Autoimmune disease: When friend becomes foe

We invest tons of money as a country to boost our children’s immunity by ensuring we vaccinate them early in life. And then the greatest irony happens, that in our midst, there are those who will suffer from the opposite. PHOTO | FILE

Gloria is a bold, sassy, stylish and adventurous 28-year-old with an infectious love for life. She is a hardworking professional, who is advancing her career by going to school part-time for her master’s.

This is the image I’ve had for the few years that we’ve been acquainted, so I was taken aback when she casually mentioned that she suffers from multiple sclerosis.


I may be a doctor, but I am not a physician.

In my entire training, throughout internship and during my short stint as a general practitioner, the only time I came into contact with a multiple sclerosis patient was during my elective term in the United States.

I formed the impression that multiple sclerosis was a condition afflicting people of Caucasian descent. Gloria changed my opinion pretty fast, telling me about her struggle with MS, as it is commonly referred to.

Commonly diagnosed in the twenties, it is shattering to have your doctor look you in the eye and tell you that you have MS just when your life as a young adult is beginning. And then he caps it all by telling you that it has no cure!

A healthy immune system fights disease and keep us healthy.

We invest tons of money as a country to boost our children’s immunity by ensuring we vaccinate them early in life. And then the greatest irony happens, that in our midst, there are those who will suffer from the opposite.


Those whose immune system is overly active, so much so that it attacks the very body housing it.

There are several auto-immune diseases, affecting various body systems and organs. We all probably know someone struggling with rheumatoid arthritis, or childhood diabetes where the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas are under attack.

We may not be aware of conditions such as myasthenia gravis that causes those suffering from it to look sleepy all the time, or scleroderma which destroys the elasticity of the skin, causing the patient to have scarred skin and look older than they are.

In multiple myeloma, the system under attack is the nervous system. The nerves of the brain and the spinal cord are covered by a protective sheath known as myelin; much like electric cables are covered with insulating material.

In MS, the body’s immune system attacks and destroys this sheath and the end result is much like tampering with electric cables supplying your house. You will end up with a short circuit that may leave you in the dark or damage your electrical appliances.

This is the life of a multiple sclerosis patient.


Gloria understands what it means to get home from class with an assignment due in three days and when her alarm rings at four o’clock in the morning, her hand cannot reach the clock to turn off the irritating noise.

She knows she is headed to the ward for a while and she is unable to predict when she will be back to normal.

The unpredictability of the condition is probably the worst bit of it all. The disease is characterised by repeated attacks when the system short circuits and organs are rendered functionless because they are all powered by these nerves.

Transmissions from the brain are distorted along the way and suddenly, muscles refuse to coordinate to achieve simple tasks like grasping, walking and even holding a spoon.

Muscle spasms and cramping, pain, visual impairment, constipation, difficulty swallowing, slurred speech, mood swings and anxiety descend on the patient without warning.

These attacks recur, and the condition worsens with age. The disease does not reduce life expectancy by much, but the older one gets, the fewer the good days and the recovery from the attacks is less and less complete, leaving one with chronic symptoms.

I am still trying to figure out how Gloria does it, staying on top of things despite such dark moments in her life.



Drinking baking soda could help reduce autoimmune inflammation

A daily dose of baking soda may help reduce the destructive inflammation of autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.

When healthy people drink a solution of baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate, it triggers mesothelial cells on the spleen – which is part of the immune system – to tell the spleen that there is no need to mount a protective immune response.

The conversation, which occurs with the help of the chemical messenger acetylcholine, appears to promote a shift against inflammation.

In the spleen, as well as the blood and kidneys, scientists found that after drinking water with baking soda for two weeks, the population of immune cells called macrophages, shifted from primarily those that promote inflammation, called M1, to those that reduce it, called M2.

Healthy medical students who drank baking soda in a bottle of water had a similar response.

The scientists also saw a shift in other immune cell types, like more regulatory T cells, which generally drive down the immune response and help keep the immune system from attacking the body’s own tissues.

That anti-inflammatory shift was sustained for at least four hours in humans and three days in rats. The researchers hope that drinking baking soda might produce similar results in people with inflammation and autoimmune disease, in future.


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