence of
autoimmune disease is not well understood, researchers have been
able to document that women have higher levels of antibodies,
mounting larger inflammatory responses than men when their immune
systems are triggered.
fluctuate, autoimmune diseases responds in accordance to such
shifts. (5) When a women
becomes pregnant, has her menstrual cycle, goes through menopause,
or takes birth control, the severity of the condition may change.
Despite the large percentage of the female population at risk of
developing an autoimmune disorder, autoimmunity is not often
discussed as a potential health issue.
Commonly Diagnosed Diseases
Thyroid disease, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid
arthritis top the list as some of the most commonly diagnoses
autoimmune diseases in the United States. Let’s take a closer
look at these commonly diagnosed conditions so you have a better
understanding of how autoimmune disorders can impact your
Graves’ disease and
Hashimoto’s disease are the two types of autoimmune diseases
that target the thyroid. Graves’ disease leads to an overactive
thyroid (hyperthyroidism), whereas Hashimoto’s disease causes an
underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism). Most individuals are
diagnosed with thyroid disease between the age of 20 and 30 years
old, and women have higher rates of thyroid disease compared to
The thyroid gland is the main metabolic regulator of the body,
thus any sort of gland dysfunction affects your metabolism. In
the presence of Graves’ disease, as the thyroid gland is attacked
by the body’s antibodies, inflammation and swelling result. This
in turn leads to hyperthyroidism, or an overactive metabolic state,
whereby the body basically goes into overdrive. As the
metabolic rate increases, one may also experience an increase in
heart rate and blood pressure.
Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is caused by antibodies reacting
against proteins on the thyroid; however, this disease is
characterized by a gradual destruction of the gland itself. As
the gland is destroyed, the body is no longer able to produce
critical thyroid hormones required by the body, and metabolic rate
will decrease, most often leading to unintentional weight gain.
Systemic Lupus Erythematosus
(SLE): SLE (i.e. “lupus), is a chronic, autoimmune disorder
that affects many organs and tissues, most often skin, blood,
joints, kidneys, lungs, and the heart. Antibodies produced in
response to the disorder lead to the formation of immune cell
complexes, which build up over time various tissues leading to
pain, inflammation, or destruction of the areas of the body that
are under attack.
For many, lupus is
considered a mild condition and will only affect a few organs. For
others, however, it can trigger serious and potentially
life-threatening, conditions. Lupus can occur at any age, and the
disease is 10-15 times more common in women than men.
Studies have shown that some lupus patients have low levels of
DHEA (i.e. dehydroepiandrosterone), and further studies are
continuing to investigate the contribution of this hormone to the
onset of the disease.
Multiples Sclerosis (MS):
Multiple sclerosis is a chronic inflammatory autoimmune disease,
that specifically targets the central nervous system, thus
impacting normal function of the brain and spinal cord.
In MS, the body produces excess antibodies that go on to
specifically attack the myelin, which is a protective sheath that
covers nerves. As a result of the attack, neurological,
cognitive, and psychological problems set in. One may experience
weakness or paralysis of limbs, numbness, vision problems, speech
difficulties, problems with walking or changes to motor skills, and
MS is actually the most commonly diagnosed neurological disease
in young adults and, most often detected in between the age 20
and 40. MS, like many other conditions, is much more prevalent
(almost twice as much) in women compared to men.
Rheumatoid Arthritis is a widespread, disabling autoimmune disease,
affecting the joints and muscles of the body. The most
frequently impacted joints are those that are free-moving,
including small joints of the hands, knees, ankles, hips, elbows,
wrists and shoulders.
RA results after the body launches an autoimmune attack on the
synovial membranes, the tissue that lines and cushions your joints.
In response to the attack, one may experience inflammation and
pain. As the condition continues to progress, the pain and swelling
increase, and over time this may result in destruction and
deformity of the bones.
RA typically surfaces between the age of 25 and 50, though the
symptoms may be mistaken as a normal part of aging. The condition
afflicts females two to four times more than males.
Unfortunately, RA is rather progressive, despite treatment
protcols. Many times the objective of treatment is quite simply
to control inflammation, prevent or slow joint damage, hopefully
leading the condition into remission.
Traditional Autoimmune Treatments
To date, there is no cure for the majority of diagnosed
autoimmune disorders, thus individuals are faced with a lifetime of
debilitating symptoms, which may include loss of organ or tissue
function, and extensive medical costs.
The goal of treatment is most often targeted at the reduction
chronic symptoms, decreasing the intensity of the immune system
activity, and being able to maintain the immune system’s
“normal” ability to fight foreign invaders.
Treatments vary widely and depend on the specific disease and
Take for example an individual living with Type I Diabetes,
where the target is to replenish insulin levels, usually through
injections or supplement the body with a hormone or vitamin that
the body is lacking. This is much different than the treatment of
an autoimmune disorder that either directly or indirectly affects
the blood or the circulatory system (i.e. autoimmune hemolytic
anemia, lupus, or antiphospholipidal antibody syndrome.)
Treatment of these conditions may require blood transfusions.
In the case of an autoimmune disorder that affects the bones,
joints, or muscle (i.e. multiple sclerosis or rheumatoid
arthritis), treatment may be geared towards the maintenance of
mobility or the incorporation of a medication to suppress pain and
It is also not uncommon for medicine to be prescribed as way to
control or reduce the immune system’s response. Popular
medications include corticosteroids and immunosuppressant drugs
(i.e. azathioprine, chlorambucil, cyclophosphamide, cyclosporine,
mycophenolate, and methotrexate).
Keeping Your Immune System Healthy
Keeping the immune system healthy and functioning appropriately
involves taking care of your health on many different levels.
Most books on the topics, as well as many health experts, promote
the simple concept of “living well”.
Whole body wellness involves basic, common sense practices like
following a healthy diet, getting enough rest or sleep,
exercising consistently, drinking alcohol only in moderation, and
To take your wellness to the next level, there are some additional
steps you can take to keep your immune system healthy such
Avoiding all possible exposure to environmental toxins such as
mercury, poisons and heavy metals.
Avoidance of taking unnecessary drugs.
Choosing your foods wisely with an understanding that your diet
plays a large part in healthy functioning immune system.
Regular sexual activity has been found to be beneficial through
its contribution to a healthy hormone balance.
Now that you have a better understanding of autoimmune disease
and how it can impact your health, you may be asking yourself,
“Do I need to follow a Paleo gluten-free diet to help boost my
immune system? What about alternative supplements or more
If you are asking yourself these questions, join the club! Of
the estimated 23 million people in the United States suffering from
autoimmune disease, most are asking themselves these same questions
daily, hoping for a safe solution without medical and drug-related
If you suffer from an autoimmune condition, or you know of a
loved one or friend who may be struggling with the condition, you
may already be aware of the Autoimmune Paleo diet (AIP). Many
individuals are transitioning to a refined paleo eating plan in an
effort to improve life-disrupting symptoms including pain and
While medical experts have offered
mixed feedback as to how effective the Paleo diet is in
treating autoimmune disease, individuals who have a vested interest
in following the dietary plan consistently support the AIP,
claiming that it has improved their quality of life.
While the AIP may be initiated as a way to manage an autoimmune
issue, chances are those suffering from autoimmune disease also
have a poorly functioning digestive tract. If the gut is not in
good shape, byproducts of all of the things passing through the
intestines are leaking through the gut barrier and into the blood
stream, stimulating the immune system to respond with greater
The AIP is designed..
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