Immune system disorders cause abnormally low activity or over activity of the immune system. In cases of immune system over activity, the body attacks and damages its own tissues (autoimmune diseases). Immune deficiency diseases decrease the body’s ability to fight invaders, causing vulnerability to infections.
In response to an unknown trigger, the immune system may begin producing antibodies that instead of fighting infections, attack the body’s own tissues. Treatment for autoimmune diseases generally focuses on reducing immune system activity. Examples of autoimmune diseases include:
- Rheumatoid arthritis. The immune system produces antibodies that attach to the linings of joints. Immune system cells then attack the joints, causing inflammation, swelling, and pain. If untreated, rheumatoid arthritis causes gradually causes permanent joint damage. Treatments for rheumatoid arthritis can include various oral or injectable medications that reduce immune system over activity. See charts that list rheumatoid arthritis drugs and their side effects.
- Systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus). People with lupus develop autoimmune antibodies that can attach to tissues throughout the body. The joints, lungs, blood cells, nerves, and kidneys are commonly affected in lupus. Treatment often requires daily oral prednisone, a steroid that reduces immune system function. Read an overview on lupus symptoms and treatments.
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The immune system attacks the lining of the intestines, causing episodes of diarrhea, rectal bleeding, urgent bowel movements, abdominal pain, fever, and weight loss. Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease are the two major forms of IBD. Oral and injected immune-suppressing medicines can treat IBD. Learn about the differences between ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
- Multiple sclerosis (MS). The immune system attacks nerve cells, causing symptoms that can include pain, blindness, weakness, poor coordination, and muscle spasms. Various medicines that suppress the immune system can be used to treat multiple sclerosis. Read more on multiple sclerosis drugs and their side effects.
- Type 1 diabetes mellitus. Immune system antibodies attack and destroy insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. By young adulthood, people with type 1 diabetes require insulin injections to survive. Learn about the symptoms to look for in type 1 diabetes.
- Guillain-Barre syndrome. The immune system attacks the nerves controlling muscles in the legs and sometimes the arms and upper body. Weakness results, which can sometimes be severe. Filtering the blood with a procedure called plasmapheresis is the main treatment for Guillain-Barre syndrome.
- Chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy. Similar to Guillian-Barre, the immune system also attacks the nerves in CIDP, but symptoms last much longer. About 30% of patients can become confined to a wheelchair if not diagnosed and treated early. Treatment for CIDP and GBS are essentially the same. Find out what the treatment options are for CIDP.
- Psoriasis. In psoriasis, overactive immune system blood cells called T-cells collect in the skin. The immune system activity stimulates skin cells to reproduce rapidly, producing silvery, scaly plaques on the skin. See a photo of what psoriasis looks like.
- Graves’ disease. The immune system produces antibodies that stimulate the thyroid gland to release excess amounts of thyroid hormone into the blood (hyperthyroidism). Symptoms of Graves’ disease can include bulging eyes as well as weight loss, nervousness, irritability, rapid heart rate, weakness, and brittle hair. Destruction or removal of the thyroid gland, using medicines or surgery, is usually required to treat Graves’ disease. Learn more about treatments for Graves’ disease.
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Antibodies produced by the immune system attack the thyroid gland, slowly destroying the cells that produce thyroid hormone. Low levels of thyroid hormone develop (hypothyroidism), usually over months to years. Symptoms include fatigue, constipation, weight gain, depression, dry skin, and sensitivity to cold. Taking a daily oral synthetic thyroid hormone pill restores normal body functions. Find out more on treatments for an underactive thyroid.
- Myasthenia gravis. Antibodies bind to nerves and make them unable to stimulate muscles properly. Weakness that gets worse with activity is the main symptom of myasthenia gravis. Mestinon (pyridostigmine) is the main medicine used to treat myasthenia gravis. Read an overview on the symptoms of myasthenia gravis.
- Vasculitis. The immune system attacks and damages blood vessels in this group of autoimmune diseases. Vasculitis can affect any organ, so symptoms vary widely and can occur almost anywhere in the body. Treatment includes reducing immune system activity, usually with prednisone or another corticosteroid. Learn more about vasculitis symptoms and treatments.
