What are Autoimmune Diseases?
Autoimmune diseases are a group of disorders in which the immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys healthy body tissue. There are more than eighty serious chronic illnesses in this category, including rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, lupus, thyroid disease, inflammatory bowel disease, Addison’s disease, pernicious anemia, celiac disease, multiple sclerosis, myasthenia gravis and Guillain–Barré syndrome. According to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA), twenty percent of the population suffers from autoimmune disorders. Each disease appears uncommon on an individual basis but, as a group, the disorders make up the fourth-largest cause of disability among women.
Normally the immune system’s white blood cells help protect the body from harmful substances, called antigens. Examples of antigens include bacteria, viruses, toxins, cancer cells, and blood or tissues from another person or species. The immune system produces antibodies that destroy these harmful substances.
In patients with an autoimmune disorder, the immune system can’t tell the difference between healthy body tissue and antigens. The result is an immune response that destroys normal body tissues. Reasons why the immune system reacts this way are unknown, but theories suggest that genetics, hormones, and environmental factors, like bacteria, viruses, or certain drugs, can cause the immune system to no longer tell the difference between healthy body tissues and antigens.
Symptoms of autoimmune disorders will typically be specific to each particular disease, but in general, may include fatigue, general ill-feeling, joint and muscle pain, general muscle weakness, possible rashes, low-grade fever, trouble concentrating, or weight loss. As conditions worsen, more symptoms may develop.
How Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture Treat Autoimmune Diseases
According to Chinese medicine, autoimmune disorders occur when there is imbalance within the body. Imbalance can come from an excess or deficiency of Yin and Yang that disrupts the flow of vital energy (Qi), through the body. Chinese medicine treats autoimmune disorders by reducing inflammation, alleviating pain, improving energy and vitality, and addressing the wide variety of symptoms that occur. Chinese medicine also treats the root of the disease by bringing the immune system back into balance. Your treatment program to manage your autoimmune disorder may involve a combination of therapies, including acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, nutritional support, Chinese massage, stress reducing exercises, moderate physical activity, and bodywork.
Acupuncture can be very effective at rebalancing and strengthening the immune system, as well as treating the many symptoms of various autoimmune disorders. Clinical research has shown that acupuncture causes physical responses in nerve cells, the adrenal, thyroid and pituitary glands, and parts of the brain. These responses can cause the body to release proteins, hormones, and brain chemicals that control a number of body functions. It is proposed that, by these actions, acupuncture affects blood pressure, body temperature and the immune system.
Signs and symptoms of autoimmune disorders can vary according to the specific condition, but patients commonly experience pain, as inflammation is thought to play a big role in most of these disorders. There are numerous theories on how acupuncture works, but one explanation is that the needles trigger the body to produce hormones that suppress inflammation and pain. TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) units are devices that work in a similar fashion. By sending electrical impulses to painful areas, they are thought to raise levels of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers.
Your Chinese medical practitioner will work closely with you to diagnose your specific condition in order to treat both the underlying cause and resulting symptoms.
Chinese herbs will be prescribed based on individual needs and patterns. They can reduce inflammation, pain, and disorders of the skin. They will also rebalance the endocrine system by providing nutritional support to the involved organ or meridian. Like acupuncture, supplements that have an effect on inflammation may be helpful for patients with autoimmune disorders. These include vitamins E and A, fish oil, primrose oil, flaxseed oil, and SAMe (S-adenosylmethionine).
Chinese massage may be used to increase blood flow to the affected areas. This increased circulation can reduce lactic acid in the area, helping decrease pain and inflammation, and restore mobility.
Dietary recommendations will be prescribed based on individual needs and tailored for each presenting condition. Foods known to affect the TH1: TH2 balance may be discussed, or foods that decrease inflammation and allergic response in the body, may be recommended.
It may sound counter-intuitive that exercise can help people who are experiencing pain and fatigue, but studies have shown that exercise can bolster the immune system. Johns Hopkins researchers recently looked at the effect of yoga on rheumatoid arthritis patients and found that patients who participated in regular yoga classes experienced significantly less pain.
How Western Medicine Treats Autoimmune Diseases
Western medicine aims to reduce symptoms, control the autoimmune process, and maintain the body’s ability to fight disease. Due to the difficulty of suppressing the immune system while at the same time retaining its ability to protect the body, there is no cure for most autoimmune disorders. Therefore, treatment comes mostly in the form of symptom management. Which treatments are used depends on the specific disease and your symptoms.
Some patients may need supplements to replace a hormone or vitamin that the body is lacking. Examples include thyroid supplements, vitamins such as B12, or insulin injections.
If the autoimmune disorder affects the blood, you may need blood transfusions.
People with autoimmune disorders that affect the bones, joints, or muscles may need help with movement or other functions.
Medicines are often prescribed to control or reduce the immune system’s response. They are often called immunosuppressive medicines. Such medicines may include corticosteroids (such as prednisone) and nonsteroid drugs such as azathioprine, cyclophosphamide, mycophenolate, sirolimus, or tacrolimus. Long term use of any medications, however, may cause peripheral conditions or further complications.