Autoimmune diseases are characterized by the body's immune responses being directed against its own tissues, causing prolonged inflammation and subsequent tissue destruction. Autoimmune disorders can either cause immune-responsive cells to attack the linings of the joints (resulting in rheumatoid arthritis) or trigger immune cells to attack the insulin-producing islet cells of the pancreas (leading to insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus).
A healthy immune system recognizes, identifies, remembers, attacks, and destroys bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites, cancer cells, or any health-damaging agents not normally present in the body. A defective immune system, on the other hand, wreaks havoc throughout the host by directing antibodies against its own tissues.
Any disease in which cytotoxic cells are directed against self-antigens in the body's tissues is considered autoimmune in nature. Such diseases include, but are not limited to, celiac disease, Crohn's disease, pancreatitis, systemic lupus erythematosus, Sjogren's syndrome, Hashimoto's thyroiditis, and other endocrinopathies. Allergies and multiple sclerosis are also the result of disordered immune functioning.
Age is recognized as an important factor in the appearance of autoimmune disease. In a paper that appeared in The Lancet in 1992, investigators assessed the difference in physiological chemistry between healthy centenarians and unhealthy 60- and 70-year olds. The most striking difference was that the healthy centenarians had very low levels of autoantibodies to their thyroid, adrenal, pituitary, hypothalamus (Mariotti 1992). This has led some people to speculate that autoimmunity is the result of environmental exposure to foreign substances. Thus, the immune system may also be suppressed or weakened as a result of lifestyle factors (ie, intake of alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, drugs, sugar, poor diet, and lack of sleep) not associated with a degenerative disease. These lifestyle factors can have a substantial effect on the trends of autoimmune diseases.
As we age, our autoimmune system declines in its effectiveness due in large part to oxidative damage caused by the recurrent presence of significant amounts of free radicals. In addition, proteins can become glycated, that is, a sugar molecule is attached to the protein. The accumulation of these glycated proteins in the body affects the immune system because the immune system sees them as altered proteins with different structure and function (Monboisse 2000; Sasaki 2001; Collison 2002). Regarding these substances as foreign, the immune system develops antibodies against them. The possibility of becoming allergic to oneself, with the associated autoimmunity and inflammation, increases as one accumulates these damaged glycated proteins.
The body is made up largely of proteins, so its health depends upon its freedom from damage (as through oxidation or glycation) as well as its timely removal as part of normal protein turnover. The body's antioxidant system and other lines of defense cannot completely protect proteins. Nature's second line of defense is the body's system for repairing or removing damaged proteins. While some protein repair mechanisms exist, it is difficult for the body to repair most protein damage. Yet, it is essential to efficiently remove aberrant and unneeded proteins to fully protect against autoimmune diseases.
Methods to protect against excessive protein glycation will be discussed later in this protocol.
Autoimmune diseases tend to be viewed as separate entities. A broader perspective, however, may reveal that shared mechanisms are the cause of disease, rather than just its byproduct. If this perspective were applied, patients would benefit (before the development of irreversible tissue damage) from improved therapies and early intervention. Dr. Majid Ali has long considered that there must be a single initial common pathway to all disease, including immune dysfunction.
One consideration is the continued exposure to heavy metals and environmental pollution that overload the immune system. On a daily basis, we battle with pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, industrial wastes, cigarette smoke, and automobile exhaust. Our air, water, and food (in particular) are full of toxic substances. There is no doubt that these toxins play a role in immune dysfunction. Even substances considered by most people as safe impair immune function. Sugar consumption in all forms (glucose, fructose, and sucrose) will impair the ability of white cells to destroy biological agents. This effect begins within a half hour of consumption and lasts for 5 hours. After 2 hours, immune function is reduced by 50% (Sanchez 1973; Bernstein 1977).
Oxidative stress plays a role in autoimmune diseases. It can be compared to a piece of metal rusting and results from the action of damaging molecules (ie, free radicals), which are a natural byproduct of the body's metabolism. The electrically charged free radicals attack healthy cells, causing them to lose their structure and function and eventually destroying them. Free radicals are not only produced by our bodies, but are also ingested from toxins and pollution in the air we breathe.
Chronic systemic inflammation is related to several autoimmune disorders, such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjogren's syndrome, and fibromyalgia (see separate protocols on these topics). Inflammation can be traced to destructive cell-signaling chemicals known as cytokines, which contribute to many degenerative diseases (Brod 2000). In rheumatoid arthritis, excess levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, such as tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-α), interleukin-6 (IL-6), interleukin 1(b) (IL-1b), and/or leukotriene B4 (LTB4), are known to cause or contribute to the inflammatory syndrome that ultimately destroys joint cartilage and synovial fluid. Certain nutritional supplements and low-cost prescription medications will often lower cytokine levels and control the inflammatory state.