Autoimmunity: How It Affects Brain Function
Autoimmunity refers to the mechanism in which your immune system attacks the organs and tissues in your body and brain. Whenever we are exposed to any environmental toxin that triggers an immune response (foods such as gluten, or toxic chemicals, or infections), that substance is now categorized as an antigen, something that our immune system is activated to protect against. This immune response can occur at any time, day or night, and it’s designed to work in the background of our lives so we don’t notice it happening. You don’t feel it, see it, taste it, smell it, or experience it in any way, yet your body is silently protecting you. If this initial immune response is not strong enough, then the immune system releases antibodies, a more powerful weapon for dealing with an antigen. If this mechanism continues long enough, damage to body or brain tissue will occur, and wherever the damage occurs, that organ can no longer function as it’s meant to. This usually begins with the mildest of irritations, like a runny nose, sore muscles, or brain fog. If the antigenic response continues, damaging the tissue, eventually you will develop a disease related to that tissue. It doesn’t matter what tissue we’re talking about: This mechanism occurs in every and any tissue in your body, including the brain. Now you’ve developed a disease.
There are more than 70 recognized autoimmune diseases and more than 300 autoimmune conditions. Common autoimmune diseases include Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cardiovascular ailments, strokes, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, scleroderma, and dementia. You may be wondering how it is possible that these diseases run such a gamut, and why so many affect the brain. The reason is that all of these diseases are linked to the same by-products of an autoimmune response: elevated antibodies and inflammation.
Immune System Basics
Your immune system acts like the armed forces in your body—it’s there to protect you. It’s composed of five different branches that work together. There is a metaphorical army, navy, air force, marines, and coast guard (which are referred to by doctors as autoimmune responses, or the antibodies IgA, IgG, IgE, IgM, and IgD), each of which has a distinct role. There are also four different immune systems in the body. Each of these systems operates separately, but all follow the same owner’s manual and communicate with each other. The largest one is found in the gastrointestinal tract (the gut), where 70 to 85 percent of your immunity resides. There is another immune system in the liver called the Kupffer cells. The third comprises the white blood cells found in the bloodstream.
Finally, the most potent immune system in the body is in the brain and made of glial cells. These cells act as sentries standing guard with high-powered rifles just inside the blood-brain barrier, which is the filtration system of what gets into the brain. Glial cells are the most powerful immune response in the body: These guys don’t walk around with just six-shooters; they have bazookas. Any foreign matter that gets into the brain activates the glial cells to fire chemical bullets.
From an evolutionary perspective, humans thrive as the dominant species on the planet because we can reason and other species cannot. The “thinking” area of the brain, the cerebral cortex, allows us to reason, and as a result, it’s most important to our survival. We know this because there are 60.84 billion glial cells protecting the cerebral cortex, making sure that if anything gets past the blood-brain barrier, there is an army there to address it. There are only 16.34 billion neurons that comprise the cerebral cortex, giving this large region a glial-to-neuron ratio of almost 4 to 1 (actually it’s 3.72 to 1—sorry, I am a geek!). These thinking cells need to be protected at all costs. It’s the reverse in the cerebellum, the more primitive muscle and motor command center in the brain, where there are more neurons than glial cells. This may be why so many autoimmune diseases that affect the brain affect your motor function, as is the case in Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis (MS), and others.
Each of the four immune systems has at least two arms: the ancient arm of the immune system, found in all living creatures, called the cellular, or innate, immune system, which acts as the protective handguns firing chemical bullets and creating inflammation to destroy a threat; and the humoral, or adaptive, immune system, which is the heavy artillery that’s called in when you need to produce even stronger inflammation as a backup support system.
When faced with an environmental exposure, whether it is bacteria, a virus, a parasite, offensive dietary proteins and peptides, or even chemicals or medications, the innate/cellular arms produce cytokines, the biochemical bullets I refer to as the first responders. These cytokines recognize and then destroy whatever they consider threatening. There are a number of different types of cytokines, and the immune system determines which one to launch depending on the threat.
