How to Normalize an Overactive Immune System

Learn about root causes, common conditions, and autoimmune diet recipes to support your immune systems.

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Dana Hutchinson
Herbal support for autoimmunity.

There’s an emerging health epidemic that isn’t stealing the headlines of newspapers. This collection of complex ailments are rarely spoken about yet can affect virtually any part of the human body. With more than 80 known conditions in its class, this combative group of health disorders affects an estimated 5 to 8% of the world population, including more than 24 million Americans (NIH, n.d.). Unfortunately, these diseases are being diagnosed at an alarming rate with no signs of slowing down.

For those of you who haven’t heard of the intricate world of autoimmunity, let me introduce you to an assembly of illnesses that operate under the umbrella categorization of a “dysregulated” immune system. The immune system normally defends the body against toxins, infections, and invaders that can negatively affect the system’s equilibrium. Sadly, with increased 21st century exposures to environmental toxins, chronic oxidative stress, overuse of prescription medications, and poorly passed on genetics, we are seeing the immune defense system turn on the body’s own tissues instead of intended harmful invaders (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2005). This engenders an overactive immune system that becomes fated to cause self-tissue damage. For instance, in the autoimmune condition psoriasis, the body attacks its own skin tissues in various places across the body, resulting in skin cell plaque buildup, severe pruritus (itchiness), and vexing skin rashes.

Physically, autoimmune diseases can affect the blood vessels, joints, muscles, red blood cells, skin cells, endocrine glands, and connective tissues. Emotionally, vulnerability to depression, anxiety, and a defeatist mental outlook on life is commonly reported. Although systemic pain, fatigue, and a myriad of other debilitating manifestations commonly plague sufferers’ days, Western treatment options are scarce and are not treating the underlying issue. Conventional prescriptions include immune-suppressants, steroids, and a selection of other pharmaceuticals that can have side effects that are as bad, if not worse, than the symptoms of the disease itself.

Fortunately, the alternative world of medicine is focused on finding the root cause of the problem and introducing balance back into the body. Thus, treatment options usually include the application of customized botanical formulas, strategic supplementation, and immune-boosting energetic exercises.

Immune System Cells

The success of our immune defense mechanisms relies on the orchestrated collaboration between two integral lymphocytes responsible for rapid immune responses: our T cells and B cells. With both cells originating in the bone marrow, they mature to form the foundation of our humoral or antibody mediated immunity, which allows us to fight off internal pathogens (Linterman et al., 2009).

In humoral immunity, our B cells act as antigen presenting cells (APCs) by detecting and displaying a foreign antigen to our T cells (also known as CD4+ T helper cells). Once the T helper cells evaluate and approve that the substance is hazardous to the system, the T helper cells activate the B cells to initiate an attack on the discovered antigen. The activated B cells now undergo differentiation where they can transform into more specialized cells like effector plasma cells (which produce antibodies toward the detected antigen) and memory B cells (which memorize characteristics of the initial antigen so they can destroy the substance if encountered in the future) (Linterman et al., 2009).

Immune system cell types.

This outlined immune process works harmoniously if there is an internal environment of homeostasis and minimal levels of inflammation. Put simply, when a system becomes exposed to multiple sources of toxic exposures, humoral immunity can become disrupted and generate an autoimmune response instead. In the presence of an autoimmune reaction, the B cells are now producing autoantibodies (antibodies that are produced against self-tissues), rather than producing antibodies toward harmful circulating antigens. This production of autoantibodies is a system error and further highlights an immune system that has lost the ability to discern between antigens and self-tissue (Maciocia, n.d.). If the system continues to marinate in constant inflammation, the likelihood of the immune system correcting itself becomes increasingly distant as the tissue damage continues to progress.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) believes that autoimmune diseases are truly a direct reflection of a specific pattern of disharmony that causes the immune system to act out of balance. TCM usually classifies most autoimmune presentations as either an excess or deficiency root cause, which induces further investigation into which meridian channels may be blocking the individual’s overall vitality (Qi).

Regardless of what triggered the inappropriate immune response in the first place, the alternative health approach seeks to strengthen the digestive system, relax the central nervous system, and increase the individual’s emotional state so systemic balance can be achieved.