- Autoimmune Disease: Why Is My Immune System Attacking Itself?
- The Link Between Autoimmune Disease and Women
- The Role of Infection and Disease
- The Damage Theory
- Genetic Risk
- How lupus affects the gastrointestinal system
- Autoimmune Diseases: Types, Symptoms, Causes, and More
- 1. Type 1 diabetes
- 2. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
- 3. Psoriasis/psoriatic arthritis
- 4. Multiple sclerosis
- 5. Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)
- 6. Inflammatory bowel disease
- 7. Addison’s disease
- 8. Graves’ disease
- 9. Sjögren’s syndrome
- 10. Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
- 11. Myasthenia gravis
- 12. Autoimmune vasculitis
- 13. Pernicious anemia
- 14. Celiac disease
- Dealing with leaky gut
- Nuts and seeds
- Sticking to the diet
- A word on supplements
Autoimmune Disease: Why Is My Immune System Attacking Itself?
Ana-Maria Orbai, M.D., M.H.S., is a rheumatologist at the Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center. Rheumatologists specialize in diagnosing and treating musculoskeletal diseases and autoimmune conditions (rheumatic disease). Orbai explains several theories researchers have about what might cause autoimmune disease, including infection, tissue damage and genetics.
The Link Between Autoimmune Disease and Women
Doctors aren’t sure why autoimmune disease happens in the first place or why women are affected more than men. One theory is that higher levels of hormones in women, especially during the childbearing years, could make women more susceptible to autoimmune diseases.
However, Orbai notes that this idea has not yet been proven — there are many factors that affect autoimmunity, both genetic and environmental. Researchers cannot definitively explain why women develop these diseases more than men do.
The Role of Infection and Disease
On a basic level, autoimmune disease occurs because the body’s natural defenses — the immune system — attack the body’s own healthy tissue. Researchers have several ideas about why this happens.
When the body senses danger from a virus or infection, the immune system kicks into gear and attacks it. This is called an immune response. Sometimes, healthy cells and tissues are caught up in this response, resulting in autoimmune disease.
Many scientists believe this is what causes rheumatoid arthritis, a type of autoimmune disease that attacks the joints. It’s also common that after having strep throat, people develop psoriasis, an autoimmune condition that causes patches of thick, scaly skin.
Other types of autoimmune disease may come from the body trying to fight specifically against cancer cells. Orbai points to scleroderma, a disease that causes thickening of the skin and connective tissues. “The thought is that when the immune system gets rid of the cancer, there is a leftover inflammatory response because of that fight,” she says. Johns Hopkins researchers studied patients who developed both scleroderma and cancer to try to clarify this relationship.
The Damage Theory
Scientists think injury may play a role in some types of autoimmune disease such as psoriatic arthritis, a condition that affects the joints of some people with psoriasis.
Research has shown that in parts of the body subjected to high stress, an autoimmune response happens after damage to tendons, which attach muscle to bone. For example, a runner’s heel is an area where the muscle is constantly pulling on the bone to create movement.
“This repeated stress can expose tissue that shouldn’t normally be in contact with blood cells,” says Orbai. “When that tissue gets exposed, it’s like a small wound. Blood cells try to heal it, but an abnormal immune response causes inflammation of the joints and tendons.”
Orbai is quick to point out that while there is some data to support them, scientists have not proven that these are causes of autoimmune disease.
It’s clear that genetics play a role in autoimmune disease, but researchers still don’t fully understand how. For example, having a family member with lupus or multiple sclerosis (MS) raises your risk of getting these diseases. Some families have multiple members affected by different autoimmune diseases. However, genetics alone isn’t enough to cause autoimmune disease.
“We know that genes are important, but they aren’t everything,” Orbai says. “You can have family members with lupus or MS and never get them yourself. You can even test positive for lupus-specific DNA and still not have the disease.”
It’s possible that autoimmune disease occurs based on the immune system’s ability to handle stress. Orbai says that this is an area of intense research. “When does the stress on your body exceed your immune system’s ability to handle it? If we knew this, it could be the key to preventing autoimmune disease before it develops.”
