In this feature, we cover autoimmune disease and take a look at the positive role acupuncture, chiropractic and nutrition may play in alleviating the symptoms associated with some of the many illnesses that fall under this banner.
Autoimmune disease is an umbrella term for as many as 80 different illnesses that can affect any part of the body. Some autoimmune diseases are localised to specific organs or tissues, while others are systemic, impacting multiple organs or tissues. Symptoms can be chronic and as a result the effect on people’s lives, severe.
Autoimmune conditions include the likes of type 1 diabetes, coeliac disease, pernicious anaemia, psoriasis, multiple sclerosis, Chron’s disease, Grave’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis, to name but a few.
What causes autoimmune disease?
Typically the immune system wards off bacteria, toxins and viruses by sending antibodies to eliminate the harmful antigens within these. When someone has an autoimmune disorder, the immune system fails to distinguish between what constitutes a foreign invasion of the body and the body’s own healthy cells, placing the body under attack.
Who is impacted?
According to a 2016 briefing note from the British Society for Immunology, autoimmune diseases are a significant cause of ill health in the UK. Data highlighting the proportion of the population suffering from any type of autoimmune condition is hard to come by, but individual figures for just a small fraction of autoimmune conditions would suggest the impact is significant:
- Around 400,000 people in the UK suffer from type 1 diabetes, a rate is growing at3% per annum
- Circa 700,000 people are affected by rheumatoid arthritis
- 115,000 live with Chron’s disease
- Around 127,000 with multiple sclerosis, a rate that is growing at 2.4% per year
- Circa 8,400 people in the UK have Addison’s disease
- Lupus is thought to impact the lives of up to 50,000 in the UK.
How can autoimmune diseases be treated?
“Autoimmune disorders are complex conditions involving a variety of symptoms that may come and go over time and usually require a whole team of healthcare providers to address the patient’s different needs,” according to Francesca Minischetti, Director of Clerkenwell & Islington Chiropractic & Complementary Clinic, and seasoned Chiropractor.
Treatment for autoimmune conditions typically involves the management of associated symptoms and control of the autoimmune process, while attempting to maintain good immune function.
This can include the use of an array of high strength painkillers, including opiates, and anti-inflammatory drugs, including corticosteroids. For some, treatment takes the form of daily medication to replace the loss of production of a particular hormone (e.g. insulin in the case of type 1 diabetes).
There is an argument that complementary health treatments such as acupuncture, chiropractic treatment and nutrition may also play a valuable role in alleviating symptoms.
“Although research into the benefits of acupuncture for autoimmune disease is ongoing, anecdotally many patients with MS, fibromyalgia, lupus and complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) have benefitted from acupuncture treatment,” explains Gulshan Noorani, Acupuncturist.
“Acupuncture can help chronic and entrenched conditions by stimulating blood and Qi (vital energy that moves blood) to promote healthier circulation and alleviate pain brought on by stagnation. It can induce relaxation and thus allow the metabolic system and affected organs to harmonise. Over time, patients commonly experience reduction of pain, better pain management and renewed confidence and hope in mitigating their condition.”
S.J. from London suffers from fibromyalgia, hypermobility, ankylosing spondylitis and Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (‘POTS’). She is a strong advocate of the pain-relieving properties of acupuncture: “I first went for acupuncture eight years ago. Every week there were small results as it alleviated the pain and physical dysfunction for a day. Then three years ago Gulshan started treating me. She used different methods in her acupuncture practice and I was a bit sceptical at first but my opinion changed very quickly.
“She focussed on the twelve magic points for my first session. She told me this was good protocol for fibromyalgia. I was pain-free for five days after the first session. I was not just pain-free, I had a spring in my step for the first time in 20 years. I have had weekly sessions with Gulshan ever since. The pain-free period now lasts up to three weeks.