If the cellular arms’ defensive strategy cannot get the job done, the immune system calls up the big guns. This is when the humoral/adaptive immune system kicks in and its soldiers launch targeted missiles called antibodies. Antibodies work like trained assassins; they go after a specific target. Anywhere the antibodies find an invader, they fire their missiles at that specific invader. If you’ve ever received blood test results with the words “elevated levels of antibodies,” or an “H” next to the antibody marker, this refers to the fact that the basic immune system is overwhelmed, and now the big guns are working overtime to contain a perceived threat. These antibodies circulate in the bloodstream looking for the environmental exposures they’ve been trained to attack.
And here’s the kicker: Even after the offending bug or food has been destroyed, along with the damaged cells, antibodies continue to inhabit your bloodstream for an additional 2 to 6 months. Even when you have no symptoms, elevated antibodies are a signal that the immune system is working with its last option to respond to a perceived threat before the development of disease.
Elevated antibodies can also occur when our innate immune system (the first responders) becomes depleted and ineffective. Our immune system can get worn out just by responding to the way we live our hectic lives and the food choices we make. Whether the continued unrelenting antigen is biochemical (food sensitivities, environmental toxins, etc.), structural (poor posture, intestinal permeability), emotional stress (stinking thinking), or electromagnetic, it can deplete our first responders (the innate immune response) so that they are no longer effective. How many years did you smoke, or drink soda, or eat sugary foods? The damage from those habits, or others, might now look like recurring colds (“I get the flu once or twice a year, and I’m out for a week”), or forgetfulness (“Where did I leave my keys?”), or a 3:00 p.m. energy crash. These subtle but annoying health problems are suggestive of a worn-out innate immune system.
Controlling Inflammation Is the Name of the Game
When the innate immune system is worn out, the big guns are called on more frequently, resulting in higher levels of antibodies (which will show up on a blood test) that attack and destroy antigens in a process that creates inflammation: Additional blood containing immune-enhancing white blood cells and antibodies is directed to the areas of the body or brain that require healing. In some instances, like when you get a small cut on your hand, you can see and feel the inflammatory barrier: You may notice tenderness, redness, and swelling. However, inflammation mostly occurs inside the body and the brain. If you didn’t go looking for inflammation with highly sensitive blood tests, you wouldn’t even know it’s there. And you won’t have any symptoms from excess inflammation until your immune system has killed off so many cells that the organ or tissue can’t function normally anymore. Symptoms are usually mild at first and progressively increase in intensity over time. Autoimmunity is a notoriously misdiagnosed condition because the symptoms are at first so benign. That’s why the average person who is eventually diagnosed with an autoimmune disease suffers for 3 to 7 years before they get the right diagnosis. For example, we know that Parkinson’s patients suffer for years with inflammation causing chronic constipation, but most don’t think to see a neurologist to check on their brain health.
Don’t get me wrong—inflammation is also the primary way your immune system keeps you healthy. This is critical to remember, because inflammation gets a bad rap. The truth is, inflammation is not bad for you. Excessive inflammation is bad for you. Once the antigen is destroyed and the damage to your body is repaired (like when the cut on your finger heals), the inflammation response subsides and the cellular (innate) branch’s immune response goes back to a resting state. However, if the inflammatory process recruited the big guns, the adaptive immune response with antibody production, the antibodies can continue for months even after the threat is contained. This might occur when the ammunition in your innate immune response wasn’t powerful enough to successfully contain the antigen and the big guns had to be called in, or when we continue to expose ourselves from unknown sources, such as lipsticks that contain gluten, or orthodontic retainers that may contain gluten, or when we keep eating the wrong foods.
When inflammation in the brain gets out of control, you might notice subtle symptoms, like when you can’t remember things the way you used to and chalk them up to “getting older.” You might feel confused or depressed, or you might be overly anxious. No matter what you hear from “experts,” it is not normal to have a poorly functioning brain in your forties and fifties. It is common, but it is not normal. It means that something’s not working right. And that something is likely the result of an autoimmune response in your brain. That’s what this book is about. If you understand this, then you have a very good chance of being sharp-witted well into your eighties and nineties.
