Autoimmune Diseases Are On the Rise

It’s shocking how common autoimmune diseases are these days. As many as 50 million Americans suffer from at least one autoimmune illness, according to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA). There are more than eighty different types of autoimmune conditions, according to the National Institutes of Health—ranging from type 1 diabetes to rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and inflammatory bowel disease, among others. And the incidence of some, like celiac disease and diabetes, is rising sharply.

To put those numbers in perspective, an estimated 15 million U.S. adults have coronary heart disease, according to the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. An estimated 20 million have diabetes. Yet fifty million Americans have immune systems that have mistakenly turned on their own bodies.

Autoimmune diseases are still wrapped up in mystery. Simply defined, they occur when the body views its own cells as foreign invaders and generates antibodies that attack the body’s own tissues. Just what triggers the mistake that causes the body to turn on itself? We don’t truly know. We do know that a mix of genetics and environment is responsible—whether toxic exposures, infections, or perhaps diet. We also know that inflammation is a factor in autoimmune diseases.[1]

Women bear the brunt—an astounding 75% of sufferers are female. According to Web MD, “Because of the threat these illnesses pose to women's health worldwide, AARDA is currently working with both the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and the World Health Organization to have autoimmune disorders declared a major women's health concern.”

In addition, there are untold numbers of Americans who don’t ‘yet’ have a diagnosed autoimmune disease, but who have circulating autoantibodies against their own tissue, and who suffer vague and disturbing symptoms such as fatigue, brain fog or pain, without any definite diagnosis.[2]

Treat the Symptoms, But Is There A Cure?

Most individuals suffering from autoimmune illnesses see multiple doctors over months or years before getting a diagnosis. After a long period of fatigue, achiness, brain fog, pain, and a myriad of other potential symptoms, they have finally been given a name for their disease.

The cause, however, is still elusive.

All too often, their treatment plan includes medicines that ease the symptoms or actually help block the action of immune cells. Unfortunately, these potent medicines need to be monitored, because they have side effects and may suppress overall immunity, leaving an individual more vulnerable to infection.[3]

These medications do not address any underlying environmental factors, from a diet deficient in vitamins, minerals and healthy fatty acids; to chronic infections and toxins that may be impacting immunity, to heavy metals, pesticides, flame retardants, plastic particles, diesel fumes, pollution and more.[4] All these factors are known to suppress immunity and increase inflammation.[5] Heavy metal exposure, for instance, has been linked to a dramatic increase in the reactivity of immune cells, leading potentially to autoimmunity.[6]

Why the Ancient Rainforest Remedy Cat’s Claw is So Popular

There are over 40,000 different plant species thriving in the 2.1 million miles of Amazon rainforest. One of the most revered is cat's claw (Uña de Gato), a Peruvian “cure-all” used for over 2000 years. Named for its rounded thorns that curve like a cat’s claws, the vine that can climb an astonishing 1000 feet. The natural medicine crafted from its inner bark has long been a sacred healing extract for the Asháninka tribe of Peru as well the Cashibo tribe of eastern Peru. The herb is so significant to the Asháninka tribe it is exclusively used by their healer-priests, called Sancoshi, and thought to facilitate communication between the physical and spiritual worlds.[7] Ethnobotanists realize that the higher a plant’s status among indigenous peoples, the more potent it often turns out to be. Cat’s claw offers a cornucopia of healing molecules, and broad therapeutic action. It is thought to be anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, and to cleanse and support the entire system. Not surprisingly, cat’s claw is one of the most extensively studied rainforest herbs.

There are two main species of the plant—Uncaria tomentosa and Uncaria guianensis. Both contain powerful healing alkaloids along with a treasure chest of antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and health-supporting glycosides, tannins, flavonoids, sterol fractions, and quinic acid esters. Uncaria tomentosa is discussed here.[8]

Potent Antioxidant and Anti-Inflammatory Activity of Cat’s Claw

Cat’s claw extracts have unusual antioxidant power—and the ability to quench potentially harmful free radicals—that actually exceeds many of our favorite healing fruits, vegetables, and medicinal botanicals.[9] For those concerned about inflammation (and its link to autoimmunity), cat’s claw inhibits potent molecules such as tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-A), and nuclear factor-kappa beta (NFKappaB), along with potent interleukin molecules, all associated with a powerful ramp-up in inflammation.[10],[11] Cat’s claw offers powerful immune support, enhancement of immune cells such as B- and T-lymphocytes.[12] Cat’s claw has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity and inflammation in an experimental model of fatty liver disease (NAFLD).[13] The herb has reduced bronchial hyper-responsiveness and inflammation in an animal model of asthma.[14] Cat’s claw even appears to work on a fundamental cellular level by protecting DNA and enhancing DNA repair.[15]

