Autoimmune conditions affect many people today and because the cause of autoimmunity is not yet understood, they can be challenging to treat. What is autoimmunity? If you think about how during allergies, the body will respond unfavorably to a foreign substance in the external environment (such as pollen or ragweed) or internal environment (antibiotics or certain types of food, for example), we can make an analogy to what happens during autoimmunity. During autoimmune conditions, the body's immune system will launch a response against something it is recognizing as a threat, but this time it's the body's own tissues that are the target.
That can be a bit shocking to hear. How can the body not recognize its own tissues and actually target them for destruction and harm? When the body has an allergic response, it is hypersensitive to foreign substances but during an autoimmune response, the body is hypersensitive to itself. Here's a little mnemonic to help this concept stick:
Aka, the body is looking at one of its own organs, cell types, or specialized molecules in a new way that it wouldn't normally. What is making the body sensitive to its own self? Let's first look at how the immune system normally works and then move on to talk about how autoimmunity can come about.
The Autoimmune Perspective
Outer Layer of Immunity
The body has nonspecific defenses that are like an immune armor against the illness-causing agents out there. The outer skin is an important part of the nonspecific immune system because it serves as a boundary between the external environment and your body.
Where are other places that germs can gain easy access to the body? The external openings of the mouth, nose, and eyes are entry points for bacteria and viruses. But these parts of the body as armed as well to handle incoming invaders. Mucus and tears contain an enzymes that breaks down the cell walls of many bacteria. Mucus is gooey to trap germs inside of it and saliva has anti-bacterial properties.
Inner Layer of Immunity
Once a pathogen is able to make it past the outer layer of defenses into the body, that is when specialized immune cells must get involved in the specific immune response.
The lymph system and the spleen have important jobs to trap and filter the bad boys they encounter. These areas are also where a lot of the immune cells live. The bacteria travel to the lymph's hubs, which are the lymph nodes. The lymph nodes have cells that fight the bacteria, often leading to a tender feeling that lets people know they are dealing with an infection. The spleen is a blood filtering organ that searches for foreign cells and old red blood cells that need replacing.
White blood cells, which are produced in the thymus, bone marrow, and spleen, play an integral part in the immune response. There are two basic types of white blood cells (also called leukocytes):
- Phagocytes are the digesters, as in they eat foreign organisms.
- Lymphocytes are cells that help the body to:
- destroy pathogens, and
- help it remember what types of organisms have passed through for future reference.
There are two main types of lymphocytes and they are the key players of the immune response. We have:
- B lymphocytes-- Lock onto foreign organisms and send defenses in their direction.
- T lymphocytes-- Destroy intruders that the B lymphocytes have targeted.
White blood cells are designed to keep the body (self) away from anything that's not naturally a part of it (non-self). Read the next tab to find out about the cascade of events that happen when a pathogen enters the body.
The body's immune response is fascinating. It involves a lot of coordination among special tissues and cells types in order to eliminate foreign intruders, all without your knowledge that it's even happening. An invader is called an Antigen in science speak. Now, let's get down to the Immune Response.
First off, there are two important concepts that define the immune response. Specificity and Memory. Specificity means that each antigen that enters the body will be dealt with in a specific way by the immune system. Memory means that once a specific antigen is discovered and cleared from the body the first time, immunological memory will help the body recognize and remove the antigen faster the next time it returns.
Types of Immune Response
A primary immune response happens the first time the body encounters a specific antigen, and it takes several days to take effect with 1-2 weeks for maximum activity. The next time the body encounters the same invader, it will launch a secondary immune response which is quicker and takes only hours to begin and peaks within a few days. The invader is usually taken care of before it has a chance to cause harm.
There are a couple different ways that the body can launch an immune response, depending on what type of intruder is detected.
- Cellular Immunity is good at destroying abnormal body cells, such as those involved in cancer or viral infections. Cytotoxic T cells will release chemicals that destroy the cells.
- Antibody-mediated, or humoral immunity is better at destroying bacteria, viruses that are outside of cells, and other antigens swimming in body fluids. We'll go through the antibody-mediated response in more detail.
Antibody-Mediated Immune Response
Picture an antigen, let's just call it Spiky, getting past the immune system's initial nonspecific defenses and situating itself to have its way with the body. It's Spiky's first time in this individual's system and it isn't very worried about detection.
