Rheumatoid arthritis. Lupus. Celiac disease. Multiple sclerosis. Graves disease. Psoriasis.
What do all these widespread diseases have in common?
They are all examples of an autoimmune disease and there are over seventy more (at least), that we know about.
An autoimmune disease is defined as a condition that arises from an abnormal immune response to a normal body part.
In the case of rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system attacks your joints. In celiac disease, your small intestine is targeted. In lupus, it attacks tissues many parts of your body. In multiple sclerosis, your nerve cells in your brain and spinal cord are attacked. In Graves disease, your thyroid is affected. For psoriasis, it’s the skin cells.
You get the idea.
The bad part is, nearly any body part can fall victim to a rogue immune system. Did I mention they were common?
- The American Autoimmune Related Disease Association estimates that over 50 million Americans suffer from autoimmune disease .
- Rheumatoid arthritis and Lupus both affect nearly 1.5 million Americans  .
- Roughly 1% of Americans are affected by celiac disease. Of these, a staggering 83% are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed .
- Multiple sclerosis is thought to afflict over 2.3 million people worldwide .
All of these diseases develop when your immune system, which is supposed to defend your body against disease, errs and decides that your healthy cells (in nearly any part of your body) are foreign and begins to attack themselves.
There is some genetic predisposition to autoimmune diseases, but certainly, and arguably most important, is that environmental factors play a huge part. By environmental factors, I mean, among other things:
- The foods we eat.
- The exercise we perform.
- The amount of sleep we get.
- The amount of stress we endure.
- Whether we smoke or not.
- The medications we take.
There are many other environmental factors and I’m sure you can think of a few more.
The painful reality here is that conventional medicine has yet to find cures or effective treatments for many of these diseases. However, there is hope for those that suffer from autoimmune diseases in functional medicine.
Why Conventional Medicine Has It Wrong
Conventional medicine has it wrong when it comes to treating autoimmune diseases. For autoimmune diseases, as in many others (See my article on conventional versus functional medicine), conventional medicine focuses on the symptoms, rather than the underlying causes of autoimmunity.
Take the example multiple sclerosis (MS).
This is a nasty disease where your immune system attacks your otherwise healthy, normal nerve cells in your brain and spinal cord. In effect, it disrupts the paths of communication from your brain to your body.
Early symptoms include weakness, tingling, numbness and blurred vision. Muscle stiffness, problems thinking and urinary problems can also occur. Those afflicted with MS have a shortened life span of around five to ten years. A lucky few may experience very few symptoms, while others may be cursed with chronic symptoms for the rest of their lifetimes.
There is no conventional “cure” for MS.
Instead of looking at what may be the underlying cause, conventional medicine only seeks to delay the progression of the disease and manage symptoms by pumping MS patients full of drugs that come with their own long list of risks.
There are fourteen FDA approved injectable and oral drug therapies to slow the progression of the disease for those with relapsing forms of MS. There are no drug therapies that treat primary MS (the slow steady progression of symptoms from initial onset).  While the efficacy of these drugs have been proven to help some people, they are not without their own dangerous side effects.
Take for example, the drug Extavia®, which was introduced in the United States in 2009. This is an injected drug therapy that is to be taken every other day. Side effects include flu-like symptoms, headaches and skin reactions at the injection site. Other documented side effects include small blood clots, worsening of congestive heart failure and reduction of white blood cell counts . Most of the thirteen other disease-modifying MS drug therapies have the same or worse side effects.
Pretty nasty stuff, right? Imagine giving yourself an injection every other day, getting the chills and feeling weak and fatigued and scratching a swollen, itchy rash each time you do it.
Is that any way to live?
And those are just the drugs that slow the progression of MS. There are a whole host of drugs that conventional medicine prescribes to manage symptoms. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, there are over sixty drugs that doctors typically prescribe to treat the most common symptoms of MS .
There’s the conventional approach to medicine in a nutshell, and it’s not isolated to just MS but many other autoimmune diseases: manage the symptoms and the disease by prescribing drugs.
I’m not making the argument that there isn’t a place for conventional medicine in the treatment of MS and autoimmune diseases, but we need to look further.
I am however, arguing that it’s utter nonsense for a patient to continue on with their same old lifestyle while introducing strong drugs into their system that can cause all kinds of serious and sometimes fatal side effects without looking at the underlying causes of autoimmunity.
