- Autoimmunity affects an estimated 50 million Americans
- Many autoimmune conditions go undiagnosed
- Autoimmune issues can compound; many people suffer from more than one
In my practice, I estimate that half of my clients have at least one autoimmune disease. Many of them don’t know it. Those who do, come in confused and frustrated by the treatment plan presented by traditional medicine which is often just treating the symptoms with pharmaceutical solutions. They want to know if there is a way to feel better naturally. My goal is to get to the root cause and address it from a functional medicine approach.
But first, we need to understand autoimmunity better. In this episode, we’ll demystify autoimmune diseases.
Most Likely to Get an Autoimmune Disease
It’s an unfortunate statistic that those most likely to get an autoimmune disease are people who already have an autoimmune disease. Research shows that those with autoimmune issues can get up to 8 different autoimmune diseases in their lifetime. I’m not sharing this to depress you but rather to help you recognize that something else might be going on if your symptoms change. And, that by identifying a new autoimmune issue, you can find a treatment that will address it.
The Immune System is the Source
All too often when the medical system is treating an autoimmune disease, they treat the organ or gland that’s affected. So, if you have Hashimoto’s, they’ll treat the thyroid. Or, if you have rheumatoid arthritis, they treat the joints. Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is when the body attacks the milan sheath and Lupus is when the body attacks our connective tissues but the issue is with the immune system not the brain or joints in these examples.
Suppressing the Immune System isn’t the Answer
Conventionally, treatments for autoimmune disease follow a protocol of suppressing the immune system. This is to help regulate an overactive immune system that is attacking a part of the body it shouldn’t be. However, we need our immune system. We need it on a daily basis to fight the actual threats we face like viruses, infections and even cancer. If we suppress it, we’re more vulnerable.
Get to the Root
A more functional approach to dealing with autoimmune disease is to look for the root cause of the issue in the first place. What’s causing the immune system to be confused and attack parts of the body that it shouldn’t? Instead of treating the symptoms or suppressing the immune system, let’s go directly to the cause and treat that. This is going to be different for each person.
There are four main triggers that can confuse the immune system. They are:
Autoimmunity can be triggered by one of these four things or a combination of these four things.
Food is a very common trigger for autoimmune diseases. When you eat a food that your body doesn’t like, it triggers an immune response and the immune system actually sees the food as an enemy and attack it. This can trigger molecular mimicry which is when the immune system attacks food and recognizes a molecule in that food that is similar to molecules in our tissues or organs. This leads the immune system to start attacking the similar tissue or organ by mistake. You may recognize this explanation from my episode on IBS where I explain how food can end up in the wrong part of the body (often as a result of leaky gut) which triggers the immune system to attack it. However, food can also be a trigger due to genetic factors. For example, celiac disease or genetic issues with gluten (which can easily be tested with genetic dq2 dq8 test that is a simple cheek swab test). Learn more about celiac disease (and false negative results) in episode 9 with Dr. Peter Osborne.
Food can become a trigger overtime so food that has never been a problem in the past can still trigger autoimmune disease. How we combine foods can also cause an issue as can when we eat and the overall balance of our diet.
To minimize food triggers, I recommend balancing your meals, looking at genetics to see if gluten is an issue for you, and supporting your gut health. I also recommend seeing if you have food sensitivities. Remember that food triggers can often build up over time so getting results after dietary adjustments can take some time. Be patient, this is a marathon, not a sprint.
Infections as a Trigger
Generally speaking, for an infection to trigger an autoimmune response, it has to be chronic. In these cases, the immune system is constantly attacking this long-term infection and gets tired. This opens the door for an autoimmune disease to develop.
Gut infections are one of the most common triggers. When the good and bad bacteria that makes our gut work are out of balance, especially when it’s chronic, it can result in leaky gut. This confuses the immune system. Dysbiosis (or out of balance gut flora) can be brought on by:
- Eating more sugar/carbs
- Not enough good bacteria
- Immune challenges
Yeast infections (like Candida) and parasites can also be triggers for autoimmune disease when they are not treated quickly. Epstein Barr virus (which we talked about in Episode 4 with Dr. Kasia Kines) is another potential trigger.
There are many tests that you can do to determine if infections are present including a stool test, a blood test, and organic acid test and a SIBO test (which we talked about in Episode 12 with Dr. Seth Osgood).
We’re exposed to toxins all the time and our liver has the job of processing these toxins and getting them out of the body. When the liver is overburdened, the immune system can get triggered. It’s important to limit exposure to toxins which means being aware of exposure to chemicals and heavy meals, being particular about your water supply, and choosing organic food. Once you’ve reduced your exposure to toxins, the next step is to remove these toxins from your system, especially heavy metals.
You can test your heavy metal levels (including mercury) to determine your toxicity. The Tri-Test from Quicksilver is a good one and you can also test for heavy metals from your hair. If you do have high levels of heavy metals, you can cleanse them out of your body a few ways. I like the push-catch detox which uses liposomal herbs and nutrients to draw out the heavy metals and then it has a binder to help carry them out of the body. Supplements can also help in both the detoxification process such as liquid glutathione and various herbal combinations (some of which include adaptogenic herbs). However, it’s important not to rely solely on the supplements. A good liver cleanse should include a clean diet. Eating clean while on a cleanse takes the burden off the liver so it can truly replenish.
Stress as an Autoimmune Trigger
Stress seems to be unavoidable in our society and that can cause a real problem for our immune system because there is an inverse relationship between the two. When we think about the physiological response to stress, it’s based on our fight or flight response. We’re wired to be ready to fight a tiger. But, when we trigger that response all the time, the immune system gets confused.
There are two types of stress, physical and emotional – both impact our immune system and create an autoimmune issue. It’s important to reduce both kinds of stress when fighting an autoimmune disease.
There are a variety of ways to lessen stress but most find that a mind/body approach alongside nutritional changes is the most effective. This two-fold approach starts with a calming of the nervous system through activities like meditation, journaling, walking in nature, listening to music, acupuncture or getting a massage. The second part of the approach includes supplements that will help lower cortisol levels. I often recommend are PS 150 which is very calming and will even help prevent waking in the middle of the night. I also like to use adaptogenic nutrients which are herbs that adapt to your body’s needs. Adrenal Response and Adrene Vive are two good examples that I often recommend. Supplement with the mind-body work is beneficial in balancing cortisol and it really helps lower stress triggers.
We also have stressors which may be subconscious. These may have been developed at a very early age and are sometimes called limiting beliefs. I share a bit more about where these limiting beliefs come from in this episode and I’ll be talking more about techniques we can use to alter these beliefs in future episodes.
Eliminating Health Mysteries
Autoimmunity can be scary, confusing and impossible to overcome without suppressing the immune system. But, when you get to the root of the problem, and look at things integratively, there is a ton that you can do. And, if you’re lucky you can do more than just demystify it, you can reverse autoimmunity like I did. Don’t give up. The answers are out there.
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