1) 'Naive' B cells' get activated in response to Spiky. They say, "Hey--this is a new one. Let's go see what's up." They work with other immune cells to identify the new antigen and create a plan.
2) The naive B cells start producing antibodies to deal with the problem. Antibodies are specialized proteins that target and lock onto specific antigens.
3) The antibodies made will stick around in the person's body for next time. If Spiky's clan returns, an immunologic memory will have formed from Spiky's first visit for a faster second response.
4) T cells know to attack and destroy Spiky when they see 'ole Spike has been flagged by antibodies. T cells also destroy mutated or infected cells, and they help signal other cells like phagocytes to do their job.
*Antibodies can also activate a group of proteins called the complement system that help kill bacteria, viruses, and infected cells.
Read the next tab about how the immune system affects us when turned inward.
Now imagine the cascade of immune events that you just read about being turned on the body itself.
The body is typically programmed not to launch an immune response against itself. This is called self-tolerance and is a key piece to immunity. The immune system leaves the body alone, allowing organ systems to do what they do best in metabolism, growth, and daily functioning.
Once parts of the body are identified as targets by the immune system, an organ system or multiple organ systems can become impaired and not work as well as they otherwise would. Some theories propose that when the body develops hypersensitivity to an antigen, it will overreact and start harming healthy tissues as well. As autoimmune conditions can run in families and among different ethnic groups, researchers have also suspected a genetic element to this group of illnesses.
Often, it is difficult to tell the exact cause of an autoimmune condition in an individual. The focus then shifts over to treating the symptoms that result so that a person can still enjoy his or her life and feel good. Read the next tab that describes what aspects of health can be boosted to help reverse and prevent autoimmune illness.
When the body is healthy, a genetic predisposition to an autoimmune illness can be prevented and even those symptoms that have shown up can get better.
Not taking care of oneself makes cells in the body feel more run down and worn out. Whether an autoimmune condition exists or not, the immune system is more likely to target damaged cells that have come about from poor nutrition, inadequate rest, prolonged stress, and an accumulation of waste products. Here are a few key organ systems that you can take good care of toward preventing or reversing the body becoming a target.
The gastrointestinal system houses a huge part of the body's immune cells within its mucosal lining. This gut-related immune system interacts first with any food, fluids, medications, substances, and germs that enter your mouth before the rest of the body does. And that's a good thing! The immune cells distinguish what is okay to absorb into the blood from digestive contents and what should be considered foreign and harmful.
Ignoring gut health can be very injurious to the body's immune response overall, and especially in the case of autoimmune conditions. Excessive consumption of nutrient lacking foods, alcohol, recreational or prescription drugs can hurt the gut lining and reduce the population of beneficial bacteria that help in the gut's immune response. Inadequate fiber and water leads to waste accumulation in the intestines, and as waste matter sits there, toxins are produced which travel through the body and promote the body's hypersensitivity reactions. You can tell if this is happening to you if you're experiencing:
- Excessive gas and abdominal distention
- Chronic constipation
- Abdominal discomfort during or after meals
When the digestive lining and gut immunity is damaged, it leads to irritation and inflammation, allowing foreign intruders like pathogens to more easily enter the body and its tissues. The body's immune system will want to destroy these intruders, often leading to vague symptoms such as fatigue, dizziness, or a low-grade fever. Existing autoimmune symptoms can also get worse and more resistant to treatments.
The hormones in the body work together to regulate our sleep cycles, stress levels, energy, and much more. If there's anything that can help autoimmune conditions get better it is better sleep, low stress, and more energy. The autoimmune state is essentially one of hypersensitivity in the immune system so that even the body's cells seem like appealing targets of attack. Often, good rest and relaxation added to stress reduction can go a long way toward healing from autoimmune symptoms.
Cortisol is one hormone that remains too high during constant stress and poor sleep, only to dip and run out of fuel when you need it most. It has wonderful properties when its production by the adrenal glands and daily cycle is smooth. Cortisol helps us get through those crazy moments in life when just "taking it easy" isn't enough. But when high-stress days are strung together, prolonged high cortisol causes inflammation in the body, wears out cells, damages muscles, and exhausts energy reserves. In an autoimmune state, additional inflammation in the body is too much to deal with.
A healthy level of stress and cortisol supply can, instead of working against an autoimmune condition, help it improve with more energy, quality rest, and the ability to handle daily stress better.
