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How to Stop Your Body From Attacking Itself

The immune system is your body's first line of defense against illness. It sends out cells to destroy invaders like bacteria and viruses. But for some people, this system turns on them, attacking healthy tissues and organs.
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The immune system is your body's first line of defense against illness. It sends out cells to destroy invaders like bacteria and viruses. But for some people, this system turns on them, attacking healthy tissues and organs. This can lead to one of the most common forms of disease: Autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, lupus, and Type 1 diabetes, affect more than 23.5 million Americans -- and this number is on the rise, reports the National Institute of Environmental Science. (1) There are more than 80 types of autoimmune diseases: Some are life threatening, and the vast majority of them have a debilitating effect. (1)

The tricky thing about autoimmune diseases is that they're often mysterious. Experts haven't pinpointed the exact cause, and cures have yet to be discovered. (1) Drugs can help to control the symptoms, but managing the disease is often a difficult road. (1) But a growing body of research suggests that an all-natural remedy can help: Probiotics, or the "good" bacteria found in foods like yogurt, kefir, kimchi, and sauerkraut, have been shown to help treat -- and event prevent the onset -- of certain autoimmune diseases. (2, 4)

The Microbiota-Immunity Connection

How, exactly, do probiotics counteract autoimmune diseases? Experts believe that your gut microbiota may be a key link in this connection. This term refers to the trillions of microorganisms living in the intestines, featuring more than 1,000 different species of bacteria. (2, 5) The microbiota plays an important role in the immune system, and probiotics can improve the health of this complex microcosm. (2, 3)

In a review of research published in the Journal of Complementary and Integrative Medicine, Oner Ozdemir of Turkey's Sakarya University Faculty of Medicine found that a faulty microbiota does influence the immune system. (3) This, combined with having a "leaky" mucus barrier in the intestine and an altered immune response, sets the perfect stage for the development of an autoimmune disease, he says. (3) Probiotics can bolster gut health by improving the biota. (3) What's more, they stimulate important responses in T cells, a type of cell that the immune system releases, which play a role in diseases like Type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis. (3) Although Ozdemir notes that more research needs to be conducted, he says that the use of probiotics for autoimmune diseases is promising. (3)

In fact, one study done on mice led by Husen Zhang of Virgina Tech's Carilion School of Medicine and published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology found that gut microbiota health was associated with lupus. This autoimmune disease, which affects about 2 million Americans, is characterized by an immune response that damages any part of the body, such as the skin, joints, or organs. (5) In the study, researchers found that mice at the greatest risk for lupus had lower levels of a group of bacteria called Lactobacillaceae. In the study, Zhang says, "This suggests probiotics containing Lactobacilli may be able to decrease the occurrence and/or severity of inflammatory flares suffered by lupus patients." (5) This benefit was even greater when paired with vitamin A, a nutrient that can increase the number of Lactobacilli in the gut. (5)

The Proven Power of Probiotics

A series of studies show that probiotics can reduce the symptoms of certain autoimmune diseases. In a study published in The Journal of Nutrition, Takeshi Matsuzaki of the Yakult Central Institute for Microbiological Research at the Nagoya Graduate University School of Medicine showed that a strain of Lactobacillus casei called Shirota was effective in mice with type 1 diabetes. (4) In the study, mice fed a diet containing this bacteria (0.05 percent by weight) were less likely to develop diabetes than the mice who didn't. Of the probiotic group that developed diabetes, they produced fewer killer T cells, immune cells that are believed to bring on the onset of the autoimmune disease. (4) Other research published in the journal PLoS One showed that a mixture of five probiotics reduced the activity of Myasthenia gravis, an autoimmune neuromuscular disease that causes muscle weakness throughout the body. (8)

Meanwhile, a study done on humans proves that taking a probiotic supplement can lessen the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, which affects 1.3 million Americans. (6, 7) In the disease, the immune system attacks the joints, causing inflammation, stiffness, and pain. In the study, which was conducted by lead researcher Elnaz Vaghef-Mehrabany of Iran's Tabriz University of Medical Sciences, 60 people with rheumatoid arthritis were given a supplement containing either 10 colony-forming units (CFU) of Lactobacillus casei or a placebo daily. After eight weeks, the researchers found that the probiotic group had lower levels of inflammatory cytokine markers, such as interleukin-10 and -12. They also reported having fewer instances of swollen, tender joints.

The researchers say that it's important to choose the right strain of probiotic for a benefit: "When it comes to administering probiotics to patients suffering from [rheumatoid arthritis], an autoimmune disease with severe pain, it is of great significance to select a bacterial strain and dosage which have been shown to be safe and potentially beneficial ... Based on [our] results, taking a daily capsule containing 10 CFU of L. casei by [rheumatoid arthritis] may help improve disease activity and inflammatory cytokines which subsequently results in alleviation of the disease symptoms."

References:

1. "Autoimmune disease," National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/materials/autoimmune_diseases_508.pdf

2. "Gut microbiota," European Society of Neurogastroenterology and Motility, http://www.gutmicrobiotawatch.org/en/gut-microbiota-info/

3. Özdemir Ö, Any role for probiotics in the therapy or prevention of autoimmune diseases? Up-to-date review, J Complement Integr Med. 2013 Aug 6;10

4. Matsuzaki T, Intestinal microflora: probiotics and autoimmunity, J Nutr. 2007 Mar;137(3 Suppl 2)

5. H. Zhang, X. Liao, J. B. Sparks, X. M. Luo. Dynamics of gut microbiota in autoimmune lupus. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 2014 Dec;80(24):7551-60

6. Vaghef-Mehrabany E, Probiotic supplementation improves inflammatory status in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, Nutrition. 2014 Apr;30(4):430-5

8. Chae CS, Prophylactic effect of probiotics on the development of experimental autoimmune myasthenia gravis, PLoS One. 2012;7(12)