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When the Immune System Attacks

by Harry Dalford and Julie Kingston(more info)

listed in immune function, originally published in issue 167 - February 2010

As a Trager practitioner I not only have clients at home, but attend many fairs, festivals and health shows. I have noticed that I am seeing a much higher proportion of people with auto immune disorders and illnesses that have an immune component such as Chronic fatigue/ME and Fibromyalgia. Is this because there is a greater degree of diagnosis now, or a tendency to lump patients with multi-faceted symptoms into the auto immune bracket? Or is there an actual increase in this type of disorder? I don't know, so all I can do is report from my own personal experience and client case studies.

What is an Auto Immune Disorder?

An auto immune response happens when the body's immune system attacks its own healthy tissue rather than defending against foreign invaders such as bacteria and viruses. In some cases there may be a genetic predisposition to a disease, but it can also occur after a viral attack. Generally the cause is not known and it can arise in people of a previously healthy disposition. An auto immune response is not the same as an allergy, which is where the body's immune system reacts to a harmless foreign body, such a food protein or pollen grain, as though it is a harmful invader like a virus.

Systemic auto immune disorders attack many organs in the body; however some immune disorders are localized to one organ. The areas under attack can be widespread: body tissues, abnormal growth of an organ, red blood cells, connective tissue, endocrine glands, muscles, joints and skin. Illnesses such as: rheumatoid arthritis, Scleroderma and Lupis attack more than one system. Others like diabetes (pancreas islets), Addison's (adrenal) ,Crohns and Ulcerative Colitis (Gastrointestinal tract) and MS (brain and nerves) are more localized to a particular organ. However as the body is one functioning unit, obviously there are multiple impacts on all systems.

As has been widely reported, allergies are also on the increase, and in both cases it is the immune system that is behaving inappropriately. It appears that many of these illnesses are more prevalent in cooler temperate climates and developed countries. However it may be that in third world countries they don't have sufficient health care to record or diagnose accurately, so cases may be under reported. It does appear that MS and ME are both more prevalent in cooler climates. I attended a conference at Southampton Hospital on the latest research findings for ME, CFS and FM and much of the current research was happening in Canada which has a high rate of ME.

I am not a scientist, so I cannot give you a learned dissertation on the causes of immune disorders, but there are certain themes to my case notes that stand out as remarkably similar no matter the background of the client. I would also say this also applies to some of my ME and Fibromyalgia clients as well.

Personality – High Expectations, Perfectionism, Competitiveness

Most of my clients seem to be people that might fall in the 'workaholic' category. They are people that like to be well regarded as successful in the sphere they are operating in – this might be sport, music or a business career. They often relate that prior to the illness they regularly worked long hours, and I felt had unrealistically high expectations of themselves and sometimes of their families as well. They came from all walks of life: teachers writing lesson plans into the early hours of the morning, business people working 7 days a week, musicians rehearsing obsessively for hours. They seem to be torn somewhere between a need to be the best and fear of being second best. It was usually clear that to some extent they were annoyed if their bodies let them down and tended to ignore and push through tiredness and illness. They were people working at full capacity and highly stressed often over many years. They were passionate in many cases about what they did and deeply angry and sad about their current illness. In some ways they saw their body as separate from themselves and had a low level of body awareness and found difficulty in letting go and relaxing.

The Unexpected Loss

Another common theme might come under the heading of the unexpected loss or the last straw. Nearly all of these clients had suffered an unexpected and catastrophic loss prior to becoming ill, and had not been able to carry on at the level they expected of themselves. These losses included breakdown of marriages, bereavements of close family members, miscarriages, infertility, loss of jobs, loss of marital home. This was usually a stressful event over which they felt they had no control and were literally devastated by. In some cases this also led to traumatic and unresolved events from childhood coming up for them.


As might be expected of people that feel they have a lot to get done, food prior to illness had been of low interest. One person told me that she never ate vegetables or fruit and preferred microwave meals and takeaways. The need to think about diet had arisen due to specific recommendations of the Consultant they were seeing for their condition. Their diets were often high in sugar, carbohydrates and processed food. So not only were they highly stressed; they were undernourished in terms of essential fats, vitamins and minerals.

In Trager we work at both the level of the body and the mind and seek to enable clients to be more aware of their bodies and what they are actually feeling. In a lot of cases there seemed to be an attitude of hostility towards their bodies and disassociation from feeling. Clearly in some conditions pain had become an issue and that brought them to my door along with their Doctor's advice on learning to relax. I was surprised that at least two clients with different backgrounds and illnesses seemed unaware which part of their bodies my hand was touching, without looking or concentrating.

So I wondered if the western obsession with work and success, coupled with low levels of self awareness, combined with poor nutrition and high stress levels might account for the rising levels of auto immune disorders. If we treat our bodies as unimportant, then perhaps the message that sends is, "My body is not part of ME" and so it becomes a foreign body to the immune system. If we tune out how we feel, perhaps at an unconscious level to remove ourselves from an intolerable situation, we are literally knocked off our feet by the mind body overriding our behaviour.


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About Harry Dalford and Julie Kingston

Harry Dalford BEng(Hons) IPTI LTP is a former Paratrooper, sky-diver, skin-diver and rock-climber who practises and teaches Aikido. He is a self-employed, Engineer/Surveyor/Builder and practises Trager in the self-built studio he shares with his partner of 15 years Julie Kingston. He is the current Chairman of Trager UK, and is also the Trager UK Newsletter Writer/Editor. He may be contacted via Tel: 01483 894741;            

Julie Kingston BA(Hons) LTP BWY MIPTI MICHT IHHT VTCT became a British Wheel of Yoga Teacher in 1993, went on to study CranioSacral Therapy, Life Coaching, Indian Head Massage and Swedish Massage.  She has two grown-up children and practices Trager and other therapies in her home studio. She is also a partner in a drumming company, Drumheads Live organizing community, education and corporate djembe drumming events. She is currently UK representative and the Trager International vice president on the Council of Trustees of Trager International, and has also served on the TUK Board of Directors. She may be contacted via Tel: 01483 894741;

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