Recently, I spoke with a new patient of mine who was struggling with debilitating anxiety, depression, brain fog and fatigue. She's in her mid-30s and can't even get out of bed some days because her life is so wrecked by health problems.
Over the past few years, she's seen dozens of doctors and specialists. All of her labs and tests came back "normal," and she was simply given antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications. But she knew instinctively that something wasn't being addressed.
Why am I telling you this? Because what this patient has gone through is not an isolated incident. Over the years, I've heard from hundreds of people experiencing similar unexplained symptoms with few answers.
Although everyone has unique qualities that make their health problem different, there is one common factor among many of these cases: an inflammatory-immune response.
Neurological Autoimmunity: The Rise of Autoimmune Brain Problems
As I mentioned in my previous article "Signs You Have A Leaky Brain + What To Do About It," new research is looking at how inflammation can damage the brain's protective blood-brain barrier (BBB) and possibly lead to brain problems.
This inflammation can then activate the brain's immune microglia cells, which can trigger an inflammatory-autoimmune response. In other words, people's immune systems might be attacking their brain and nervous tissue.
The Anxiety/Depression and Autoimmune Connection
Autoimmune diseases are one the top causes of death in the United States, but many believe that they're widely under-diagnosed. Why?
To be diagnosed with most autoimmune diseases, the immune system has to destroy a significant amount of tissue — in this case, the brain or nervous system — to be officially diagnosed.
There are three main stages on the autoimmune spectrum:
- Silent Autoimmunity: There are positive antibody labs but no noticeable symptoms.
- Autoimmune Reactivity: There are positive antibody labs and symptoms.
- Autoimmune Disease: There's enough body destruction to be diagnosed.
The patient I mentioned earlier is like the countless other people on the autoimmune spectrum: not sick enough to be labeled with an autoimmune disease, but still damaged by the affects of autoimmune reactivity against the brain.
And that can lead to other problems. In fact, research has shown that depression and anxiety are more common in patients with autoimmune diseases than chronic degenerative conditions. Researchers suspect this is due to the direct effect of inflammatory cytokines on the central nervous system.
Further, someone with one autoimmune disease has a higher chance of her immune system attacking another system of her body, known as polyautoimmunity. For example, one study looking at lupus found higher rates of anxiety due to inflammation against the brain.
Keep in mind these studies are with people already diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. So what about all of those undiagnosed in stage 2 of autoimmune reactivity?
Functional medicine doesn't want to wait until someone's health declines enough to be labeled with a disease and matched with a corresponding drug. Instead, autoimmune reactivity should be ruled out first.
Here's when you might want to consider autoimmune reactivity as the culprit:
- You have a family history of autoimmune conditions.
- You have a family history of mental health problems.
- You've been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.
- You're not improving with medications or behavioral therapy.
So, what now? If you suspect autoimmune reactivity might be leading to depression and anxiety issues, here are a few steps you can take.
1. Consider having these five tests done:
- Autoimmune Reactivity Brain Labs
These blood labs can look for raised antibodies, including GAD antibodies, which attack the enzyme used to make the calming neurotransmitter GABA.
- Microbiome Labs
Your gut is your "second brain," where 95% of your "happy" neurotransmitter called serotonin is made. Leaky gut syndrome and SIBO, or small intestinal bacteria overgrowth, are both associated with many autoimmune brain conditions.
- Wheat and Gluten Testing
A comprehensive look at gluten intolerance includes looking at antibodies to transglutaminase 6 (TG6). These are rarely tested in a mainstream medical setting, and yet some studies show they can damage neurological tissue.
- Food-Immune Reactivity Labs
Sugar and dairy are some common autoimmune food triggers, but I've also seen the healthiest plant foods be immunoreactive in some patients. The diet that works for one person may not be right for you — and labs can help cut through the autoimmune food confusion.
- Predictive Autoimmunity Labs
Another contributing factor to depression and anxiety that I often see in my patients is raised antibodies against the adrenal glands, which this lab looks for. I also see depression and anxiety issues with undiagnosed autoimmune thyroid problems, Hashimoto's or Graves Disease. Knowing your antibodies can give you insight into why you feel the way you do.
2. Look into natural autoimmune medicines.
Supporting your Regulatory T Cells to balance the immune system and TH-3 activity, which suppresses autoimmunity, can both be very effective. Studies suggest that optimizing vitamin D and intracellular glutathione levels with supplementation can help with this.
The same goes for supplements of curcumin and resveratrol, which are two natural ways to dampen inflammatory TH-17 cells in autoimmune cases. For more tips, check out 10 Tools To Start Reversing Your Autoimmune Disease.
3. Consider functional medicine.
There are many variables to consider and everyone is different. There are no quick fixes or magic pills when it comes to autoimmune brain problems. Consider taking advantage of a free evaluation to see if functional medicine is right for you.
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