Peer-review studies have shown cats claw to be helpful in rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, viral illnesses and perhaps even as an adaptogen in aging..[16],[17] Cat’s claw has also been suggested for rosacea, an autoimmune permanent ‘flushing’ of the face.[18]

Protection Against Viruses With Cat’s Claw, Fatty Acids and Essential Oils

From the common cold to the flu, cold sores and herpes virus infections, bronchitis, stomach flu and gastroenteritis, viral infections are just part of life. These infectious insults may contribute to inflammation and cause greater stress on the body. Studies of cat’s claw have shown the herb demonstrates potent activity against a range of virus, including those in the herpes family[19], the dengue virus[20] and more. Its anti-herpetic effect is correlated with polyphenols interacting with glycosides and alkaloids.[21]

Cat’s claw is not the only plant that has anti-infective potential. Many plants produce volatile oils that protect them from pests and pathogens. These oils permeate their leaves, bark, or peel. Often their aromas are delicious to us. Essential oils derived from spearmint, rose and lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) all offer helpful immune supportive and protective activity.

Traditional uses of Melissa officinalis, known as lemon balm, date back 2000 years. The fragrant leaves of lemon balm have been used for everything from memory and sleep to antiviral activity and immune support. The plant contains many active volatile compounds, and is listed in herbal pharmacopeias ranging from Iran to Europe. In the 1600s, it was said to be cordial and exhilarating, memory-enhancing and anti-melancholic. It seems that nearly every country has found a use for the herb: the Danish for insomnia and sadness; Australians for gastrointestinal and liver complaints; in Croatia for sore throats and coughs; in Spain as a painkiller, while Lebanese used it to treat migraines.[22] The botanical is rich in essential oil molecules called terpenes, as well as phenolic compounds, flavonoids, tannins, and more. The most active molecules are called geranial, neral, citronella and geraniol.

Lemon balm is not only calming, mood boosting and neuroprotective, it has an antiviral effect, showing activity in vitro against herpes viruses I and II, possibly through the activity of citronella.[23] In one study of 115 individuals, and another double-blind study of 116 individuals, a topical cream containing 1% of a dried extract of Melissa officinalis had significant antiviral activity in treating cold sores and herpes lesions. The cream had to be applied in the earliest stages of an outbreak.[24]

Don’t Forget Monolaurin and Vitamin D

Another compound that provides protection against viruses is the fatty acid monolaurin, derived from lauric acid, and formed naturally in the human body in small quantities. It is also a byproduct of coconut fat, and seems to have activity against bacteria, viruses and fungus. Both in vitro and animal studies find that it is a powerful antibacterial, fighting off common bugs such as Staphylococcus aureus.[25] In addition, it has been shown to be helpful in fighting common skin infections in children, with a broad spectrum of action.[26] Monolaurin also shows antifungal activity[27] and has been demonstrated to bind directly to the lipid-protein envelope of viruses, preventing them from attaching and entering cells.

Finally, one should always consider Vitamin D to aid normal immune system function and bone health. When we are out in the sun, a molecule in our skin called 7-dehydrocholesterol absorbs ultraviolet B radiation. We then convert—through a series of steps—the sunlight into the active form of Vitamin D3. Receptors for vitamin D are found throughout the whole body, and in over 36 different types of cells.[28] In fact, scientists discovered just six years ago that the human genome has thousands of binding sites for vitamin D, showing just how critical it is for life and health.[29]

Adequate levels of vitamin D are crucial for the proper functioning of our precious innate immune system, our body’s first defender. We need Vitamin D to help us fight off infection by bacterial, fungal, and viral invaders.[30]

Vitamin D functions best in concert with vitamin K, as they “talk” to each other through their receptors. Vitamin K is important for arterial health and supports vitamin D in many of its functions.[31] Certain forms of vitamin K are more active in the body. Menaquinone-7, or MK-7, is a highly bioactive form of vitamin K2 that pairs well with vitamin D3.[32]

Protect Yourself With Ancient Plant Protection

Plants all over the world protect themselves from pests by developing molecules that can defend them and enhance their ability to survive and thrive. We evolved with the plants for millennia. In fact, they have inhabited the earth far longer than we. Their solutions are ours to inherit, and to gain from with gratitude and appreciation.

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