Creating excess or chronic inflammation is like throwing gasoline on a fire: It adds to the problem instead of resolving it. This is when the inflammatory cascade begins. Inflammation beyond the normal range will cause cellular damage. Continued cellular damage will cause tissue damage. Continued tissue damage will cause organ inflammation. Continued organ inflammation will initiate elevated antibodies to that organ and trigger small, annoying dysfunction of that organ. Continued inflammation with elevated antibodies and small, annoying dysfunction becomes increased compensatory dysfunction causing noticeable signs and symptoms. Continued inflammation with elevated antibodies creating compensatory dysfunction causing noticeable signs and symptoms leads to organ or tissue damage. Continued inflammation with elevated antibodies and ongoing organ or tissue damage eventually creates stronger symptoms that get the person worried. Now you go to a doctor and describe the symptoms you’ve been feeling. At this point, you have fallen over the waterfall and are trying to stay afloat in the turbulent waters of the symptoms you’re experiencing. The doctor prescribes a medication that is hopefully the right life jacket for you to stay afloat. And now you’re at risk of all those crazy side effects that we hear about in the television commercials for the latest and greatest drug they’re promoting.
And why is the inflammation out of control? Why are the big guns activated, causing all of this mess? You have to go upstream to find out what fell in the river. Just staying afloat with a pretty good life jacket for your thyroid problem, or your diabetes, or your brain problems, or your arthritis, or, or, or . . . is why we have such poor results from our health-care system today.
Chronic inflammation is like having a light switch on all the time. Ever go into a bathroom that has an automatic switch that turns on the lights when you walk in? My favorite breakfast restaurant has one just like that. It is activated by motion and then stays on for a specified amount of time. That’s what your immune system is doing. Keep moving around in the bathroom and the light will stay on all the time you’re in there and for a few minutes afterward. Keep exposing yourself to the environmental toxins your body is sensitive to, whether they are new exposures or if the amount of chemicals stored inside your cells is large enough, and the inflammation will continue to be produced in high amounts to protect you. It’s not “out of control”; it’s trying to protect you.
The light switch of inflammation will also stay on when you get hit in the head every once in a while because you’re taking boxing or martial arts classes or playing sports such as soccer or football. (Shockingly, 99 percent of all NFL football players have severe, life-altering, and life-threatening inflammatory damage to the brain called CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Yes, 99 percent! College football players are not much safer; 91 percent experience CTE. And even 21 percent of high school players are affected.) The light switch could even stay on because you’re eating foods that you’re sensitive to (like wheat or dairy). My point is we have to go upstream to figure out what is activating the light switch of inflammation. We don’t necessarily want to try to shut off the inflammation with a better life jacket.
Excess inflammation affects the weak link in your health chain—the part of your body or brain that fails first or most often. This location is determined by your genetics (your family’s health history) and your antecedents (the environmental exposures you’ve accumulated in your body from how you have lived your life so far; e.g., eat tuna every week, and you’re likely to have a mercury problem). Your weak link can be joint pain, or it can be poor attention, or fatigue. If it’s your thyroid, you may notice that you are more chilled or have trouble losing weight. If it’s your liver, you may find that alcohol has a stronger effect on you than it did before. If it’s your brain, you may forget simple things, like where you’ve left your keys, or have trouble with your memory in general. If someone has a gluten sensitivity, it may manifest as chronic constipation. In the next person, it may manifest as liver disease or acne. In the next person, it might be attention-deficit disorder. What’s more, practically every degenerative disease is linked to excessive inflammation, including cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus.
If the weak link is your brain, inflammation may compromise brain function, leading to headaches, memory loss, seizures, anxiety, depression, or schizophrenia. As a matter of fact, scientists tell us that inflammation in the brain trumps any other brain function. Inflammation is a survival mechanism protecting us from a perceived threat: It becomes the top priority. How your brain function is affected depends on where the inflammation occurs. For instance, forgetfulness occurs when inflammation in your brain affects the nerves that carry messages. Depression is an example of inflammation often occurring in the frontal lobes of the brain. Seizures result from inflammation in the back of the brain, in the occipital lobes.
Copyright © 2018 by Tom O'Bryan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.