Autoimmune Hepatitis: What You Need To Know
When hepatitis is mentioned, most people think of infectious viruses. It is true that the vast majority of cases of hepatitis are caused by the hepatitis B and C virus. Hepatitis just means inflammation of the liver, since the liver cells are referred to as hepatocytes.
Sometimes other, milder viruses are also responsible for causing hepatitis; some examples include the Epstein Barr virus, cytomegalovirus, and even a bad case of influenza. Those milder infections are usually self limiting and most people recover fully. Chronic infection with the hepatitis B or C virus can cause serious harm to the liver, such as cirrhosis (scarring) or liver cancer.
Sometimes the hepatitis is not caused by external factors like viruses, alcohol or medication. Sometimes the harm comes from your own body. In autoimmune hepatitis the immune system is responsible for the harm caused to the liver, which can become very serious.
An autoimmune disease occurs when a person’s immune system launches an attack against their own cells, tissues and/or organs. This results in inflammation throughout the body, and potential damage to specific organs. In this case it’s the liver. Autoimmune hepatitis is a chronic disease where there is continuing inflammation and damage to liver cells, which can lead to death of liver cells and progress to scarring of the liver (cirrhosis).
What causes autoimmune hepatitis?
Several risk factors have been identified. Firstly, you cannot develop an autoimmune disease unless you have specific genes. The tendency to develop an autoimmune disease runs in families. You won’t necessarily develop the same autoimmune disease that someone in your family has; you just inherit an increased chance of developing one of them.
Just having the genes isn’t enough though. You need to be exposed to one or more environmental factors that trigger the disease. Environmental triggers include things like an infection, specific foods that your body can’t tolerate, emotional stress, exposure to chemicals or toxic metals, pregnancy, a nutrient deficiency and others. The third critical risk factor is a leaky gut (also known as increased intestinal permeability). So, you need the genes for autoimmunity, you need to have a leaky gut and then you need an environmental trigger to start off the disease process.
How is autoimmune hepatitis treated?
Conventional medical treatment involves the use of corticosteroids, either alone or in combination with the drug Azathioprine have been the standard drug treatment for many years. These drugs suppress the immune system so that it cannot continue to attack the liver cells and they also reduce inflammation in the liver. The aim of drug treatment is to put the disease into a dormant or non-active state – this is called a remission. Another immune-suppressant drug that can be used is called Cyclosporine, and it can be given for several months before corticosteroids and azathioprine are used. Steroids are usually not given long term because they can have some serious side effects; osteoporosis, weight gain and greatly increased risk of type 2 diabetes are the most common ones.
How can nutritional medicine help autoimmune hepatitis?
Since we cannot change a person’s genes and we can’t go back in time and prevent them from exposure to an environmental trigger (such as an infection or chemical exposure), the aim of treatment is to focus on the gut. Healing leaky gut is the foundation, as this will reduce the toxic burden arriving at the liver, and reduce the chronic inflammation that leads to liver cell damage.
Approximately 80 percent of your immune system is located in your intestines, therefore improving gut health will positively influence immune health. Also, you have approximately one and a half pounds of bacteria in your intestines, which influence how your immune cells behave. Altering the composition of gut bugs will modify how your immune system behaves. This will help to reduce auto-antibody production and inflammation.
To support liver function I recommend the following:
- A gluten and dairy free diet. Some people will need to avoid all grains and legumes for a period of time, as they contain substances that can irritate the gut lining and impede healing of a leaky gut.
- Selenium in a dose of 200 mcg daily. Selenium is necessary for glutathione production. This is your body’s own most powerful antioxidant and it helps to reduce inflammation.
- Vitamin D3, to keep your blood levels of vitamin D in the higher end of the normal range. This means you should ask your doctor for a blood test. You will need higher doses, such as 5000 IU daily, during winter, or if you avoid the sun and work indoors.
- N Acetyl Cysteine (NAC) capsules in a dose of 600 mg, taken 3 times daily.
- Certain foods help to improve gut and immune system health. These include fermented foods (e.g. sauerkraut, kim chi, yogurt, and kombucha), bone broth and apple cider vinegar with the mother (e.g. Bragg). Some people find that fermented foods aggravate their gut, and they are usually better off taking a probiotic supplement.
- Get into the habit of drinking raw vegetable juices daily. Make them freshly with a juice extracting machine – good things to juice are ginger, parsley, mint, basil, citrus (orange, lime, lemon, grapefruit), carrot, cabbage, apple and kale.
- A good quality liver formula containing Milk Thistle, B group vitamins and sulfur containing amino acids will help to improve liver cell function and reduce harm caused to the liver cells by the immune system.
For more information about all autoimmune diseases, see our book Healing Autoimmune Disease.
The above statements have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disease.