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Autoimmunity: natural alternatives to cortisone

Our bodies are equipped with an intelligent immune system that works to protect us against foreign invaders including bacteria, viruses and parasites. However, sometimes the immune system can malfunction and, instead of fighting against pathogens, it produces auto-antibodies that begin to attack the body itself.

This is known as an autoimmune condition. Autoimmune conditions can affect a number of body parts and organs, including the skin (psoriasis), pancreas (type 1 diabetes), gastrointestinal tract (inflammatory bowel disease) and even our joints (rheumatoid arthritis).

What is cortisone and how does it work?

The medical approach to treating an autoimmune disease may involve replacing hormones you are no longer able to produce (such as insulin or thyroxine) or, in some cases, suppressing an overactive immune system to reduce inflammation. This is most commonly achieved by administering a steroid medication. On the NHS, autoimmune conditions are typically treated with cortisone. This is a steroid like the body's natural cortisol, which is made in the adrenal glands and has a profound effect on the immune system and in suppressing inflammation.

Cortisone can be administered in many ways depending on the treatment required. For autoimmune skin conditions like scleroderma or psoriasis, a topical steroid cream (hydrocortisone) can be applied. Alternatively, for conditions where symptoms are internal, cortisone can be administered through injection, or taken orally through pills (such as prednisolone, a synthetic corticosteroid).

However, as cortisone suppresses the immune system in order to reduce inflammation, patients often experience a number of negative side effects when taking high or long-term oral doses of this type of medication. These can include:

  • Increased susceptibility to infections
  • Reduced bone density as cortisone increases calcium excretion
  • Eye conditions such as glaucoma and cataracts
  • Increased blood pressure due to retention of salt and increased potassium excretion
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Gastrointestinal problems such as nausea and heartburn
  • Steroid-induced myopathy (muscle weakness and pain)1, 2

Patients can also experience steroid withdrawal syndrome if steroid medications are suddenly stopped after prolonged treatment. This can lead to symptoms such as muscle and joint pain, fatigue, and fever. For this reason, corticosteroid treatment is usually tailed off slowly.

Natural alternatives to cortisone

Considering the numerous potential side effects of taking cortisone-based medication, many patients seek more natural methods of treating autoimmune conditions. Only 30 per cent of autoimmune diseases are caused by a genetic predisposition, with the remaining conditions triggered by environmental factors such as diet and pollution. For this reason, it is often possible to support an autoimmune condition using the following natural methods.3

Increase your fatty acid intake

Optimising your fatty acid intake by balancing your levels of omega-6 and omega-3 can aid in reducing systemic inflammation and keeping inflammatory mediators at bay. The standard Western diet provides an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of about 16:1, whereas these levels should ideally be around 3:1. You should aim to decrease your omega-6 intake by reducing your consumption of oils like sunflower oil and corn oil. In order to keep these levels in balance, you should also aim to increase your consumption of foods that are high in omega-3, including:

  • Flaxseed
  • Oily fish such as salmon
  • Walnuts
  • Chia seeds
  • Avocado

If dietary preferences make it impractical to consume sufficient quantities of such food, it's worth taking a daily, high-quality omega-3 supplement.

Use liquorice root

Glycyrrhiza glabra, more commonly known as liquorice root, contains a plant compound called glycyrrhizic acid, which elicits an anti-inflammatory effect by mimicking the actions of steroids in the body. It does this by inhibiting an enzyme that causes excessive activation of steroid receptors. This is why liquorice root may also be used during the process of weaning off a steroid medication.4,5 However, be aware that liquorice can cause high blood pressure, so should only be taken under medical advice. The best way to take liquorice root is to boil up the root with some liquorice leaves in order to make a herbal tea.

Always ask your doctor 

There are a number of measures you can take to support your body when you have an autoimmune condition. However, as with any health condition, it's vital to consult your GP before making any changes to your care plan; you should never stop cortisone treatment without medical supervision. For more information on immunity and autoimmunity, select Immunity from the Your health menu above.

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