How lupus affects the gastrointestinal system
Lupus is an autoimmune disease that can affect almost any part of the body, most often the joints, skin, kidneys, heart, lungs, blood, or brain.
Lupus can also affect the gastrointestinal (GI) system. The GI system is your body’s pathway for taking in, processing, and disposing of everything you eat and drink. Everything you swallow goes from your mouth to your throat, through your stomach to your intestines, and then to your colon, ending at your urinary tract or rectum. Muscle contractions control swallowing and bowel movement.
People with lupus may experience problems in any area of the GI system, including the surrounding organs such as the liver, pancreas, bile ducts, and gallbladder. Not all of these problems will be directly related to lupus disease activity; some may be traced to side effects of medication you take or other diseases that may be present.
Esophageal disorders in lupus
The esophagus is the muscle that joins your throat to your stomach. When lupus causes inflammation in the esophagus, stomach acid can back up into your esophagus. Almost everyone experiences this backward flow of acid, called reflux, from time to time as either gas or the burning sensation of heartburn. However, persistent reflux is known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). The most common causes of GERD are hiatal hernia caused by a weak sphincter (the muscle between your esophagus and your stomach), or by weak muscle contractions in your esophagus. In addition to reflux, esophageal problems may also cause difficulty swallowing, a condition called dysphagia.
Digestive problems are common in lupus. The symptoms you may experience include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or constipation. Drugs you take for lupus such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and corticosteroids are often the cause. Though sometimes, these symptoms occur because your muscles are not properly moving waste through your intestines. This group of symptoms is known as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which may be the result of irregularities in your nervous system.
Ulcerative colitis and crohn’s disease
Ulcerative colitis (which causes ulcers in the lining of the rectum and colon) and Crohn’s disease (which causes inflammation of the digestive system) are two forms of inflammatory bowel disease that affect the colon. Bloody diarrhea and abdominal pain are common symptoms in both but there are differences that will help your doctor distinguish between the two. People with lupus will sometimes develop ulcerative colitis, but only rarely will a person have both lupus and Crohn’s disease.
Peritonitis and ascites
The peritoneum is a thin lining on the inside of your abdomen. Inflammation of this lining can cause a condition called peritonitis. Most cases of peritonitis are due to an infection. However, inflammation caused by lupus can also cause a build-up of fluids in the abdominal cavity called ascites (pronounced ah-SAHY-teez). The symptoms you may experience can include severe abdominal pain, tenderness when your belly is touched, nausea and vomiting, fever, and/or lack of bowel movements. Infection, pancreatitis, liver disease, cancer, and other conditions can also cause ascites so your doctor may want to examine a sample of the fluid to determine its cause and begin the proper treatment.
Inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis) can be caused by lupus, but also can be caused by vasculitis (inflammation of the blood vessels) or by certain medications you may be taking for lupus, including corticosteroids, immunosuppressants, and diuretics. It is very important that your physician diagnoses your pancreatitis accurately because pancreatic vasculitis is treated with corticosteroids while steroid-induced pancreatitis is treated by withdrawing the steroid medication. A physician with experience in this area should treat and closely monitor your condition.
Your liver is the largest organ inside your body. It is also one of the most important. The liver has many jobs, including changing food into energy and cleaning alcohol and poisons from the blood. Your liver also makes bile, a yellowish-green liquid that helps with digestion. When lupus causes inflammation in the liver, a condition called hepatic vasculitis can occur. This can cause blood clots in the vessels that supply the liver with blood.
The liver may become enlarged due to ascites or congestive heart failure. People with lupus also may develop jaundice, a liver condition that gives a yellowish color to the skin. Jaundice in lupus also can be a sign of anemia or pancreatitis. If your liver enzyme levels are increased, this may be due to NSAIDs or acetaminophen, or may be a sign of lupus activity.
Autoimmune hepatitis is a disease in which the immune system attacks the liver, causing the liver to become inflamed. Autoimmune hepatitis is classified as either type 1 or 2. Type 1 is the most common form in North America. It occurs at any age and is more common among women than men. About half of those with type 1 have other autoimmune disorders, such as type 1 diabetes, proliferative glomerulonephritis, systemic lupus, thyroiditis, Graves’ disease, Sjogren’s syndrome, autoimmune anemia, or ulcerative colitis. Type 2 autoimmune hepatitis is less common, typically affecting girls ages 2 to 14, although it can also affect adults.