Common Autoimmune Diseases

Let’s explore a few of the most common autoimmune diseases (via U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2005):

  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)– This condition occurs when the immune system abrades the protective covering of the nerves and glial cells in the body, causing destruction to the myelin sheaths. This damage causes disrupted communication between the brain and body.
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus)– This systemic inflammatory condition occurs when certain organs and tissues are attacked by the immune system. Lupus can affect the joints, skin, kidneys, blood cells, brain, heart, and lungs.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)– This arthritic condition occurs when the immune system attacks the joint linings. This can cause inflammation, bone erosion, joint deformity, systemic pain, and swelling. RA is conventionally managed by a class of drugs called DMARDS (anti-rheumatic drugs.)
  • Hashimoto’s thyroiditis & Graves’ Disease– Both conditions involve the thyroid. The immune system attacks thyroid tissues and causes inflammation in the area. Hashimoto’s has been linked with an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism), and Graves’ has been linked with an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism).
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) conditions (ulcerative colitis & Crohn’s disease)– This is a group of inflammatory bowel disorders that cause chronic inflammation in the digestive tract. Both conditions cause swelling and sores in the tissues of the abdominal wall. Ulcerative colitis affects the colon, where Crohn’s can occur anywhere between the mouth and anus.
  • Type 1 diabetes mellitus– This condition affects insulin production. The immune system attacks the pancreatic tissues and destroys cells that produce insulin. This condition is associated with high levels of sugar (glucose) in the blood.
  • Celiac disease– This condition occurs when the immune system reacts to an ingested gluten protein. This can cause villi damage in the small intestine and general gastrointestinal tract inflammation, often leaving the body disadvantaged in absorbing necessary nutrients.
  • Lichen sclerosis (LS)– This condition occurs when the immune system attacks the genitals and anal tissues. This can cause skin lesions, cuts, white patches, and wrinkly presentations, along with painful or impossible sexual intercourse.
Celiac disease

Autoimmune Symptoms

I could write a comparison novel on all the differing presentations of each autoimmune disease. Every client truly experiences a unique host of symptoms tied to their illness. The following list highlights our client’s top complaints that are associated with most autoimmune conditions.

  • Chronic fatigue– reflecting potential adrenal imbalance, sleep dysfunction, or underlying allergies.
  • Difficulty concentrating/brain fog– reflecting potential inflammation in the connective tissues.
  • Hair loss– reflecting potential nutritional deficiencies or exposure to excessive oxidative stress.
  • Frequent infections– reflecting potential weak immunity or inflammation from environmental toxins.
  • Skin redness, rashes, or swelling– reflecting potential underlying infections or hypersensitivities.
  • IBS/ irregular bowel movements– reflecting potential leaky gut syndrome or a lifestyle imbalance.
  • Unstable body temperature– reflecting potential thyroid or hormonal imbalance.
  • Systemic or localized pain– reflecting potential inflammation of the muscles or energy blockages.

How is Autoimmunity Diagnosed?

Detecting an autoimmune disease can be a tricky procedure, both for the patient and the medical provider alike. Most doctors are inferring a patient’s symptoms and matching the presentation to a definition of a specified autoimmune disease. Often the first step of allopathic autoimmune diagnosis involves running a test called an ANA (Antinuclear antibodies) blood test. This test is performed to assess if the individual’s system has in fact created autoantibodies against their own self-tissue.

However, a positive ANA test is not a guarantee that you have an autoimmune condition. Certainly, 95 to98% of people with lupus will produce a positive ANA test, but several other non-lupus conditions can also trigger a positive ANA result. On the contrary, an individual with a biopsy confirmed autoimmune condition (skin conditions, for example) can still produce a negative ANA test. Some doctors will also run a rheumatoid factor (RF) blood test to check for conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, Sjögren’s syndrome, and other possible infections. Nonetheless, even a high level of RF in the blood does not always indicate a positive diagnosis for autoimmunity.

The infuriating long and short of autoimmune investigations is that there is no perfect road map to receiving a diagnosis. There are generally a serious of serology tests, antibody draws, biopsies, screening questionnaires, imaging scans, and physical examinations that may be performed to achieve the confirmation of autoimmunity.

Possible Causes for Autoimmunity

Fundamentally, all humans were born into this world with a unique microbiome (gut flora), ideally passed on from their gestational parent through childbirth and the consumption of breast milk. The development of a newborn’s microbiome is deliberately influenced by the mode of birth (vaginal or C-section), the initial form of nourishment (breastfed or formula fed), any complications from the duration of gestation, nutritional and antibiotic exposure, passed on genetics, and initial environmental exposures. The beginning colonization of early life microbes sets the foundation for how effectively we will respond to inflammatory triggers (Walker, 2017). Beneficial gut bacteria plays an essential role for lowering the risk of chronic illness and stimulating the development of a robust immune system. Individuals associated with low diversity of their microbiome can be predisposed to inflammatory conditions, a weak immune system, gut membrane permeability, and increased hypersensitivities to their environment (Walker, 2017). Although many factors must be considered to determine the true cause of autoimmunity, our clinic’s initial focus usually involves assessing the vitality and function of the client’s gastrointestinal tract.

