One of the most unusual concepts in medicine is that of “autoimmunity”. The very idea that the human body would attack itself is not something that sounds normal – that’s because its not normal. In autoimmune conditions, the body’s immune system starts to attack healthy tissue. This results in inflammation and degeneration. There are more than 100 autoimmune diseases such as Rheumatoid Arthritis, Lupus, Multiple Sclerosis, Sjogren’s syndrome, Polymyalgia rheumatica, Celiac Disease, Diabetes Type 1, CREST syndrome, Amyloidosis, Meniere’s Disease, Vitiligo, etc.
Ayurveda & Natural medicine(s) have proven to be useful in several autoimmune conditions such as:
(Please use your intelligence when reading these studies. The patients in these studies were treated by Ayurvedic or holistic doctors and met an “Inclusion criteria”, meaning that they were not taking 10+ other supplements and didn’t have multiple disorders or an internet-based diagnosis. Using any of the herbs or formulations mentioned in these studies should be done under the supervision of an Ayurvedic doctor holding a BAMS degree)
1. Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis (1)
2. Psoriasis (2)
3. Rheumatoid Arthritis (3)
4. Lupus (4)
5. Multiple Sclerosis (5)
6. Diabetes Type 1 (6)
7. Scleroderma (7)
8. Crohn’s Disease (8)
9. Ulcerative Colitis (9)
10. Alopecia Areata (10)
11. Vitiligo (11)
There are literally thousands of clinical trials and case studies done on Ayurveda and other natural medical sciences for the treatment of hundreds of diseases.
How do these conditions occur?
Autoimmune conditions are characterized by the presence of auto-antibodies. Antibodies work like a beacon, signaling the immune system to attack. The term “auto-antibody” refers to an antibody produced by an organism that targets its own tissue. This occurs when a persons immune system cannot tell the difference between the body itself and a pathogen or foreign body. As a result, the immune system starts to attack the body itself, resulting in an inflammatory response and eventually degeneration. This often leads to painful and progressively debilitating symptoms.
Antibodies target very specific proteins. By identifying the antibodies present in a persons blood, a doctor can more precisely diagnose the patient’s condition. A few examples of antibodies are:
1. Anti-nuclear antibodies (ANA)
These antibodies target specific proteins within the nucleus of cells. There are many ANA subtypes such as:
– Anti-SSA/Ro autoantibodies -> SLE & Sjogren’s Syndrome
– Anti-RNP -> Mixed Connective Tissue Disease
– Anti-Jo1 -> Inflammatory Myopathy
2. Anti-transglutaminase Antibodies (ATA)
These antibodies target the transglutaminase protein. The anti-tissue transglutaminase (anti-tTG) antibodies are found in patients with Celiac disease, Juvenile Diabetes, Inflammatory bowel disease, etc.
These antibodies target the thyroid gland, leading to autoimmune conditions such as Hashimotos Thyroiditis and Graves’ disease. Specific anti-thyroid antibodies include:
– Anti-TPO antibodies -> Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis & Graves disease
– Anti-thyroglobulin antibodies -> Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, Graves disease & Thyroid Cancer.
– Anti-thyrotropin receptor antibodies -> Graves disease
4. Other auto-antibodies include:
– Anti-CCP -> Rheumatoid Arthritis
– Anti-Smooth Muscle Antibody -> Autoimmune Hepatitis
– Anti-MUSK -> Myasthenia Gravis
– Anti-Yo -> Paraneoplastic Cerebellar Degeneration
– NMO Antibody -> Devic’s Syndrome
What causes autoimmunity?
While most physicians would say that the cause is “unknown”, there have been studies linking various potential factors, such as:
While many physicians might debate this, it has been seen in studies that Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV) has the ability to alter genes associated with an increased risk of developing auto-immune diseases such as Lupus and Multiple Sclerosis. According to research, long standing Lyme infections lead to the induction of chronic autoimmune diseases. Lyme disease is caused by an infection acquired from a tick bite. Certain bacterial infections, such as Escherichia coli, Klebsiella pneumonia, and Proteus mirabilis are associated with rheumatoid factor. Associations between infections such as Coxsackie B4 Virus, Rubella and Cytomegalovirus (CMV) have been found with Type 1 Diabetes. (see study)
Vitamin D deficiencies are very evident in Multiple Sclerosis. Supplementation with Vitamin D in these patients, leads to a reduction in symptoms. Selenium supplementation has proven to be effective in reducing anti TPO antibodies . Other nutrient deficiencies that are associated with autoimmune conditions are Omega 3 fatty acids, Zinc and Vitamin A. (see study & see study).
