News

Autoimmune diseases are becoming an increasingly serious social problem

Everybody knows somebody with an autoimmune disease these days. Although your neighbour may not be a diabetes patient, you may well have a cousin with Crohn’s disease. Compared to 2 decades ago, when the list of autoimmune diseases consisted of about 20 disorders, today’s list is much longer and includes no less than 156 registered immune disorders. Furthermore, compared to the predominantly fairly well-known disorders such as rheumatism and MS of 20 years ago, today's list includes much less familiar disorders such as celiac disease and Ménière’s disease. It is becoming increasingly clear that stress is an important contributing factor.

Autoimmune diseases can have a paralysing and destructive effect on the body and mind. They can target the whole body as well as specific organs. The strong increase in autoimmune disorders of the skin, such as psoriasis, is striking. But what is an autoimmune disease in actual fact? When you suffer from an autoimmune disease, your immune system does not work properly. Your immune system's job is to protect you against infections. Infections can be caused by bacteria, or a virus. The immune system does not work as it should in people who suffer from an autoimmune disease. The cells not only attack harmful invaders (from the outside), but also the body’s own, healthy cells. This can cause damage to tissues and organs. The type of symptoms presented by a person suffering from an autoimmune disease depends on which cells are attacked by the immune system.

Protection against infections

The immune system consists of many different types of cells that are found throughout our bodies. Normally, these cells protect our body against harmful invaders from the outside, such as infections. And they also play a role in the fight against cancer cells. In the case of an autoimmune disease, the immune system actively attacks that person’s own body. There are two interesting questions here: why has the number of autoimmune diseases suddenly rocketed so explosively, and why has the number of people suffering from them also grown so rapidly? The answer is surprisingly simple and concise: stress. Compared to the situation a few decades ago, we live in an increasingly hectic society where more and more is asked of people. Even though different individuals react differently to this, all of us have to deal with more stress on average than we did 20 years ago. 

More and more stress

But why has this increased level of stress led to such an explosive growth in autoimmune diseases? Put simply, this development reflects the role of the adrenal gland. This organ, of which you have two, produces stress hormones such as adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol. These hormones are released into the blood. Hormones can transmit messages to other organs or tissues in the body that are sensitive to their action. A hormone can have an inhibiting effect, or the opposite, a stimulating effect. As a result, hormones have an effect on many different reactions in the body. Continued exposure to stress for a prolonged period affects the production of stress hormones by the adrenal glands. This increases to an undesirable level.

Defence mechanism

The immune system is our inbuilt defence mechanism that protects us against invaders from the outside. It eliminates pathogens every day and protects us against infections. It is present throughout our body. Our skin, intestines, airways, blood and lymphatic system are all part of it. Which brings us to the crucial function of the small intestine, which is 80% responsible for how effectively our immune system works. Everything we eat passes through the small intestine. With a bit of imagination, you can liken the small intestine to a police station that makes sure that everything follows the rules. In the small intestine, which is about two metres long, enzymes break down all the food coming from the stomach into smaller particles that are able to pass through the pores in the intestinal wall. As mentioned previously, the immune system can be weakened by exposure to stress. As a result, the body may develop an intolerance to a certain substance. This substance is often present in a food that people frequently consume. For example, milk, kiwis or eggs. The body develops self antigens in response to this substance. Antigens are normally substances from outside the body, such as viruses and bacteria.

Inflammation

When the immune system detects antigens, it forms immunoglobulin (IgG) in response. This immunoglobulin, type G, is one of the five immunoglobulins that exist in our body. It is produced as a response to large amounts of, or repeated contact with, the antigen. The IgG molecule can be considered a typical antibody. Because this antibody binds to substances that are foreign to the body, it can render them harmless. You can compare these IgG molecules to a policeman trying to arrest a burglar (i.e. the antigen). However toxic substances that have the unwanted effect of causing inflammation are released during this ‘fight’ in the body. Cytokines and chemokines are examples of toxic substances that are released in this way. The liver's job is to neutralise these toxic substances, but it cannot keep pace. As a result, these toxic substances end up in the bloodstream, causing the body to acidify. When this occurs, inflammation arises in the pores of the epithelial tissue in the intestinal wall. This causes the pores to expand, allowing more toxic substances to pass through. This phenomenon is also referred to as ‘leaking gut’. These inflammations often lead to a bloated feeling. People who have been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease are extremely familiar with this phenomenon and the intense fatigue that also afflicts them.

Leaking brain

As one litre of blood flows through the brain every minute, the brain is also affected. The brain is enclosed by three meninges, which protect the brain tissue. These meninges (blood-brain barrier) consist of the same tissue as the small intestine (intestinal barrier), known as epithelial tissue. The pores in this tissue make it possible to absorb nutrients on the one hand and dispose of waste substances, including toxic substances, on the other hand. So the brain has the same vulnerabilities as the intestines. If the cytokines reach the brain, inflammation occurs in the pores of the epithelial tissue. This causes the pores to expand, allowing more toxic substances to pass through. In this case, we speak of a ‘leaking brain’, just as we used the term ‘leaking gut’ in relation to the intestines. Among other things, this manifests itself in an impaired function of the pituitary gland. This is an important organ in our heads, roughly the size of a pea. There are tiny ‘islands’ of hormone-producing cells on the pituitary gland, which each produce a different hormone, which in turn ensure the proper function of vital organs such as the thyroid gland and the adrenal gland. The immune system is affected if these hormones are not produced at regular intervals. Eventually, the brain shrinks, causing damage to the total control mechanism, which can lead to a range of complaints, varying from cognitive complaints, headaches, and motor and sensory problems to problems with concentration and focusing.  