When examining other potential root causes that have influenced the development of autoimmunity, it is essential to understand that the health presentation was likely caused by an abundance of collaborative issues. I like to think of the health diagnosis as the volcanic eruption and the lifestyle exposures as the buildup. As we grow from newborn to adult, our systems are further exposed to pollution, manmade chemicals, disease-causing microbes, radiation, pharmaceutical medications, and chronic psychological stress. And as a society, we broadly expect to combat the inflammation from these factors with a diet rich in processed foods, high glycemic sugars, and food intolerances (foods that cause internal inflammation to the individual). This plainly doesn’t add up in our book.

All these factors combine with the likelihood of an individual also having an undetected bacterial or viral infection like Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), Helicobacter pylori (H-pylori), rubella, or Escherichia coli (E. coli), a potential underlying genetic mutation like MTHFR, and the plausible possibility of lingering emotional symptoms from unprocessed traumatic events. Given the broad range of societal adversities, it’s not surprising why we’ve seen an astonishing rise in inflammatory health conditions. Our bodily systems simply can’t keep up.

What is the Best Lifestyle and Diet for Autoimmune Disease?

You may be starting to conclude that the world of autoimmunity is far from linear with inconsistent diagnosing practices, unclear origins, and a varying degree of symptoms. This explains why most autoimmune disease sufferers are handed a prescription steroid and a pat on the back from their Western medical provider. With the intention to vanquish the overactivity of the immune system, immunosuppressants and corticosteroids can temporarily reduce inflammation, but are by no means a long-term solution. These medications work to suppress the T and B cell activity that is mistakenly attacking self-tissues. Unfortunately, this suppression also hinders the immune cells’ ability to detect more severe invaders that may come along in the future, like cancer cells and lethal bacteria, for example.

Thankfully, general support from the clinical herbalism and Eastern medicine fields can provide favorable outcomes for autoimmunity. At Wildflower Clinic, we recommend beginning with herbs that support the overall vitality of the immune system like reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum), astragalus — called ‘Huang Qi’ in TCM — (Astragalus mongholicus) root, and peony — called ‘Bai Shao’ in TCM — (Paeonia lactiflora) root. We also recommend adding in herbs that strengthen the hypothalamic- pituitary-adrenal axis and nourish the central nervous system. This may include ‘Fo-Ti’ also known ‘Ashe Shou Wu’ (Polygonum multiflorum) root, ‘Don Quai’ (Angelica sinensis) root, mimosa (Albizia julibrissin) flower, and pedicularis (Pedicularis racemosa). Finally, herbs that support general liver detoxification are also encouraged. Herbs like dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) root, burdock (Arctium lappa) root, and milk thistle (Silybum marianum) seed, leaves, flowers, and root may be incredibly supportive for alleviating liver inflammation or congestion.

For initial supplementation, autoimmune sufferers should focus on an adequate amount of Vitamin D, magnesium, essential fatty acids), L-glutamine, zinc, quercetin, and probiotics. Energetically, we recommend introducing a Qigong practice into the daily routine to unblock stuck meridian channels and build system vibrancy. A diet rich in flavonoids, antioxidants, B vitamins, and fiber should also be maintained. Although there are boundless suggestions for countering autoimmunity, I leave you with these initial steps to consider when beginning your unique healing journey.

  1. Support the gut membranes– Remove food intolerances and processed foods.
  2. Reduce exposure to oxidative stress– Begin processing emotional trauma and nourish the central nervous system.
  3. Consider herbal medicine– Support the gut, liver, immune system, and endocrine system.
  4. Incorporate a daily spirituality practice– Consider Qigong, meditation, yoga, breathwork, etc.
  5. Reduce inflammatory exposures– Think electromagnetic fields, chemicals, over the counter medications, and negative relationships.

Supplements for Autoimmune Disease

Wildflower Clinic’s “General Vitality Support” Infusion Recipe

This is a delicious loose-leaf tea blend that you can make in bulk, store in a jar, and then brew by the pot to help support general health and vitality. Yield: approximately 14 ounces of dried, loose-leaf tea.