Fatigue is probably the most common symptom of autoimmune hepatitis. Other symptoms include an enlarged liver, jaundice, itching and skin rashes, joint pain, abdominal discomfort, abnormal blood vessels on the skin (spider angiomas), nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, dark urine, and pale or gray-colored stools.
Because severe viral hepatitis or hepatitis caused by a drug — for example, certain antibiotics — have the same symptoms as autoimmune hepatitis, tests may be needed for an exact diagnosis. Your doctor should also review and rule out drugs you are taking before diagnosing autoimmune hepatitis. Physicians treat both types of autoimmune hepatitis with daily doses of a corticosteroid (such as prednisone). They also use azathioprine (Imuran®).
If you take NSAIDs as a lupus treatment, you increase the risk of stomach damage. This tissue damage could cause bleeding ulcers to develop either in your stomach lining or your duodenum (where your stomach, bile duct, and pancreatic duct meet your small intestine). The Helicobacter pylori bacterium, which may be more common in people with lupus due to their generally higher risk for infection, can also cause ulcers. Medications that help prevent ulcers from developing include: Prevacid®, Prilosec®, and Cytotec.®
Medications that help relieve upset stomach associated with NSAID use include Zantac.
Autoimmune Diseases: Types, Symptoms, Causes, and More
There are more than 80 different autoimmune diseases. Here are 14 of the most common ones.
1. Type 1 diabetes
The pancreas produces the hormone insulin, which helps regulate blood sugar levels. In type 1 diabetes mellitus, the immune system attacks and destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.
High blood sugar results can lead to damage in the blood vessels, as well as organs like the heart, kidneys, eyes, and nerves.
2. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
In rheumatoid arthritis (RA), the immune system attacks the joints. This attack causes redness, warmth, soreness, and stiffness in the joints.
Unlike osteoarthritis, which commonly affects people as they get older, RA can start as early as your 30s or sooner.
3. Psoriasis/psoriatic arthritis
Skin cells normally grow and then shed when they’re no longer needed. Psoriasis causes skin cells to multiply too quickly. The extra cells build up and form inflamed red patches, commonly with silver-white scales of plaque on the skin.
Up to 30 percent of people with psoriasis also develop swelling, stiffness, and pain in their joints. This form of the disease is called psoriatic arthritis.
4. Multiple sclerosis
Multiple sclerosis (MS) damages the myelin sheath, the protective coating that surrounds nerve cells, in your central nervous system. Damage to the myelin sheath slows the transmission speed of messages between your brain and spinal cord to and from the rest of your body.
This damage can lead to symptoms like numbness, weakness, balance issues, and trouble walking. The disease comes in several forms that progress at different rates. According to a 2012 study, about 50 percent of people with MS need help walking within 15 years after the disease starts.
5. Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)
Although doctors in the 1800s first described lupus as a skin disease because of the rash it commonly produces, the systemic form, which is most the common, actually affects many organs, including the joints, kidneys, brain, and heart.
Joint pain, fatigue, and rashes are among the most common symptoms.
6. Inflammatory bowel disease
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a term used to describe conditions that cause inflammation in the lining of the intestinal wall. Each type of IBD affects a different part of the GI tract.
- Crohn’s disease can inflame any part of the GI tract, from the mouth to the anus.
- Ulcerative colitisaffects only the lining of the large intestine (colon) and rectum.
7. Addison’s disease
Addison’s disease affects the adrenal glands, which produce the hormones cortisol and aldosterone as well as androgen hormones. Having too little of cortisol can affect the way the body uses and stores carbohydrates and sugar (glucose). Deficiency of aldosterone will lead to sodium loss and excess potassium in the bloodstream.
Symptoms include weakness, fatigue, weight loss, and low blood sugar.
8. Graves’ disease
Graves’ disease attacks the thyroid gland in the neck, causing it to produce too much of its hormones. Thyroid hormones control the body’s energy usage, known as metabolism.