Causes of Autoimmunity
Beyond genetics, there are several contributing factors that can cause autoimmune disease in your body. Of course, genetics plays a role but mostly it’s a case of being predisposed to a certain autoimmunity. It is the environmental factors that actually triggers disease in your body.
Diet and Leaky Gut
Your diet has a significant effect on the health of your gut – or your intestines (where nutrients are absorbed into your bloodstream). Poor gut health can trigger a whole host of autoimmune responses.
Take gluten for example.
Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat. With the rise in popularity of processed convenience foods, it’s now found in virtually every food product. It’s also not the same gluten that our great-grandparents found in their homemade bread – wheat has been genetically modified in the last fifty years which has created new forms of gluten. Food scientists have also discovered ways to modify the protein, allowing it to be absorbed into other liquids more easily – so now you can find it in lunch meat and even toothpaste. What all this means is that now, our bodies are exposed to large amounts of modified gluten that it’s not used to.
How is this connected to autoimmune diseases?
It’s because gluten causes a leaky gut. When you consume foods containing gluten, it travels through your stomach to your intestines where it causes the release of zonulin. Zonulin tells your gut wall to open up, causing intestinal permeability, or leaky gut. This is a problem because large particles, other than the small micronutrients found in foods, to enter your bloodstream – large particles like gluten, other proteins, microbes, toxins and partially digested food into your bloodstream. Because these large particles aren’t supposed to be in your blood stream, your immune system targets them as dangerous and causes inflammation to get rid of them.
When your immune system is chronically causing inflammation to attack these large particles in your bloodstream, your immune system becomes stressed. It can now no longer precisely attack invaders with precision and begins sending waves of attacks to fight off invaders in a desperate stand to defend itself. Sooner or later, your body’s own tissues become victim to these attacks and you develop an autoimmune disease.
Mercury. Pesticides. Aspartame. Silica. Dioxin. Lead.
These are just a handful of the more than 80,000 toxic chemicals found in consumer products today. In fact, the average American is saturated with more than 400 toxic chemicals and babies are born with an average of 287 chemicals in their umbilical cords [8, 9].
Our bodies have the capability to detoxify themselves. However, when stressed with the enormous amount of toxins they see today, they can accumulate and cause a whole host of problems – leaky gut, inflammation and eventually autoimmune disease.
Our bodies have the capability to withstand or even thrive when encountered with physical, mental, emotional, chemical or traumatic stress. However, it’s the traumatic and chronic stress that is linked to the onset and progression of autoimmune diseases. In fact, almost eighty percent of people report a large emotional stress before onset of physical symptoms due to an autoimmune disease .
Because traumatic and chronic stress cause inflammation, suppress your immunity and alter your body chemistry . This eventually leads to a rogue immune system because your body doesn’t distinguish between other environmental triggers like gluten or toxicity.
Chronic infections from bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi may be one of the primary environmental triggers for autoimmune disease . In fact, there is usually a hidden infection that either precedes the initial autoimmune attack or appears when the immune system is weakened.
The Functional Medicine Approach
The functional doctor’s primary approach to autoimmune diseases is to help you identify and remove the causes of the autoimmunity from your life that you have control over. This is in stark contrast to the conventional medicine approach which is to throw drugs at your symptoms.
Think of autoimmune disease symptoms like a wildfire.
What’s the best way to avoid fire? Remove the fuel so it never starts in the first place? Or throw water on it to prevent it from spreading?
Let’s take a look at what we’ll help you evaluate so you never have to worry about developing autoimmune diseases in the future. Or, if you’ve already been diagnosed, that’s OK – it’s never too late to take a functional approach to solving your medical problems. Here are some of what we can do for you:
- Help you manage the stress in your life. Whether it’s teaching you relaxation or meditation techniques, helping you proactively eliminate stressors, or helping you to set up an exercise program – we’ve got you covered when it comes to stress.
- Teach you what foods you should avoid, so that you can avoid autoimmune diseases. We know foods like sugar, gluten, dairy and many others can lead to autoimmune diseases and we’ll show you how to incorporate these dietary changes into your own life.
- Teach you how to reduce or eliminate the most dangerous toxins from your life. We’ll also help you to detoxify what’s already built up in your system – whether it’s through an exercise regimen or special diet.
- Help you build the strength of your immune system to protect you from infections that can lead to autoimmune disease.
- We can get you started gut repair program, if you suffer from leaky gut, or help you adopt a gut healthy lifestyle if you don’t.
These are just a few of the things we can do to help you manage or prevent autoimmune diseases. Contact us today for your own personal consultation.