Autoimmune system disease can be fought
By David L. Katz, M.D., M.P.H.
Almost no one gets through life without some form of autoimmune disease. Eczema, seborrhea and psoriasis are common autoimmune disorders of the skin. Many forms of arthritis; multiple sclerosis, lupus, common disorders of the thyroid; possibly chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia; diverse conditions affecting the liver, kidneys, blood vessels and intestines; and perhaps even asthma are autoimmune in origin.
Autoimmunity is defined as an attack by the immune system on itself. This occurs because of the fundamental mechanisms used by the immune system in our defense, and because of a simple misunderstanding.
The basic job of the immune system is to defend our bodies from foreign threats, such as bacteria and viruses. It does this by detecting foreign proteins, and launching an attack against them. But, of course, there is no way for the immune system to know what every foreign protein in the universe might look like. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to.
It relies on a much simpler approach: it knows what you look like! Every cell in your body is labeled with surface proteins called “histocompatibility antigens,” that identify the cell as belonging to you. This is your immunologic code.
The system may sound fancy, but it works rather like initials in bathing suits at sleep-away camp. You don’t need to recognize everyone else’s bathing suit. You just need to look for your own initials. If they are not there, the suit is not yours!
But initials are an imperfect code. My initials, for example, are DLK. My father’s initials are DIK. If you’re busy and moving fast, as our immune system tends to do, these can easily be mistaken for one another. But that’s the least of it. Many other people have the same initials as I have, or as you have. To tell our “labels” apart would thus require much greater attention to detail.
It is when this attention to detail is required that immune function becomes a liability as well as an asset.
Each time we are exposed to foreign proteins, on a virus, a bacterium, or even something as innocent as pollen, our immune system registers, and perhaps attacks, these invaders. The more of these foreign proteins we catalog, the more likely it becomes that one or more of them might look like one or more of our own cell surface proteins.
When this occurs, the simple misunderstanding may follow. The immune system becomes confused, and unable to tell the difference between the foreign protein and the cell surface protein. So, it attacks both. Even after the foreign invader is vanquished, the immune system continues to assault the innocent, native protein it has now misidentified as foreign. The result is a chronic inflammatory condition involving whatever body tissue is labeled by the protein in question.
The actual probability of this varies with the code on your cells. Some histocompatibility codes are associated with a high risk of autoimmune disease, some with a low risk. The combination of a high-risk code, and exposure to certain foreign proteins associated with common infections, is the presumed cause of most autoimmune disease.
You can’t choose the code on your cell surfaces, or change the one you get. But you can minimize the risk of autoimmune conditions in several ways. A wholesome, substantially unprocessed diet provides abundant nutrients to optimize immune function, and minimizes exposure to harmful dietary antigens. Regular physical activity also improves immune function, as does avoiding tobacco. Fish oil supplements tend to be particularly protective by reducing inflammation.
Dr. David L. Katz is Director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center. For more information, see www.thewaytoeat.net.
Source: The New Haven Register, via www.zwire.com