Autoimmune Diseases: A Holistic Perspective (Parts 1 and 2)

1. What Are Autoimmune Diseases?

An autoimmune disease is a condition where an organism fails to recognize one of own parts as belonging to itself. As a consequence of this failure, the organism’s immune system moves to attack the part of the body mistakenly identified as a foreign substance. The immune system response is to send blood vessels, antibodies, and other healing agents to destroy the supposed pathogen and repair the damage. We’re familiar with the swelling, redness, pain and heat that surrounds an infected bite, a cut, burn or other wound on our bodies—it’s a process known as inflammation, and it signifies the action of the immune system. This type of inflammation is known as acute inflammation. But if the inflammation does not cease when the infection is healed, it can proceed to a cycle of cell destruction and attempts at repair known as chronic inflammation. During the process of an autoimmune disease, inflammation occurs on the part of the body that has been mistakenly identified as dangerous. As long as the body keeps getting the signal that a part of itself is bad, it will chronically continue to inflame the area, while simultaneously trying to repair itself. In some cases, this can lead to lesions—that is, abnormal cell tissue that has been permanently damaged—forming on the affected area. In most cases, the part of the body that has been attacked is unable to perform its job, which leads to totally separate health concerns.

Autoimmune diseases afflict 5 percent to 7 percent of Americans, or about 15 million people. The most common are Type 1 diabetes, Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, multiple sclerosis, most forms of hypothyroidism, and rheumatoid arthritis. Other diseases that are linked to autoimmune diseases are fibromyalgia, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, psoriasis, chronic fatigue syndrome, and schizophrenia.

Generally, these diseases are treated with medications, and, if necessary, with surgery (in which the inflamed body part is removed, as if it’s responsible for the problem). Scientists and doctors are generally agreed that no one yet knows what causes these kinds of diseases. They tend to show up without warning, and are found to be lifelong. Susceptibility to an AD is thought to be genetic, but not everyone in the same family comes down with one. There is, however, an AD that is linked to diet: Celiac. It is well understood that celiac disease is a condition in which the attempted digestion of wheat gluten triggers an autoimmune reaction: inflammation in the small intestine.

In this article, I make the argument that all autoimmune diseases are, like celiac, the result of problems digesting food. In my experience working with clients, the severity of autoimmune disorders (the term disease is, in fact, not really accurate; but I will continue to use it for convenience’s sake) significantly decreases once the intake of indigestible foods decreases. What follows is my theoretical argument for why this happens. In part 3 of the article, to follow next month, I include specific recommendations for healing the major autoimmune diseases.

2. How Diet and Lifestyle Can Trigger Autoimmune Diseases

Some autoimmunity is a good thing, and occurs normally. This has been compared to young animals play–fighting—although they’re on the same side, they practice on each other in the event of a real threat. However, severe, chronic autoimmunity is definitely not natural and not helpful to the body. How does it happen? In a healthy body, the immune system has a certain level of what is called immunological tolerance. This means that it can distinguish between what belongs in the body and what does not, and it “tolerates” what does belong. Only when there is a loss of this tolerance does the autoimmune disease occur. As I stated above, my opinion is that the loss of tolerance occurs when the level of indigestible food particles in the digestive system or elsewhere accumulates to an unsupportable level. The immune system reacts to destroy these particles wherever they may be accumulated, and in doing so can often destroy the organ or system where they are located through continued inflammation that occurs as a person continues to eat the same foods.

Everyone who eats food they have trouble digesting reacts to it according to their genetic heritage. Some people are born with a sensitivity towards having an autoimmune reaction; which autoimmune reaction also depends on their genetics. But while the sensitivity will always be there, the actual presence of the autoimmune disorder is conditioned by diet and lifestyle.

The human digestive system is designed to break down food into its constituent parts so that it can fulfill a variety of uses. Food provides carbohydrates and fat for energy, protein for tissue and cell growth and repair, and nutrients for many vital functions. These are the “macronutrients” we always hear about in mainstream nutrition: protein, carbs, fats, vitamins and minerals. What we rarely hear about are the equally important digestive enzymes and beneficial bacteria. Enzymes and bacteria are what make the digestive process actually happen. They break down food into its constituent parts and keep the intestines clean and healthy. Traditionally, people ate small amounts of raw, fermented foods on a regular basis; these foods had enzymes and bacteria aplenty. Now, it’s not so common for us to eat those foods. But it’s not just the absence of natural digestive aids that can lead to autoimmune disorders; it’s also the introduction of many highly processed, hard–to–digest foods into our diet. In an ironic twist, many of these processed foods are the traditional raw or fermented foods that are now no longer raw or fermented. The situation is made even worse when you realize that these foods were raw or fermented for a reason: they were hard to digest otherwise. So what are the hard to digest foods?

