The Autoimmune Disease Series Part 2: Autoimmune Disease on a Cellular Level
In order to truly understand autoimmunity, or the “loss of tolerance for self,” we must appreciate the incredibly intricate interplay of characters on a cellular level. It can be hard to wrap our minds around a system of the body that isn’t technically a single organ (in the same sense as, say, the liver.) While there are certainly organs and tissues that are associated with immune function, such as the thymus, the immune system as we know it is more diffuse and “spread out.” Immune cells can be found anywhere your circulatory system carries them, with large aggregates found in lymph nodes, tonsils, adenoids, thymus, spleen, bone marrow, and the gut. In fact, approximately 70% of your immune system is found in your gut (1.) Why? Because your gut is essentially the outside world, inside of you. Therefore, the body has to be equipped to handle any foreign invaders that gain access to your body through this route.
Autoimmunity involves immune cells that have lost tolerance to self because they have become hypersensitive and confused. These hyper-vigilant cells then go on a seek-and-destroy mission against certain organs and tissues in your body. But who are these cells, and how did they get so mixed up? Immune cells respond primarily to cues from other immune cells using chemical messengers called cytokines. Put simply, cytokine signaling involves two basic commands: “ATTACK!” and “Calm down.” Cytokines that signal immune cells to “ATTACK!” are referred to as “pro-inflammatory.” Cytokines that signal immune cells to “Calm down,” are referred to as “anti-inflammatory.”
The predominance of either pro or anti-inflammatory cytokines tends to dictate the behavior of your immune cells, and can even affect the type of immune cell that immature, “baby” white blood cells become. Ideally, the body strikes a fair and beneficial balance between two general types of mature cells. Cells that create inflammation, go on seek-and-destroy missions, and send out “ATTACK!” cytokines to other cells are called “Th17” cells, (“the fighters.”) Cells that decrease inflammation and send “Calm down,” messages to other cells are called T-regulatory cells (“the referees.”)
In autoimmunity, the environment that immune cells are living in is typically fraught with the Th17 cells sending out messages to attack. This environment, in a sense, is self-perpetuating and can be compared to two opposing hockey teams in a fight. How can we calm down a situation like this? In short, we must encourage the production of anti-inflammatory cytokines and increase the tendency for white blood cells to become T-regulatory “referees,” which will go in and calm things down.
Production of anti-inflammatory cytokines and T-regulatory cells can be encouraged through diet and specific nutritional supplementation, as well as the removal of factors which helped create the vicious cycle of pro-inflammatory cytokines and cells. Once the constant onslaught has abated, the tissue that has been under attack can begin to heal and restoration of normal function can sometimes result.
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