I’m very lucky to have had a Q&A with Dr. Fiona McCulloch, ND about the relationship between Autoimmune Disorders and Hormones. She specializes in integrative women’s health & fertility at the White Lotus Clinic in Toronto.
What are the Overall Characteristics of an Autoimmune Disorder?
An autoimmune disorder occurs when the immune system attacks “self” tissues in the body.
Normally, our immune systems are key defenders against pathogens like bacteria and viruses. Unfortunately when these same mechanisms turn against our own tissues, things can begin to go very wrong with our health. Autoimmunity can result in a variety of symptoms, depending on which particular tissue is being targeted by the immune system. For example, in autoimmune thyroiditis or Hashimoto’s disease, the immune system targets the person’s own thyroid gland. This results in lower thyroid function over time and symptoms of hypothyroidism.
How Are Hormones and Autoimmune Condition Interrelated?
The immune system and the hormonal system are interrelated and actually assist in each other’s regulation. Overall, autoimmune disease is far more common in women, which is believed by some researchers to be influenced by the fluctuations in hormones that women experience. Alterations in the immune system can profoundly affect a woman’s hormone balance. Autoimmunity is characterized by inflammation, which can disrupt hormonal processes in the body. Many hormone systems can be affected, including the thyroid and the female sex hormones and including the balance between estrogen and progesterone. There is also some new evidence to suggest that autoimmunity can even disrupt the male hormones in a woman’s body, resulting in premature menopause. In polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), the most common hormonal disorder in women, there is a higher than normal rate of autoimmune processes. With respect to fertility, autoimmunity has been associated with diminished ovarian reserve and premature ovarian aging, recurrent miscarriages, and thyroid disease which has a profound effect on a woman’s fertility. It’s important that any women who is having difficulty conceiving with any of the above conditions, be screened for autoimmune markers.
What are the Top 3 Things a Woman with an Autoimmune Condition Can do to Improve her Hormone Health?
In my opinion, the top 3 things that women with an autoimmune condition can do to improve hormonal health and fertility will include:
1) Healthy diet, high in vegetables and fruits, and low in allergenic foods such as gluten. Also, all processed foods should be avoided as much as possible. With regards to autoimmunity specifically, gluten is known to open the tight junctions in the small intestine, allowing the contents of the intestine to be “seen” by the immune system beneath the intestine. This area, known as the GALT (Gut Associated Lymphoid Tissue) is where the majority of our immune cells grow and as such, disruptions to this area can alter the immune cells in their developmental phases.
2) Stress Reduction. Numerous studies show that stress can increase inflammation related to autoimmune disease. Yoga, meditation, prayer, and relaxation time are key to healing autoimmunity. Pinpointing stressful areas in life and working to reduce the impact of stress is key to helping to recover normal immune function.
3) Sleep. Getting a good amount of sleep is critical to healing autoimmune disease. Research suggests that long-term disruption of sleep cycles may even be involved as part of a trigger for autoimmune disease. Sleep deficits impair normal immune function. As such, particularly if you are experiencing fatigue, it’s important to do your best to implement quality sleep patterns whether that be through lifestyle change, or supplements aimed at improving sleep quality.
ABOUT DR. FIONA MCCULLOCH,ND
Dr. Fiona is a Toronto based, licensed board-certified Naturopathic Doctor with a special interest in naturopathic fertility, women’s health and hormonal health. Her research includes the areas of autoimmune infertility and luteal phase defect. She works with the White Lotus Clinic and is currently working on her first book that tackles the subject of healing PCOS naturally. She writes a blog on wellness here.