Pasteurized dairy. I wrote an article on raw milk several months ago, which you can find here. To put it briefly, we are meant to consume milk in its raw state, as we have for thousands of years, in which state it is rich with beneficial bacteria, digestive enzymes (including lactase, missing in lactose intolerant people), and even white blood cells. Fermented raw milk products such as yogurt and cheese are equally good for us. In pasteurized milk, these beneficial components have been deliberately destroyed by heat. As a result, our digestive systems have to do the difficult work of digesting cow’s milk sugar (lactose) and cow’s milk protein (casein) all by themselves.

Unfermented wheat. Since wheat is one of the toughest of all grains, it is usually ground into flour to make bread. Traditionally, all leavened bread was sourdough, while unleavened bread was often made with wheat berries that had been sprouted before being ground into flour. Both of these traditional processes—fermenting and sprouting—made what more digestible. Fermented dough contains plentiful healthy bacteria that break down starches in bread prior to baking. Sprouting grains before grinding them into flour conveys similar advantages. During a grain’s sprouting process, enzyme inhibitors are disabled, proteins are broken down into amino acids, carbohydrates into simple sugars, etc., all for the purpose of providing the now–growing plant with nutrition. It is part of the defensive mechanism of a grain to be indigestible if it has not yet sprouted, so that it has an opportunity to land in the earth and grow.

In modern times, wheat sprouting and fermenting are cast aside by large food companies in favor of artificial processing methods that emphasize efficiency over digestibility. Almost all bread products are made with white flour, which has a longer shelf life than whole wheat, but is all un–germinated starch and gluten, and lacks the nutrients that aid digestion.

Unfermented soybeans. All beans contain compounds that are difficult for us to metabolize and digest, which is why they can cause gas. Soaking beans and cooking them with kombu, a sea vegetable, is usually sufficient to break down the tough compounds. Soybeans, however, are probably the toughest of all beans and usually need to be fermented in order to be digested. Soybeans were traditionally consumed in Asia, where they were fermented with bacteria to produce such products as tempeh, miso, and tamari (soy sauce). These fermented bean products contained the necessary digestive enzymes to be tolerated by our digestive systems. But modern food manufacturers put soy products—such as soybean oil, soy lecithin, soy flour, soy protein isolate, and whole soybeans—into almost every processed food, without first properly soaking and fermenting the soybeans.

Rancid vegetable oil. As a result of the anti–saturated fat trend, food manufacturers use vegetable oil, such as the above–mentioned soybean oil, as well as cottonseed oil, safflower oil, and others, in almost every processed and fast food. They are also used to make margarine, a saturated fat substitute. Because these oils are not saturated, they are sensitive to light and heat and can go rancid quickly. Rancid oils contain free radicals, which destabilize cells in the body. Margarine is made from vegetable oil that is not only rancid, but “hydrogenated”—forced to undergo a chemical process that makes it solid, like butter, but also makes into indigestible “trans fat.”

Chemicals and toxins. Many of the commercial foods we buy contain artificial ingredients as well as natural ones. Milk contains antibiotics and artificial hormones. Bread is leavened with “bread improver,” a combination of chemical compounds (including sodium metabisulfate, hydrochloride, and ammonium chloride, and formerly a carcinogen, potassium bromate). Many artificial ingredients are added to bread to increase its shelf life. Soybeans and hydrogenated oils are treated with many chemical agents during processing. Non–organic processed foods have all been sprayed with artificial fertilizers and pesticides, and nitrites and nitrates have been used to preserve them. The human digestive system may not be capable of breaking down these many artificial compounds. Food manufacturers claim they are digested without trouble, but few, if any studies are done to support such claims.

When science does turn its attention to the effects on the human body of synthetic compounds such as fake butter in microwave popcorn or artificial colorings and preservatives, it usually finds that those products are dangerous. No study has been done to observe whether the above listed hard–to–digest foods are linked to autoimmune diseases. However, that connection is borne out both in theory and in experience. Theoretically speaking, it is plausible that an autoimmune disease is the result of the human body trying to defend itself from a critical mass of indigestible compounds that have accumulated in the digestive system and elsewhere (depending on where such indigestible food is stored by the body). Genetic differences account for why some of us develop autoimmune diseases, while others experience depression, fibromyalgia, psoriasis and other skin conditions, chronic fatigue syndrome, constipation, migraines, and other health concerns related to poor digestion. The departure of natural fermentation from our food processing methods and its replacement with pasteurization, artificial leavening, and chemical processing has created a perfect storm for the weakening of our digestive systems.

Fortunately, there is hope. Just as we damage our digestive systems through our diet, we can restore them to health by eating the right foods. In the interest of being comprehensive, I’ve written specific recommendations for each autoimmune disease, but due to considerations of length I will save that final part of this article for next month’s newsletter. However, if you have a particular interest in this subject, contact me and I will send you the rest of the article along with doing my best to answer any questions you may have.

What is Yin and Yang?

