Autoimmune diseases come in different forms and mainly affect older adults. In the US, about 24 Million people suffer from one of over 80 different autoimmune diseases which can greatly impact their lives. They are even the third leading cause of morbidity in the industrialized world and the leading cause among women!
There is more and more research done on the topic and researchers are trying to improve the treatment for these types of diseases, instead of just focusing on the alleviation of the symptoms. At the moment, most treatments focus on reducing the negative effects of the disease on the patients.
But a new study is looking at the impact of supplements and vitamins on the onset of autoimmune disease and how they can possibly be used to reduce the amount of people suffering from an autoimmune disease.
Interestingly, the study found that harmless supplements such as omega-3 and vitamin D, which have no known side effects, could potentially play a role in this process!
But let’s start from the beginning.
Autoimmune diseases come in many different shapes and forms but what they all have in common is that they are all based on a malfunction of our own immune system.
How does our immune system work
Our immune system defends our body against invaders and dangerous pathogens like viruses and bacteria.
To do so, it relies on a series of complex mechanisms and a variety of so-called “immune cells” that have different functions in our body. These cells and tissues work together to detect a foreign cell and then (through a complex messaging system) send another type of immune cells out to attack the dangerous invader. So one of the most important qualities of the immune system is that it is able to distinguish our own cells from foreign ones. It can also recognize faulty and dead cells, which then get “cleared away” by the immune system.
The immune system uses the proteins on the surface of cells to identify them and usually learns how to ignore our own proteins at an early stage in life.
Just like the rest of our body, our immune system is constantly evolving and “learning”. The older we get, the more pathogens and foreign cells we get exposed to and our immune system starts to increase its repertoire of antibodies (a specific type of cell that locks onto the invader and therefore marks it for other cells of the immune system to come and “kill” it) and becomes stronger. However, after a certain age, aging has the inverse effect on our immune system and can increase its susceptibility to infectious diseases and a decreased effectiveness of vaccinations.
But what if the immune system doesn’t work properly? This is when certain disorders can develop.
Immune System Disorders
There are 3 types of different immune system disorders and in this article we will focus on the one related to autoimmunity.
These three types are:
- Immunodeficiencies: one or several parts of the immune system do not function. This can be inherited or caused in a number of ways such as age, alcoholism, malnutrition or an infectious disease. AIDS is such an example.
- Hypersensitivity: this describes the immune system overreacting to an invader that can damage otherwise healthy tissue. An example is an anaphylactic shock following the exposure to an allergen.
- Autoimmunity: this is the type of disorders we will be focusing on in this article. They describe conditions, where the immune system mistakes our own healthy cells for foreign ones and starts to initiate an immune reaction against them. The origin of those conditions is not entirely clear, but studies indicate that it is probably a combination of factors like: lifestyle, heredity as well as hormonal and environmental influences.
How do we treat autoimmune diseases?
Autoimmune diseases are common in older adults and negatively affect their health and life expectancy. Some examples are rheumatoid arthritis, polymyalgia rheumatica, autoimmune thyroid disease, psoriasis and inflammatory bowel disease. Most of these diseases have no cure and require lifelong treatment that mainly focuses on relieving the symptoms that negatively impact the patients in their daily lives and can even reduce their life expectancy.
If you want to find out more on the differences between autoimmune diseases and allergies, we wrote about that on our blog
Like we’ve seen above, most treatments for autoimmune disease focus on reducing symptoms and decreasing inflammation to reduce the pain associated with them. However, these medications often have negative side effects for the patients.
A new study called the “VITAL study” has been looking into using harmless supplements as a possible way to prevent the onset of autoimmune disease.
This is big news in two different ways
- it looks at prevention of autoimmune diseases in the first place, not just the treatment of the symptoms, once the disease has “started”
- the suggested treatment consists of nontoxic dietary supplements omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D, which have very minimal negative side effects
So what are the findings of this study?
It compared several groups of people taking either a placebo, Vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids over a period of 5 years with a big sample of 25 thousand patients. This so-called randomized, double blind, placebo controlled trial then analyzed all the data and came to the following conclusions.
“Conclusions Vitamin D supplementation for five years, with or without omega 3 fatty acids, reduced autoimmune disease by 22%, while omega 3 fatty acid supplementation with or without vitamin D reduced the autoimmune disease rate by 15% (not statistically significant). Both treatment arms showed larger effects than the reference arm (vitamin D placebo and omega 3 fatty acid placebo).”
This is good news as it means that nontoxic supplements like vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids could prevent a potentially highly morbid disease.
However, if we focus on omega-3 fatty acids alone, the study showed that it did not (statistically) significantly lower the incidence of autoimmune diseases, but there was evidence of an increased effect after a longer duration of supplementation.
This might be due to the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3 fatty acids that could potentially decrease the systemic inflammation associated with these types of conditions. But there is more evidence needed to determine if omega-3 fatty acids can lower the initial onset of autoimmune diseases in the first place.
In this article we saw what autoimmune diseases are and while it is not entirely clear how they occur, there have been interesting findings about the use of nontoxic vitamins in preventing the onset of these conditions in the first place.
- Vitamin D played a bigger role in the outcome of the study than omega-3 fatty acids, but they do also play a role and may even be used to potentially alleviate the symptoms caused by chronic inflammations.
- Omega-3 fatty acids have strong anti-inflammatory properties and have many health benefits for your heart, mind and body.