Oftentimes when people are first diagnosed, it’s because they find a bald spot which may lead them to believe that alopecia areata is specifically about their hair and the loss of it. However, alopecia areata is more about the immune system than it is about the hair follicle itself.
Certain portions of the human body have ‘immune privilege,’ meaning they are able to tolerate the introduction of foreign substances without eliciting an inflammatory immune response. Our hair follicles (primarily the epithelium surrounding the hair follicles) are part of the skin immune system. Our skin immune system is constantly signaling and talking to keep our lymphocytes at bay — letting them know that they are, indeed, supposed to be there.
With alopecia areata, that signal is lost. There is no clear indication as to whether it’s the lymphocytes that aren’t listening anymore or if the skin immune system just stops giving off those signals… if researchers knew the answer to that question, they would know the ’cause’ and subsequently be able to create a ‘cure.’ This signal is lost below your skin and the end result is the hair loss… a mere side symptom of a much more complicated problem.
This is super important to remember when researching treatments for alopecia areata. Shampoos, ‘snake oil’ remedies, and other products that promise thicker and longer hair do nothing to stop the inflammatory response of alopecia areata. Corticosteroids and immunosuppressants are the only clinically proven methods that are effective in treating — however, even those methods are not 100% and often come with their own collection of side effects that many believe to be not worth the added risks just for hair.
Another misconception that many have when they are diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder is that the immune system is weak and needs to be boosted to make it stronger. However, we don’t have weak immune systems… we have immune systems that are malfunctioning through communication but are still just as effective as ever. Boosting the immune system to increase white blood cell production will only cause it to accelerate the autoimmune disorder.
If you are taking immunosuppressants for alopecia areata treatment or for other autoimmune disorders, DO NOT take immune boosters as this can be detrimental to your health.
What are common immune system boosters that should be avoided?
- Sambucus (elderberry)
- Umcka, and
- Zinc [Sidenote: It’s important to have sufficient zinc in our diet but too much zinc may inhibit the proper function of the immune system.]
Now that we know what we should not be taking, how do we help our immune system be as healthy as it can be? Making simple changes in our lifestyle can affect how well your immune system can function. Here are a few health habits for improving our overall health and well-being.
- Ensure you are getting an adequate amount of sleep each night. You’re more likely to catch a cold or other infection when you’re not getting enough sleep and it can lead to higher levels of stress hormones. It may also lead to more inflammation in your body. Although researchers aren’t exactly sure how sleep boosts the immune system, it is clear that getting enough — usually 7 to 9 hours per night for an adult — is key for good health.
- Regular, moderate exercise, like a daily 30-minute walk, can boost your body’s ‘feel good’ chemicals and help you sleep better.
- An apple a day keeps the doctor away. Eating or drinking too much sugar curbs good immune system cells. Eating more fruits and vegetables, which are rich in vitamins C and E, plus beta-carotene and zinc. Go for a wide variety of brightly colored fruits and vegetables, including berries, citrus fruits, kiwi, apples, red grapes, kale, onions, spinach, sweet potatoes, and carrots.
- Lowering chronic stress levels. Everyone has some stress — it’s part of life. If stress drags on for a long time, it exposes your body to a steady stream of stress hormones that work against your immune system. Easing stress lowers levels of these stress hormones and helps you sleep better, which improves immune function. You may not be able to get rid of all your stress, but you can get better at managing it by learning to meditate, connecting with other people, exercising, and counseling.
- Don’t isolate yourself.Having strong relationships and a good social network is good for you. People who feel connected to friends — whether it’s a few close friends or a large group — have healthier immunity than those who feel alone. Although there are many other things that affect your health, making meaningful connections through support groups, counseling or face-to-face with other people is always a good idea.
- Laughter is the best medicine. Laughing curbs the levels of stress hormones in your body and boosts infection fighting white blood cells. Just anticipating a funny event can have a positive effect on your immune system.