While we’re on the topic of Chinese medicine and of balance, we have a good opportunity to discuss the concepts of Yin and Yang. Yin and yang is a system of complementary opposites; although they are antitheses of each other, they are not in conflict like, for example, good and evil. Rather, both are necessary in a healthy existence. The value of this concept is using it to balance your own life. Yin and yang can be applied to nature, lifestyle, and diet. The original terms mean essentially “shady” (yin) and “sunny” (yang). While it’s hard to define them any more than that, yin is associated with darkness, nighttime, passivity, femininity, the moon, winter, negativity, coldness, receptivity, softness, grace, etc. Yang is the opposite—light, daytime, heat, summer, masculinity, positivity, aggression, growth, objectivity, hardness, etc. These distinctions apply to human activity as well. Most kinds of work, physical activity, and creation are considered yang. Sleep, rest, reading, and other passive behaviors are considered yin. Men and women are not exclusively yin or yang but contain some balance of each. The whole point of yin and yang is that one is not better than the other, but that they are perfectly equal and mutually dependent. Any time there is too much of one or the other, an imbalanced and unsustainable situation is created.

In American society, yang is emphasized much more than yin. Americans work long hours and take few vacations, and they usually work during their vacations. Our economy is based on constant growth and fears recession. In politics, an aggressive attitude is generally seen as the best. Sleeping, relaxing, reading, mediating, praying, and other passive or submissive activities are seen as ones that we “don’t have time for.” Since yang cannot exist without yin, though, yin still shows up where it can: in television or movie–watching, internet surfing, and drugs: cigarettes, alcohol, coffee, and hard drugs. Drugs are probably the most extreme of all yin substances—they help us to release all the tension built up during the day. However, because they are so extreme, they leave us worse off than before. They exhaust the body rather than soothe it. Not as serious as drugs, but similar to them, are very yin foods, especially sugar and sugary foods like candy, doughnuts, cookies, and ice cream. These foods relax us for the moment by flooding us with energy, but they mess up our blood sugar and put us on a yin–yang pendulum swing. To be healthy, you need to be in the middle of yin and yang—not swinging back and forth.

Many people who have uncontrollable cravings for sugar, snacks, coffee, and so on, would probably find those cravings reduced if they slept more, meditated more, and found other ways to relax. Another strategy is to try moderately yin foods like the aforementioned sweet vegetables and natural sweeteners. Note that one source of yin cravings can be too much yang food (highly salty snacks, deep–fried foods, excessive red meat). Simply observing and acknowledging your cravings and behavior as being guided by a need to create yin–yang balance can be very helpful in all areas of your life.

September Diet: The Vegetable Harvest

Every time the seasons change I like to remind everyone to change their diet accordingly. We’re healthiest when we eat the foods that are being harvested in the present, and in the area where we live, whenever and wherever that may be. Currently, it’s late summer, soon to be fall, and if we want to maintain our health and ward off illness, we should be eating late–summer fruits and vegetables like, well, almost every one you can think of. Along with August, September is the big harvest month in this part of the world, which means it’s a good time to have a nutrient–rich, vegetable–heavy diet. When the cold part of the year sets in, you’ll be glad you did! Most farmers’ markets should have at least some of the following available: string beans, beets and beet greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, collard greens, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, kale, lettuce, leeks, mesculn, onions, peas, peppers, potatoes, radishes, scallions, spinach, summer squash, swiss chard, tomatoes and turnips. Blueberries, cantaloupes, peaches, plums, raspberries and watermelons should still be available, and apples are ready now.

Later in the year some vegetables will still be available, like winter squash and pumpkins, root vegetables such as turnips, beets, and carrots, and hardy leafy greens, but there won’t be the same abundance there is today. Sure, you can go to the supermarket and get any vegetable you want, but it won’t have been grown locally. Instead, it will have been flown hundreds of miles from a warmer part of the world to get to you, it won’t be as fresh, and it will have used up a lot of fossil fuels along the way. In fact, it’s my opinion that the widespread prejudice against vegetables partly stems from the fact that we don’t eat them fresh, local and seasonal; instead, they’re canned, frozen, or shipped halfway across the world. All these processes diminish the flavor and nutrition of vegetables, and they increase the likelihood that we’ll eat them out of season, when our bodies aren’t even expecting them.

Late summer is a short season and a time of transition; the fulcrum that balances summer and winter. It is a brief window where many different foods are harvested at once. In traditional Chinese medicine, this time of year is associated with the Earth element. The digestive system (stomach, spleen, pancreas) and female menstrual cycles are also associated with the Earth element, so this is a good time to bring those systems into balance. The foods associated with Earth, sweet vegetables, dairy products, and natural sweeteners, can make or break proper digestion and menstruation. The refined carbohydrates we consume, such as high fructose corn syrup, alcohol, and white flour, overwork the pancreas and create an over–acidic environment in the digestive tract; diabetes and acid reflux are among the consequences. Pasteurized milk with added hormones is often responsible for the severe cramps and extreme mood swings in menstruating women. At this time of year especially, do your best drink either organic or raw milk and to consume complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, the sweet vegetables being harvested now, and natural sweeteners like raw honey, maple syrup, agave nectar, barley malt, and molasses. You’ll definitely have a much more peaceful transition to fall!