Delicate thyroid gland

In addition to the brain-gut connection discussed above, the connection between the small intestine and the thyroid gland is also extremely vulnerable. Women between the ages of 40 and 55 are particularly susceptible to cytokine-induced problems with the thyroid gland. This is extremely serious as thyroid hormones play a role in almost all body tissues and organs, from the muscle in the big toe to the nerve pathway in the liver. Dysfunction of the thyroid gland can manifest itself as hypometabolism (a decreased rate of metabolic activity) or hypermetabolism (an accelerated rate of metabolic activity). Hashimoto's disease and Graves’ disease are the best known autoimmune diseases that involve the thyroid gland. In the case of Hashimoto's disease, the thyroid gland gradually slows down, whereas in the case of Graves’ disease the opposite occurs, and the thyroid gland becomes overactive. Typical symptoms of an underactive thyroid gland include hair loss, dry skin, constipation, weight gain, muscle pain, fatigue and forgetfulness. Typical symptoms of an overactive thyroid gland are heart palpitations, sweating, weight loss and a feeling of anxiety and irritability. However, these symptoms are often also associated with other disorders. So a doctor cannot diagnose this condition based on the symptoms alone. A blood test indicates whether the thyroid gland may be the cause of the complaints. The Functional Neurology Institute has the equipment required to perform this blood test. 

Vitamin D deficiency

The Functional Neurology Institute also specialises in treating patients with an autoimmune disease. We have noticed that many people with an autoimmune disease also suffer from a chronic vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D, of course, is the main source of energy for the immune system. Taking a high-quality vitamin D supplement is definitely to be recommended in the case of a chronic deficiency. The Functional Neurology Institute advises taking XO-D as a vitamin D supplement. 

Tired after eating

Do you suspect that you may suffer from an autoimmune disease? How you feel after eating is a reliable indicator. If you feel bloated thirty minutes after eating and are also often tired after eating, the chances are that you have an autoimmune disorder. The same applies if you regularly have to go to the toilet thirty minutes to an hour after eating. The appearance of your stool is also a good indication of a possible autoimmune disorder. Two researchers at the University of Bristol came to the same conclusion at the end of the last century. They developed a stool chart, which is known today as the Bristol Stool Chart. The chart describes seven types of stool, ranging from very hard (constipation) to watery (diarrhoea). Many doctors and therapists continue to use this chart to this day in order to explain the appearance of stools (faeces) to people. 

Type 1
Separate hard lumps, like nuts, difficult to pass

Type 2
Sausage-shaped, but lumpy

Type 3
Like a sausage but with cracks on its surface

Type 4
Like a sausage or snake, smooth and soft

Type 5
Soft blobs with clear-cut edges, easy to pass

Type 6
Fluffy pieces with ragged edges, a mushy stool

Type 7
Watery, entirely liquid stool

Types 1 and 2 indicate constipation, 3 and above all 4 are the ‘ideal stool types’, because they are the easiest to pass, and 5 to 7 tend towards diarrhoea.

Healthy stools

Healthy stools look like types three or four on the Bristol Stool Chart. The stools are light brown to brown in colour, sausage-shaped and do not contain mucus or visible particles of undigested food such as pieces of undigested sweet peppers or corn grains. Sometimes, small cracks are visible on the surface of the stool. This indicates that the stool has dried up to a certain extent. When going to the toilet, the sausage comes out in a flowing motion without having to exert excessive pressure. Furthermore, little toilet paper is needed to clean the anus. The stool also sinks easily and leaves no traces behind in the toilet bowl. Moreover, it is (almost) odour-free. The frequency of going to the toilet varies from person to person. Anything between once or twice a day to three times a week is normal as long as your belly does not feel hard and you do not suffer from bloating, flatulence or abdominal pain. The latter would tend to indicate a possible autoimmune disorder.

Odours and colours

Factors other than the shape and texture of the stools also tell us something about a person’s health. The colour is also a useful indication of a possible autoimmune disorder. In addition to the normal colour of stools, there are many other variants such as red, green, white and black. Do your stools have an unusual colour? If so, try to remember what you have eaten during the past 48 hours. Eating spinach can turn your stools green, while beetroot or red cabbage can make your stools red. What if you do not see any connection to last night’s dinner or anything else you ate? The unusual colour in the toilet bowl is probably caused by something else. A red colour in or around your stools may indicate the presence of blood. There is no reason for immediate alarm. This may not be serious; you may have an internal haemorrhoid that bleeds when you pass stools. However, you should discuss it with your doctor. 