Autoimmune conditions can be difficult because they cause emotional stress on top of the physical complaints that exist. Stubborn autoimmune conditions can make someone feel frustrated, angry, self-punishing, and sorry for themselves. They also bring up a lot of fear about not getting better and missing out on important opportunities in life. The condition can make it seem like nothing is tolerable anymore, whether it be daily activities, people we know, or even ourselves.
The mindsets we have during autoimmunity are just as important to pay attention to as are the physical symptoms. Even though feeling sorry for oneself can feel palliative or unavoidable in the moment, prolonged bouts of this mindset can not only make you feel like symptoms will never get better, but can actually make symptoms worse. Constant fear can prevent you from having the important visualization of getting better and it can block the conviction needed for healthy recovery. Intolerance to everything and everyone, including oneself, can create withdrawal from the world and life. The body can become even more intolerant of itself as a result, making symptoms more stubborn and intense.
Autoimmune conditions require nurturing of not only the body, but also the thoughts and emotions that can come up. Unchecked, destructive thoughts and emotions will only feed into autoimmunity.
Since all autoimmune conditions are unique in their presentation, we'll go over each condition individually in the Autoimmune Stars section. The conditions you'll read about will sound familiar to you, many of them are common in the population. You may have experience with one or know someone who does. Here are just some of the areas that can be affected in the body:
- Blood Sugar Control
- Tear and Saliva Glands
We will focus on both physical and mental-emotional factors of autoimmunity, where applicable. It's useful to look at the immune system as a network of cells that not only blocks out foreign germs, bacteria, and viruses, but also one that helps us keep out unwanted and harmful influences, thoughts, and emotions from our environments.
After all--the organ system that houses the largest collection of immune cells in the body, the digestive system, is also the home of the Enteric Nervous System (ENS). The ENS communicates back and forth between the gut and the brain/spinal cord and uses hormones and neurotransmitters that are involved in mood, memory, and learning. Hmm, a large immune center and nerve center side-by-side...it's therefore important for us to keep in mind any immune-emotions connections while reading through the conditions.
Click through the areas below to find out more about some common conditions that make up the autoimmune cluster. You'll notice how one star can easily affect other stars. For example, a hypersensitivity to Gluten in the intestines can cause inflammation and autoimmunity elsewhere in the body. See how many connections you can spot among the autoimmune stars. For more information and help on how to resolve autoimmune symptoms that may be affecting your health, click on the button below to take the Autoimmune Survey and visit our Services page.
The intestines see large amounts of food every day so it's no wonder that the area is also an easy target for autoimmunity. The food we eat, the fluids we drink, and other substances such as medications that we use are all foreign substances. The body and digestive system have been built to assimilate food and drink and to process other substances. But when there is a mismatch of what the body wants and what it's getting, an irritated gut can result and contribute to autoimmunity. Genetic factors and environmental influences also lead to intestinal autoimmunity.
Each of us is different in our digestive health and preferences. One person may be able to eat white bread sandwiches every day while another gets digestive symptoms from just a few wheat crackers. Coffee gives some people symptoms of acidity while for others it's no problem. How can you tell what to eat after reading so many magazine articles, websites, and books on the subject? The tried and true number one way to tell what works for you is to observe how different foods treat you.
With that in mind, let's explore the most common gut-related autoimmune conditions experienced today.
Wheat is a beloved ingredient of many cuisines around the world. Toast, pasta, naan, noodles, baked goods, you name it--the world has figured out how to make it using wheat. But over time what has also happened is a greater number of people who experience symptoms from eating wheat products, especially refined wheat products. Refined grains, in contrast to whole grains, are those products made of processed grain or grain flours. Usually the bran and germ are removed, bleaching happens, and other changes are made. The processing is what makes the grain very versatile to use.
With so many types of wheat products available, the proportion of processed wheat in the average diet has gone up from what it used to be when grocery stores were more local and scaled down. Wheat-containing foods are also among the favorites on restaurant menus, fast food drive-throughs and vending machines.