Having too much of these hormones revs up your body’s activities, causing symptoms like nervousness, a fast heartbeat, heat intolerance, and weight loss.
One potential symptom of this disease is bulging eyes, called exophthalmos. It can occur as a part of what is called Graves’ ophthalmopathy, which occurs in around 30 percent of those who have Graves’ disease, according to a 1993 study.
9. Sjögren’s syndrome
This condition attacks the glands that provide lubrication to the eyes and mouth. The hallmark symptoms of Sjögren’s syndrome are dry eyes and dry mouth, but it may also affect the joints or skin.
10. Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
In Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, thyroid hormone production slows to a deficiency. Symptoms include weight gain, sensitivity to cold, fatigue, hair loss, and swelling of the thyroid (goiter).
11. Myasthenia gravis
Myasthenia gravis affects nerve impulses that help the brain control the muscles. When the communication from nerves to muscles is impaired, signals can’t direct the muscles to contract.
The most common symptom is muscle weakness that gets worse with activity and improves with rest. Often muscles that control eye movements, eyelid opening, swallowing, and facial movements are involved.
12. Autoimmune vasculitis
Autoimmune vasculitis happens when the immune system attacks blood vessels. The inflammation that results narrows the arteries and veins, allowing less blood to flow through them.
13. Pernicious anemia
This condition causes deficiency of a protein, made by stomach lining cells, known as intrinsic factor that is needed in order for the small intestine to absorb vitamin B-12 from food. Without enough of this vitamin, one will develop an anemia, and the body’s ability for proper DNA synthesis will be altered.
Pernicious anemia is more common in older adults. According to a 2012 study, it affects 0.1 percent of people in general, but nearly 2 percent of people over age 60.
14. Celiac disease
People with celiac disease can’t eat foods containing gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and other grain products. When gluten is in the small intestine, the immune system attacks this part of the gastrointestinal tract and causes inflammation.
A 2015 study noted that celiac disease affects about 1 percent of people in the United States. A larger number of people have reported gluten sensitivity, which isn’t an autoimmune disease, but can have similar symptoms like diarrhea and abdominal pain.
Autoimmune diseases and digestive related problems (Crohn’s disease, Celiac disease, ulcerative colitis, IBD, IBS, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, interstitial cystitis, multiple sclerosis) can be very debilitating and can take over your whole life. We think that eating a Paleo diet has the potential to cure a good part of those conditions that are quite new to us. However, for those dealing with problems like that, it might take more time and dedication to be successful and finally heal, but this dedication will pay off at least a thousand-fold.
Even though some more perseverance is involved on your part, we think that you’ll agree with us that if you’re dealing with any of those problems, you’d be willing to go through anything to regain your health and stamina.
I myself have been dealing with intestinal flora imbalances and leaky gut for a good while now and I’ve been able to learn lots of things about how to deal with it properly. For me, it has mostly been a journey of trial and error.
It’s funny because I almost discovered Paleo this way. My digestive system became so fragile that the only things I could stomach where meats, fats and well-cooked vegetables. I was then easily able to come to the conclusion that the foods that we digest the most easily are meat, fat and cooked vegetables and that focusing on those foods is a good idea for anybody.
Dealing with leaky gut
Leaky gut is a condition where your intestines become permeable and larger particles are able to enter the bloodstream. Our body then sees that those particles are foreign and attacks them while attacking regular healthy cells at the same time and compromising the immune system. This leaky gut situation also causes digestive and intestinal problems. Candida overgrowth, Celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammable bowel disease (IBS), allergies, malabsorption and loads of other autoimmune diseases are all associated with a leaky gut.
I think that dealing with leaky gut is the way to also deal with the other problems that are linked to it. Heal your gut and the rest will follow.
Some of the worst offenders that contribute to the development of a leaky gut in the first place are gluten and grains in general, NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs: Advil, Motrin, ibuprofen), dairy products and plain general inflammation, chronic stress and lack of sleep. Never consume grains, dairy, vegetable oils, legumes, sugar, yeast or NSAIDs when trying to heal your gut.