“She has since adapted the protocol to add other points for ankylosing spondylitis. The results are amazing. I have not needed my walking stick since seeing her. I have not relapsed and needed my wheelchair. My memory is better and my nervous system is calmer. I am able to function productively.”
Lupus sufferer M.L. from Hornsey, London, concurs but would caution that the efficacy can depend on the practitioner: “The first person I saw didn’t have much impact, so I think it really depends on the practitioner and clinic. I then went to see Gulshan and I can feel the reaction of my body to the needles going in and the pain shifting. After seeing her, I am able to reduce the amount of painkillers I am on for a few days after.”
Similarly, Chiropractic treatment may help treat the symptoms of certain autoimmune disorders that impact the body’s musculoskeletal system: “Chiropractic adjustments relieve pressure/ stresses on the nervous system caused by misalignments of the spine. By treating these areas patients with autoimmune conditions often report improvement in symptoms such as fatigue, joint pain and muscle aches,” says Francesca Minischetti, Chiropractor.
“Personally, I have had great success in managing symptoms of certain types of MS, rheumatoid arthritis and other types of inflammatory arthropathies.”
Healthy gut, healthy system
The gastrointestinal system plays a pivotal role in the maintenance of a healthy immune system with balanced gut flora constituting around 80% of our immune systems. (Source: Institute of Health Sciences)
The maxim, ‘we are what we eat’ therefore holds particularly true when it comes to maintaining a healthy immune system.
A 2014 research paper entitled ‘Autoimmunity and The Gut’ highlights the dramatic increase in autoimmune disease since the end of World War II and the possible correlation with a considerably altered diet over the same period.
It states: ‘Today, there are more strains of grains; we use chemicals such as pesticides, fungicides, and insecticides; we inject hormones into dairy cows which then pass into dairy products; we have chemical ingredients in our foods such as artificial preservatives, colourings, and flavourings; we use artificial sweeteners; and we consume more than twice the amount of salt.’
Silvia Grisendi, Functional Nutritionist, says: “A toxic environment combined with a chronic lack of nutrients and prolonged periods of stress put a significant burden on the body. As a result, we see a rapidly growing condition called ‘leaky gut’ (otherwise referred to as ‘increased intestinal permeability’) spreading across the population, increasing the risk of toxins and poorly digested food crossing the intestinal barrier into the bloodstream, and causing unwanted immune reactions.”
“As with any type of immune dysfunctions, functional nutrition will support healing of the intestinal barrier first. Most cases will benefit from removing factors that damage the gut, replacing these with healing foods, and using specific supplements and probiotics to stimulate repair and rebalance the microflora.”
An anti-inflammatory, antioxidant eating strategy
As inflammation is often synonymous with autoimmune disease, an anti-inflammatoryeating strategy aimed at decreasing inflammation could help manage symptoms.
50-year old A. F. has been suffering with ulcerative colitis, a form of IBD (inflammatory bowel disease with an autoimmune component) for the last ten years, alternating periods of remission with acute episodes of debilitating symptoms. He had lost quite a lot of weight over the years, and was borderline anaemic, due to difficulties with absorbing nutrients correctly.
Commenting on the role nutritional advice has played in managing his condition, he says: “After the last crisis in September I decided that pills were not helping me resolve the problem”.
“With Silvia, I started to work on my diet and made gradual but significant changes to reduce the inflammation and create good gut bacteria. Silvia indicated supplements and foods that I had never used before, and I started to feel different quite quickly.”
“We kept checking inflammatory markers to monitor the effect of the plan. After years of living in fear of relapses, three months in and my abnormal inflammatory markers are well down within the normal range, I feel stronger and less worried, and I also gained 6 lbs.”
A diet that reduces oxidative stress and promotes a healthy immune balance may also be of benefit. During an immune response, there’s an increase in the production of free radicals, which can result in oxidative stress – a process marked by a negative shift in the natural balance between pro-oxidants and antioxidants that results in biological damage. (Source: Today’s Dietitian).