Autoimmune conditions affect over 50 million Americans, a large percentage of whom are women. In fact, I myself had an autoimmune disease called Graves. Autoimmune diseases are considered a top 10 leading cause of death in women under the age of 65. They come in many different varieties, including rheumatoid arthritis, type I diabetes, thyroid disease, lupus, psoriasis, multiple sclerosis, and more, and can cause many different types of symptoms all over the body that range from mild to severe in nature. But what are they, what causes them, and how can they be treated?
What are autoimmune diseases?
Although there are many different types of autoimmune diseases and they can affect many different organs, at their core they are all similar in that they are an immune response caused by systemic inflammation that leads your body to attack itself. Your immune system has a very sophisticated system for keeping you safe that leads it to identify all of the foreign substances that enter your body or that you come into contact with. If your immune system deems anything dangerous, it will produce antibodies to ward off the harmful intruders.
Autoimmune diseases are born when your body is working hard to defend itself against something potentially dangerous, such as an allergen, a toxin, an infection, or even a food, and it fails to differentiate between the intruder and parts of your own body. Mistaking certain types of tissues for harmful substances, your body turns these antibodies against itself, wreaking havoc on your organs.
What causes autoimmune diseases?
There are many underlying factors that can cause people to develop an autoimmune condition. There certainly is an underlying genetic component. However, whether these genes get expressed or turned on is actually caused by a host of other factors, such as toxins from heavy metals like mercury or mycotoxins from molds, infections like Candida, Epstein-Barr and the herpes simplex virus, and most significantly, chronic inflammation tied to food sensitivities — particularly gluten intolerance. There is a significant link between autoimmune diseases and gluten intolerance.
10 Signs You May Have an Autoimmune Disease
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, especially a combination of several of them, you may have an autoimmune disease.
- Joint pain, muscle pain or weakness or a tremor
- Weight loss, insomnia, heat intolerance or rapid heartbeat
- Recurrent rashes or hives, sun-sensitivity, a butterfly-shaped rash across your nose and cheeks.
- Difficulty concentrating or focusing
- Feeling tired or fatigued, weight gain or cold intolerance
- Hair loss or white patches on your skin or inside your mouth
- Abdominal pain, blood or mucus in your stool, diarrhea or mouth ulcers
- Dry eyes, mouth or skin
- Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet
- Multiple miscarriages or blood clots
What should you do if you suspect you have an autoimmune disease?
If you suspect that you have an autoimmune disease, the most important steps to stopping and reversing your disease and symptoms are to identify and then to treat the underlying cause. Conventional doctors only treat the symptoms of autoimmune diseases; they don't look to find the root cause. Often, they prescribe medications such as anti-inflammatory drugs, steroids, or immunosuppressants. All of these treatments fail to address the underlying cause of the autoimmune condition in the first place and, while they may be effective in the short term, they are not a long-term solution. Treatments involving immunosuppressant drugs increase the risk of severe infections and cancer when taken for long periods of time.
Identifying which autoimmune disease is affecting you can be a difficult process. Symptoms may be vague, and autoimmune diseases can present themselves in so many different ways, affecting the thyroid, the brain, the skin, or other organs. Working closely with a functional medicine physician to review your family medical history, understanding your risk factors for infections, food sensitivities and toxins, as well as listening to you closely to discover how all of your symptoms are related is an essential part of getting well. A functional medicine physician will help to narrow down which labs they recommend in order to help find the root cause of your condition.
What is my approach to treating and reversing autoimmune diseases?
My approach to a patient who has a known or suspected autoimmune disease is to immediately place them on a comprehensive elimination diet to remove the top twelve inflammatory foods. I also recommend that they remove all grain and legumes from their diet if they think they can. Lectins in grains and legumes have been implicated in autoimmune diseases.
I order a comprehensive stool test to look at levels of good bacteria, check for infections and leaky gut. I then apply a functional medicine 4R approach to healing the gut. This is essential! More than 80% of your immune system is in your gut. If you have an autoimmune disease, then by definition you have a leaky gut that needs to be repaired, otherwise you won't be able to reverse your condition.
I check blood levels for various antibodies and look for hidden or underlying infections.
After I've done all of this, if the symptoms have not completely resolved I look for hidden toxins like mercury and mycotoxins. If we find heavy metals, I often will place the patient on oral chelation treatment. If we find mycotoxins, I have the patient remediate their home.
I know from personal experience how overwhelming, confusing and scary a diagnosis of an autoimmune disease can be. I also know that conventional medicine only offers treatment of the symptoms, not a real solution to the disease.
I urge you to find a functional medicine physician in your area to help you get to the root cause of your illness and to help you reverse your disease. It can be done.
If you can't find a local functional medicine physician, check out our course taught by functional medicine expert Dr. Terry Wahls: Food Fundamentals: Eating To Optimize Your Physical & Mental Well-Being. Check out a sneak preview here!