Celiac Disease has a genetic predisposition and those who suffer from it experience some of the following symptoms from eating wheat and other common grains such as barley and rye:
- Abdominal cramping
- Pale stools
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Increased lactose intolerance
Wheat contains a protein called Gluten that sets off the autoimmune reaction that causes these symptoms. Gluten makes dough elastic, helps baked goods to rise, helps wheat products keep their shape, and creates chewiness to the food. Once the gliadin part of the gluten protein encounters the small intestine in those with Celiac, it is processed by an enzyme and brings on an immune attack against the gut lining. The small intestines become inflamed and that is why Celiac sufferers typically maintain a gluten-free diet throughout life. Celiac Disease can be diagnosed using blood tests.
Even among those who do not have Celiac disease, many people decide to keep gluten-free diets because they feel better after cutting out wheat and often report increased energy. So should you cut out gluten from your diet? There is no black-and-white answer to this question. Most people decide to experiment by cutting out wheat and wheat products for a couple of weeks to see how they feel afterward. Since wheat makes up such a large part of the typical diet, it's important to substitute other foods during the experiment to make sure that calories don't dip too low, causing fatigue.
What can be frustrating about autoimmune conditions originating in the intestines is that many of them have similar symptoms.
What can also be frustrating is absorbing all the names associated with them: What is the difference between irritable bowel and inflammatory bowel? What's Crohn's disease and what's ulcerative colitis?
Let's untangle this a bit and talk first about Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). The name indicates that there is inflammation in the intestines, but where and how? IBD is actually an umbrella term for inflammatory autoimmune conditions occurring in the gastrointestinal tract. It has two main subtypes:
1) Crohn's disease 2) Ulcerative colitis
Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis differ in the location and nature of the inflammation. Before we talk about these two IBD conditions, here are a couple of interesting notes about intestinal autoimmunity in general:
Back to IBD. Click on the tabs in the box below to distinguish between Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.
- Abdominal pain and cramping
- Weight loss
- Fever is common
- Watery diarrhea
- Strained sensation or pain while passing stool
The inflammation that occurs in Crohn's disease is patchy and skips around in the areas it affects. The cause of Crohn's disease is unknown, but it is suspected that family history and genes play a part in it as well as environmental factors. Smoking can also contribute to the condition or make it worse.
- Abdominal pain and cramping
- Occasional weight loss
- Fever, more so when condition worsens
- Diarrhea and mucus in stool
- More common rectal pain than Crohn's
The cause of ulcerative colitis is also unknown, but there is a strong correlation with immune system dysfunction.
A full work up and diagnosis of these two IBD conditions involves blood tests and clinical imaging, which makes sense--you can see how similar the symptoms are. There are, however, simple lifestyle changes that help ease symptoms for both. They include:
- Eating small portions of food throughout the day
- Drinking small amounts of water throughout the day
- Avoiding too many high-fiber foods
- Avoiding fatty and fried foods
- Reducing stress
Finally, we have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which is not an autoimmune condition but still involves inflammation of the intestines. IBS is characterized by a spastic nervous colon that can alternate between causing constipation and diarrhea during bowel movements. It is the leading digestive complaint among patients and also the one most brought on by constantly high levels of stress and careless lifestyle habits.
The IBS digestive system looks like a bag of nerves and stress, leading to poor digestion, irritation and inflammation in the bowel, and often inflammation in other parts of the body as well. It can exacerbate existing autoimmune conditions and contribute to Celiac's Disease and IBD. Along with a healthy diet, reducing stress can go a long way toward recovery from IBS.
What other factors can contribute to IBS? Lactose intolerance, where the body lacks the enzyme lactase that breaks down milk sugars, can cause bloating, abdominal cramps, gas, and diarrhea. Food sensitivities in general, whether you're dealing with a gluten sensitivity or a gut that's sensitive to nuts or some other food, can contribute to IBS as well. Unaddressed mental-emotional factors can accumulate over time and lead to IBS.
The thyroid gland works with the adrenal glands to let your body know how much energy to use, depending on what the body's doing at the time. It produces two major hormones that go to work in body metabolism--T4 (thyroxine) and the more active T3 (triiodothyronine). The proper functioning of these hormones is so important, a whole lab panel is set up to test the levels of T3, T4, and the stimulating hormone TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) in the body.
Thyroid autoimmunity occurs more often in women than in men and can lead to symptoms that easily mimic those of other chronic health conditions. When someone has fatigue, weight fluctuations, or moodiness as major complaints the thyroid gland comes to mind for many docs. It is located in the middle of the lower neck and when you gently pat your fingers in the area, you'll feel the soft padding of the thyroid. The root letters 'thyr-' mean "shield." The thyroid shields you from extremes of energy expenditure, so you don't suffer from too little or too much energy. It's like your energy insurance policy.