Lack of Cellular Detoxification (Autophagy)
Autophagy is the processes via which cellular waste is cleared. When these waste products are not cleared, inflammation occurs. Studies have linked a deficiency of autophagy to almost every autoimmune condition. However, given that autophagy is regulated by metabolic hormones (insulin & glucagon) it might be possible that insulin resistance and other metabolic problems may also be at the bottom of some auto-immune conditions. (see study)
Leaky Gut Syndrome
This is a condition in which the permeability of the intestinal epithelial lining becomes compromised. Basically this means that the barrier protecting the body from unmetabolized substances and other environmental factors has become weakened. Usually this barrier is in place to allow for nutrients to enter the blood while blocking exterior antigens. As a result of a weakened barrier, toxins, bacteria, food antigens and other substances are able to pass through the barrier and enter circulation resulting in an immune system response. When these external antigens mimic self-antigens, the immune system starts producing more antibodies. (see study)
Stress results in the stimulation of the HPA (Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal) axis. This causes the stress hormone Cortisol to be released. Generally, Cortisol is considered an anti-inflammatory hormone, however in the case of chronic stress, a change in immune cell genes occurs. This leads to inflammation. In addition to this, stress also leads to the release of catecholamines such as epinephrine which increases blood pressure. It also leads to the release of glucagon – this causes an increase in blood sugar. Such an environment is a breeding ground for disease. (see study )
Ayurveda sees autoimmune conditions as a result of a build up of metabolic waste. These are cellular waste products that are not cleared due to inefficient cellular metabolic function. When waste builds up in the blood, this can lead to inflammatory responses. Therefore, it can be said that Ayurveda accepts a lack of autophagy and effects of a leaky gut as causative factors for autoimmunity. Autophagy is the process via which each cells clears out waste (amyloids, etc.) as well as dead cell organelles. Research has shown that a lack of autophagy is linked to almost every autoimmune disease.
Treatment for an autoimmune condition is obviously dependent on the specifics of that diseases. Unlike western medicine which generally uses anti-inflammatories (Steroids & NSAIDs) for treatment, Ayurveda has a more targeted approach.
We generally start off by correcting the metabolism and supporting the digestive tract. It is a known thing in western medicine that autophagy is regulated by metabolic hormones (insulin & glucagon). By improving metabolic health, we are able to support cellular detoxification. Of course, based on the hormones involved, this would be more difficult in a diabetic patient. However, many of the herbs and formulations used in Ayurveda are able to improve glucose metabolism in addition to correcting cellular metabolism, reducing inflammation and correcting autoimmunity.
In Ayurveda, there are specific acute symptoms associated with the build up of metabolic waste. When these symptoms are present, certain herbs and lifestyle practices (fasting, etc) are used until these symptoms subside. In Ayurveda, Metabolic waste is referred to as “Ama” and the treatment for getting rid of metabolic waste is called “Ama Pachana”. In clinical research, the use of Ama Pachana treatment has been found to be effective in autoimmune conditions such as Rheumatoid Arthritis (see study).
As soon as the acute symptoms subside, we give herbs and formulations that restore the function of the affected organ(s). We do this by directly treating the organ involved with herbs and formulations that have the ability to reduce inflammation and improve overall function. A good example of this is Nigella Sativa for treating Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. Nigella Sativa is a potent anti-inflammatory and assists with boosting thyroid function – this has been clinically tested in the clinical trial mentioned at the beginning of this article. In addition to this, symptomatic treatment is also given for acute symptoms such as pain and swelling, as well as other dysruptive or debilitating symptoms such as dysphagia, spasticity, etc.