  • 3.5 ounces (100grams) dried marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) root
  • 2.8 ounces (80g) dried calendula (Calendula officinalis) flowers
  • 1.8 ounces (50g) dried chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) flowers
  • 1.8 ounces (50g) dried plantain (Plantago officinalis) leaf
  • 1.2 ounces (35g) dried holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) leaf and flowering
  • tops
  • 1 ounce (28g) dried cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) flowers
  • 3/4  ounce (20g) dried chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum morifolium)
  • flower
  • 1/2 ounce (15g) dried licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) root
  • 1/2 ounce (15g) dried jasmine (Jasminum officinale) flower buds
    13.8 total ounces (392 g)
  1. Add all herbs to a large bowl, mix to thoroughly combine.
  2. Transfer loose-leaf tea blend to a glass jar, label, and store in a cool, dark place.
  3. To brew, cover 1 ounce of herbs with 32 ounces of just-boiled water. Cover, infuse overnight, strain in the morning, and drink throughout the day for up to 14 days.

Wildflower Clinic “General Inflammation Support” Tincture Recipe

This is a great tincture to take for general, all-over inflammation support. Yield: Approximately 4 ounces.

  • 1 ounce (30milliliter) peony — called ‘Bai Shao’ in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) — (Paeonia lactiflora) root tincture
  • 0.7 ounces (20ml) cat’s claw — called ‘Gou Teng’ in TCM — (Uncaria tomentosa) tincture
  • 0.7 ounces 20ml) astragalus — called ‘Huang Qi’ in TCM — (Astragalus mongholicus) root tincture
  • 0.5 ounces (15ml)Chinese Moutan Root (or Cortex Moutan)– called ‘Mu Dan Pi’ in TCM — (Paeonia suffruticosa) root bark tincture
  • 0.5 ounces (15ml) safflower — called ‘Hong Hua’ in TCM – (Carthamus tinctorius) flower tincture
  • 0.3 ounces (10ml) red jujube date — called ‘Da Zao’ in TCM — (Ziziphus jujube) fruit tincture
  • 0.2 ounces (5ml) Chinese cinnamon — called ‘Rou-Gui’ in TCM — (Cinnamomum cassia) bark tincture
  • 0.2 ounces (5ml) citrus — called ‘Chen Pi’ in TCM — (Citrus spp.) peel tincture
    Total: 4 ounces (120ml)

1. Measure and combine all of the tinctures in a small bowl. Stir to combine.
2. Transfer to a glass jar for storage. Label, cap, and store in a cool dark place for up to 5 years.
3. To take, add about 5 dropperfuls (1 teaspoon) to 1 ounce of water in the morning, with food. Take for up to 24 days to ease uncomfortable feeling associated with inflammation.

Wildflower Clinic “Anti-inflammatory” Beverage Recipe

This easy-to-make drink is best taken first-thing in the morning to help hydrate the body and prepare for the day ahead. Yield: Approximately 16 ounces.

  • 16 ounces warm, filtered water
  • 1/2 organic lemon, squeezed
  • 1 Tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • 30 drops trace mineral concentrate
  • 2 pinches cayenne (Capsicum spp.) pepper
  • 1.25 mcg. liquid chromium
  • 1/16th teaspoon baking soda (optional)

1. Combine ingredients in glass, stir and drink.

Please ensure you are working with a qualified registered herbalist before beginning any herbal protocol. These recommendations do not replace regular medical care with your licensed doctor and do not intend to diagnose, treat, prevent, or cure any condition. These statements are not evaluated by the FDA.

Dana Hutchinson is a Registered Herbalist with the American Herbalist Guild (AHG) and owns an integrative herbal health center in Colorado called The Wildflower Clinic. She offers comprehensive herbal consultations and specializes in autoimmunity, infertility, and emotional trauma. Find out more at www.WildFlowerClinic.com or follow along on Instagram @WildflowerClinic.

REFERENCES:

Linterman, M.A., Rigby, R.J., Wong, R.K., Yu, D., Brink. R., Cannons, J.L., et al. Follicular helper T cells are required for systemic autoimmunity. J Exp Med. (2009) 206:561-76. doi: 10.1084/jem.20081886.

Maciocia, Giovanni. (n.d.). The treatment of autoimmune diseases with Chinese medicine– part 1. Retrieved https://giovanni-maciocia.com/the-treatment-of-autoimmune-diseases/

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences – NIH (n.d.). Autoimmune diseases. Retrieved from https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/conditions/autoimmune/index.cfm

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health (2005). “Progress in autoimmune diseases research.” National Institute of Allergy and infectious Diseases. Retrieved from: https://www.niaid.nih.gov/sites/default/files/adccfinal.pdf on 11/19/2021

Walker, R. W., Clemente, J. C., Peter, I., & Loos, R. (2017). “The prenatal gut microbiome: are we colonized with bacteria in utero?”. Pediatric Obesity, 12 Suppl 1(Suppl 1), 3-17. https://doi.org/10.1111/ijpo.12217

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