Also try to limit the amount of fruit you eat. Ideally, you’d want to eat no fruits at all. It feeds Candida and if you have a leaky gut, you automatically have Candida problems. Don’t worry, you don’t really need fruits in your diet and vegetables as your only source of carbs will do just fine. If you want to take things even further, maybe try staying just out of ketosis, which means about 60g of carbs per day or more. You’ll see that it doesn’t take many vegetables to reach that 60g. Make sure your vegetables are well-cooked and soft. It makes them much easier to digest. Eat lots of leafy green vegetables. Your body needs the precious nutrients in them.
Here are other foods that we would recommend eliminating from your diet until you’re 100% healed:
Nuts and seeds
We personally believe that most people would do better without them. They can be somewhat gut irritating and contain small amounts of antinutrients. Our personal opinion on nuts is that they’re not supposed to be eaten frequently or in huge quantities. We also read about a lot of people feeling better without them.
This sounds like the name of an underground street fighting group, but it’s really the name of a family of vegetables. Nightshades are a family that includes vegetables that are quite new to human consumption and that contain chemicals that are irritating. Night shades include bell peppers, hot peppers, tomatoes, eggplants and potatoes. Eliminate them when dealing with an autoimmune problem.
Most living organisms develop ways to protect themselves from being eaten. Animals, for instance, can run or attack, but eggs have to find another way to protect themselves from foreign intruders. Egg whites contain anti-bacterial compounds and have the property to bind to biotin and some other nutrients. Some people will argue that they’re fine when cooked, but my experience tells me otherwise. Of course, if you decide to only have the yolks, you can do so without restrictions, yolks are perfectly fine.
But yolks are full of cholesterol and fat, you might say. Your body needs both of those. Cholesterol is a crucial hormone and if you don’t get it in food, your body produces some by itself. It’s a high carb diet that leads to high levels of the wrong type of cholesterol.
Sticking to the diet
Let me reiterate that it’s really important that you stick to this more strict version of the diet 100% because only one little intruder will tend to mess everything.
Also make sure to get the most sleep you can possibly get and reduce the stress in your life. If you exercise, do it lightly.
If you find the diet to be too restrictive to be followed for any period of time, have a look at any Paleo food list and you’ll see that you still have plenty of choices when it comes to meat, fats and vegetables. You can enjoy delicious salads, soups, stews, stir-fries, curries and whatever your imagination can think off.
A good thing to integrate in big quantities is fresh homemade bone stock. Use it in soups and stews. Preparing stock will extract gelatin, collagen and glucosamine from the bones, which are all greatly needed by a healing gut. It will also keep you very well hydrated.
A word on supplements
The main thing you’ll want to do is introduce good bacteria (lots of them), reduce inflammation and make sure not to become deficient in any nutrient.
When it comes to probiotics, the subject is a bit tricky. We found that most of them won’t do any good if your problem is advanced. The good bacteria, no matter what quantity you take, will either die in your stomach because of the acid or it will be too weak to form colonies in your intestines against the other opportunistic bacteria and yeast. The only thing that we have found that works for severe cases are soil based organisms, which are spore forming and will easily resist much harder environments.
You’ll probably hear a lot of hype around prebiotics, a type of indigestible fiber that’s supposed to feed the good bacteria, but we found that if your flora is disturbed enough, bad bacteria will start to feed on it.
To reduce inflammation and soothe your whole digestive system, try taking a DGL supplement with either Slippery Elm or marshmallow extract You can also incorporate a glutamine supplement, which is really food to rebuild the intestinal wall.
Finally, we would recommend you take in 4,000 IU of Vitamin D3 every day and a good fish oil. The only mineral that we would consider supplementing is magnesium, because most people are already deficient in magnesium and food sources of it are limited. Halibut is a great source of magnesium if you can have it fresh in season.
In summary, I’m sure that anyone still dealing with autoimmune challenges and digestive problems even when following a 100% Paleo diet will finally find great relief by following this protocol. Also stay reassured that by following a Paleo diet in the first place you’re already doing 90% of the work for a perfectly healthy version of you and those little tweaks will finally get you there.