Black stools

Black stools can also indicate bleeding, at the beginning of the digestive tract in this case. This is sometimes referred to as ‘old blood’. You can recognise it by the typical metallic odour. You should also consult your doctor in this case. Eating large amounts of iron-rich foods such as spinach or beef may also cause black or very dark stools. The same applies to the use of iron preparations. Green stools may indicate an infection in the intestinal tract. A type of bacteria, salmonella or clostridium, is responsible for this. It may also be caused by the use of laxatives. Furthermore, a green colour may indicate food intolerance. Green stools often occur in combination with diarrhoea. Because the stool moves too quickly through the intestines, the green bile cannot be broken down properly. A pale yellow or white colour of the stool may indicate a blockage of the bile ducts. Bile gives the stool its brown colour. The bile ducts become blocked, by a gallstone for example, the bile no longer reaches the small intestine and the stool becomes lighter in colour. A pale yellow or white colour of the stool may be accompanied by abdominal pain or colic pain in the upper right part of the abdomen. You should also consult your doctor in this case as well. 

Rotten eggs

In addition to the colour of your stools, there are further indicators of an autoimmune disease. The odour of your stool also says something about your digestion. A sour odour may indicate incomplete digestion of carbohydrates. If carbohydrates remain in the intestines for a long time, your intestinal bacteria will cause them to ferment. This results in sour-smelling compounds. On the other hand, incomplete protein digestion results in large quantities of undigested protein entering your colon. These proteins ferment there, releasing sulphur compounds in the process. This makes your stools smell like rotten eggs. 

Balancing your diet

Are you experiencing problems with digesting your food? If so, you should take a close look at the composition of your diet. Do you eat a lot of protein or carbohydrates? You should try to balance your diet, perhaps with the help of a dietician or nutritionist. Your professional specialist at the Functional Neurology Institute can also advise you on this. If you switch to a healthy, balanced diet and continue to experience digestive problems, you need to investigate the causes of those problems. Your pancreas function may not be optimal, or you may have an imbalance in the composition of your intestinal flora. In that case, taking digestive enzymes or a probiotic food supplement can help improve your digestion. 

Overactive bowel

Stool has to travel a significant distance before it ends up in the toilet bowl. The muscles in your intestines contract to push the food mass through the bowel. If they contract very quickly, your stools will be watery or you will suffer from diarrhoea. On the other hand, if the intestinal muscles contract slowly, the food stays in the bowel for too long. In that case, too much water is extracted, leading to dry stools and constipation. Eating 30 to 40 grams of fibre a day helps your bowel process the food you eat and ultimately transfer the waste to the toilet bowl at the right speed. If you do not already eat enough fibre, you should add more high-fibre foods such as vegetables, wholegrain cereals and legumes to your diet. You can also take a good high-fibre supplement. The Functional Neurology Institute recommends Q3 as a supplement. Q3 helps the intestinal muscles function properly, boosts your gut flora and maintains good digestion in the long term.

The squitters

There are three possible causes for diarrhoea. It can be caused by psychological stress. However a spicy meal can also stimulate your bowel function. The spicy substances irritate the intestinal wall, causing accelerated bowel function. Finally, diarrhoea can also be caused by a bodily reaction. If you eat something or have something in your bowel that your immune system sees as a threat, your intestines will work harder to pass it out of your body as fast as possible. The way your body reacts to food poisoning is a good example. Severe diarrhoea occurs in this case. The body tries to expel the harmful bacteria in the intestines as soon as possible. Sometimes, the pathogenic bacteria release toxic substances (cytokines and chemokines) that irritate the intestines, causing diarrhoea. You should avoid using diarrhoea medications if you have acute diarrhoea due to food poisoning. They will have the effect of keeping the bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract for longer. 

Parasitic infection

A variable bowel movement pattern, where healthy bowel movement alternates with thin stools or diarrhoea at regular intervals, may be associated with a parasitic infection. When the eggs laid by a parasite hatch, the immune system reacts and activates the intestines to pass the intestinal contents as quickly as possible. Things then return to normal. You should also be aware that hypersensitivity to certain foods, or an intestinal infection, does not always lead to a classic case of watery diarrhoea. This can also manifest itself in the form of fluffy, soft stools. When this occurs, you will require a copious amount of toilet paper to clean the soft, sticky stools from the anus. Mucus may also form, which you will see as white, slimy areas around the stool. A handy tip if you suspect food hypersensitivity is to keep a food diary. You note everything you eat and drink and the time of consumption in this diary. You also note when you experience discomfort, such as cramp or pain. In addition, if you systematically describe the shape and colour of your stools in this booklet, it will help your doctor or dietician determine whether there is a connection between your complaints and specific foods or substances in your diet. 

Stool analysis

A stool analysis may be helpful sometimes. This analysis detects a parasitic infection or intestinal infection. The composition of your gut flora can also be studied. When interpreting the results of a stool analysis, you must also consider your personal situation and your diet. So keeping a food diary during the period prior to the analysis is certainly to be recommended. 

Stay informed

Sign up and receive monthly updates on functional neurology, brain-related disorders and our Institute.