Today's pace of lifestyle doesn't always allow for balanced energy use. With imbalanced diets, activity levels, and stress levels comes a higher chance of thyroid imbalance. Not every thyroid condition falls into the autoimmune category, but this particular star will focus on two main autoimmune illnesses of the thyroid.
This autoimmune condition is thought to be the leading cause of hypothyroidism, in which the thyroid makes too little thyroid hormone to sustain energy. The thyroid gland is actually attacked by cell- or antibody-type immune responses, sometimes leading to an enlarged thyroid. In fact, a diagnosis is often made using symptoms reported and a blood test that detects the antibodies attacking the thyroid. Hashimoto's commonly produces symptoms of hypothyroidism with occasional bouts of hyperthyroidism in some.
The more common symptoms of Hashimoto's thyroiditis include:
- Weight gain
- Brain fog
- Dry and brittle skin, hair, nails
- Intolerance to cold temperatures
- Hoarse voice
- In women, menstrual issues
In the Digestion cluster, we talked about the "sluggish body" symptoms that results from inefficient and backed up digestion. The symptoms of hypothyroidism resemble the sluggish picture of poor digestion, as both interfere with proper energy production and use. A common complaint of hypothyroidism includes constipation, so for those who are already susceptible to constipation related to stress or some other factor, the two together are a double whammy on the body's energy levels.
Hypothyroidism is like living in a foggy haze both physically and mentally. Physically, the body cannot warm itself up very easily when cold. Blood flow is often not as robust, giving less nutrition and support to the skin, hair, and nails. The digestion, which relies on energetic smooth muscle contractions to move food along, feels more slow and lazy. Constipation sets in and slows the body down even more. Mentally, someone with hypothyroidism will begin to forget things or take longer to grasp new information. With a lower metabolism, the body can easily gain weight and having enough energy for exercise gets harder too. For women, the menstrual cycle feels more stifled and congested.
It is no wonder that this condition brings on feelings of depression for many. With not enough energy to do what you want to do or enjoy what you used to, life can start feeling pretty low. While thyroid medications along with anti-depressants are commonly used to treat Hashimoto's thyroiditis, natural medicine can greatly benefit this condition and in some cases lessen the need for higher dose medications. The mental-emotional symptoms experienced are just as important to treat as the physical ones and can be effectively approached with natural medicine.
Some simple tips can be gleaned just by looking at the cold, sluggish nature of the condition. Lifestyle habits that oppose cold and sluggishness can help. Here are a few suggestions:
- Skip heavy comfort foods in favor of more energizing grains, fruits, vegetables, and lean meats
- Drink ginger tea to help stimulate circulation and include garlic in meals
- Sip lemon water around meals to stimulate digestion
- Even when tired, leave the couch or bed to take a refreshing walk
- Set routines to keep life feeling active, around rise/sleep times, meals, and other activities
- Write occasionally to get mental thoughts flowing instead of getting stuck
The picture of Grave's disease is the opposite to that of Hashimoto's thyroiditis, and the condition is also more rare in the population overall. It is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism, in which the thyroid makes too much thyroid hormone, forcing the body to use energy faster than is healthy.
An auto-antibody causes this autoimmune thyroid condition as well, and just like Hashimoto's there is a strong family history trend in cases of the condition. Hyperthyroidism makes the body feel like it has been too caffeinated. The symptoms that occur are hyperactive in nature, making it difficult for the person to slow down and take it easy. Resting is no longer a natural function, and you can see that with the following symptoms:
- Muscle weakness
- Twitches and tremors
- Weight loss
- Trouble sleeping
- Sensitivity to heat
- For women, lighter periods
- Over-alert eyes with vision problems
No matter how much the adrenal glands work to alleviate the hyper-alert state, these symptoms will persist as long as the thyroid pumps out too much thyroid hormone. The nervous system becomes hyperactive, making the person feel skittish and irritable. Often, heart palpitations and general anxiety are experienced. The body keeps saying Go Go Go and the mind's racing thoughts can lead to insomnia and other sleep issues.
Muscle strength and energy is easily overused, leading to weakness. Tired muscles, combined with hyper nerve firing, leads to twitches and tremors. Fuel stores are depleted quickly, making it hard to keep a healthy weight on. The body is creating lots of heat by burning so much fuel, making the person overheated and intolerant of warmth. The eyes become oversensitive, which can cause vision problems.
It's easy to see how Grave's can get tiring and also interesting that it's tiring in a different way than Hashimoto's. Human beings aren't meant to be in a constantly hyper watchful state as if danger is always approaching. But that is how hyperthyroidism can make someone feel. This condition is also typically managed with medications, but again can greatly benefit from natural medicine approaches. Because of the irritability and jangled nerves, it's also important to address the mental-emotional health during Grave's disease.
Again, we can think up a few healing habits just by looking at the hot, hyperactive nature of Grave's disease and thinking of opposites. Here are a few suggestions:
- Limit caffeine, energy drinks, spicy food, nicotine, excessive sugar, and anything else that's too "buzzy"
- Enforce at least one daily "time-out" that you'll stick to, where you can chill for a bit
- Eat meals that help you feel grounded, including foods like lentils, sweet potatoes, carrots, and avocado
- Try and tune out computers and television at least one hour before bedtime; do something else
- Enjoy cool refreshing drinks with ingredients like mint or lavender, cucumber, and watermelon
Diabetes mellitus, also called diabetes type 1, is the autoimmune form of diabetes in which the pancreas is attacked by the immune system. As a result, insulin is no longer produced in the right way and blood sugar rises without a shuttle system available to enter cells.
Glucose is the main form of energy for all cells and the only one for the brain. Insulin is the #1 hormone responsible for getting glucose from your meals out of the blood and into the cells to be used for energy production. Without glucose, blood sugar rises dangerously after meals and the cells are deprived of energy for metabolism. The body enters a land of chaos and disruption with dangerously high levels of sugar hanging around in the blood. Symptoms initially include:
- Excessive urination
- Thirst and dehydration
- Unintended weight loss
The kidneys can't return glucose back to the body once blood sugar is at a certain level, so it will start appearing in the urine along with tons of water. The person will have to pee a lot and will feel thirsty all the time. Minerals are lost in the process as well. Without energy for the body's cells, the body will start taking fuel from fat stores and the muscles, leading to weakness and weight loss.
Auto-antibodies made by the immune system lead the attack on the pancreas. This autoimmune condition is most often diagnosed among children, adolescents, and young adults and often leads to daily administration of insulin injections around meals so that glucose can get into cells and the body can survive. Like many autoimmune conditions, it's still unknown how this illness arises and a genetic link is thought to play a part.
There is a different form of diabetes to distinguish from Type 1, and that is Type 2 diabetes, which is not autoimmune. It is also called non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus since insulin is being made but the tissues have become resistant to it. It occurs more frequently in those who are over 40 years of age and in people who are overweight. Type 2 can greatly improve from lifestyle habits and use of natural medicine, so we will explore it thoroughly in the Weight Cluster.
Even though insulin-dependent diabetes has an early onset and requires daily administration of insulin regardless of lifestyle, the factors we'll explore with type 2 still have relevance for type 1. It is still important to keep stress manageable so that the body can have a balanced routine around meals and daily activity. It's still important to eat well and stay active. And unique to type 1, it's important to address the frustrations and mental-emotional adaptation surrounding daily injections of insulin. By taking care to follow instructions on the medication and supporting insulin intake with a healthy lifestyle, someone with Type 1 Diabetes can enjoy an active and balanced life.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), like many of the other autoimmune illnesses, can be a frustrating condition to deal with. It's a long-term condition where commonly used joints get inflamed, become stiff, and can't move freely. Women get RA more often than men and again, like the other autoimmune illnesses, the exact cause is unknown.
In the beginning, joint pain will be mild with some stiffness and fatigue. Morning stiffness is especially common and can last even longer than an hour. Anytime when joints aren't used very much, they can start to feel warm, sore, and stiff. Which joints are affected the most?
You may notice that these are the joints most commonly used on a daily basis for hands-on activities and walking or other motions. Unfortunately, the same joint is often affected on both sides, making it hard for one side to compensate for the other. Over time, joints can lose freedom of motion and become stuck in certain positions. RA can affect seemingly unrelated organs in the body as well causing events like tightness in the chest with breathing, dry eyes and mouth, burning eyes, numbness or tingling of extremities, and trouble sleeping.
There is no 100% definitive test to show that someone has RA because most tests waver in consistency of results. The two lab tests most often used for diagnosis include a Rheumatoid factor test and a test for an RA-related antibody. Usually a full blood work-up is performed to test for inflammatory factors and imaging is often also done. Treatment has traditionally included medication, physical therapy, exercise, and sometimes surgery.
Because this condition involves tightness in the body's joints, natural medicine therapies also focus on ways to soften and loosen the body's musculoskeletal frame. These therapies are diverse and can involve visualization to help relax joints, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, Tai chi, acupuncture, and lubricating supplements such as omega-3 fats and oils. Reducing foods in the diet that are pro-inflammatory can also help a lot along with natural anti-inflammatory herbs such as turmeric.
It is not uncommon that the rigidity in RA doesn't only exist in the joints, but also in other areas of someone's life as well. Focusing on relaxation techniques and stretching can help loosen both the body and mind, leading to greater improvement and healing of symptoms. If you have RA, working to create a healthy lifestyle and mindset is just as valuable for your joint health as prescribed medication.
Have you ever listened to the thoughts in your own head or those of someone you know and wondered, "Why can thoughts feel so attacking?!" Sometimes it can seem like your thoughts have nothing better to do than to put you down. Everyone is different and while for some people this feeling is an occasional slump, for others it can be a daily struggle to overcome. The world is hard enough without having to battle one's own discouraging thoughts each day.
Currently, there is no designation of an autoimmune condition involving self-attacking thoughts. But let's look at thoughts from a common sense perspective and see how they can contribute to autoimmunity in the body or simply stop an individual from doing what they naturally want to do in life (much like an autoimmune condition would).
Attack thoughts often sound like this:
- I don't measure up to everyone else
- I'm not worth much, or anything
- I don't do anything right
- Why even bother?
- I don't have anything going for me
- Why can't I just "get it" for a change?
These thoughts are very limiting and they can literally stop the flow of creativity, activity, and health in life. They are meant to put you down and in a very real way attack both the mind and physical health. Most of us don't deliberately strive to think this way, but when these thoughts do creep in we may end up conceding, "Yeah--that's how everyone else sees me--so it must be true." That's when it's time to take accountability for the influences we are allowing into our lives.
When you put others' opinions of you or the societal norm above what you see through your own eyes, you are inviting what you can think of as "mental pathogens" to invade your life. These mental pathogens encourage thoughts such as the ones above and they are deceptive--they make it seem like it is somehow worth attacking or punishing yourself, often for circumstances that are in the past or that you can't change.
Let's look at an example of how an autoimmune mindset impacts someone's life. Lizzy always felt creatively talented from a young age. Encouraged to excel in math and science and ignore the arts, she did as she was told but always felt an urge to go out and experience her true talents. Every time she drew or wrote something original, her family's reaction indicated that she was wasting her time.
As she grew older and worked in engineering, Lizzy still wanted to do something creative but she let her family's discouraging tone surf the waves through her life. Those voices always sounded like they were exclaiming the most important lesson, at the expense of Lizzy's career, creativity, and motivation. Lizzy felt disjointed as a person, as if others' opinions and now even her own thoughts were piercing holes in her life. Lizzy felt depressed, ate poorly, gained weight, and stopped caring about how she looked.
When does a situation like this come to a stop? Not until Lizzy took accountability for who she was listening to. She had allowed others' voices to create an autoimmune mindset in her. Lizzy's own thoughts got into the habit of shooting down her ideas before she was even able to try them. Nothing was worth doing and nothing was good enough when accomplished. It not only made it hard to achieve personal goals, but it affected daily living. Lizzy's health had declined too and she was definitely sowing a field where it would be easy for diagnosable autoimmune conditions to arise over time. And the worst part was, how would she ever get to know her full creative potential?
What happened to Lizzy after she started nourishing her own vision more and putting others' opinions where they belonged? You can probably fill in the blank with your imagination as to what she did next. Let's just say her thoughts felt less autoimmune and her life opened up so she learned about herself and her talents. Her health got better and she started feeling like she cared again.
Think On It
These are real challenges that many people face, especially since we don't get a choice how life starts out as youngsters. As we grow, it is important to all facets of health not to let an autoimmune mindset invade who we are. It is not the easiest thing to look at and explore, but taking on the challenge of facing autoimmune thoughts can be liberating and open up the potential for health, enjoyment, and learning in life.