"Everything aches, especially my joints, and I’m often tired and mentally foggy," my 37-year-old client Jessica told me during our first consultation. She sipped from a tall coffee cup and seemed slightly unfocused. Jessica’s doctor had recently diagnosed her with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disease that leaves your joints achy, stiff, and swollen.
RA is one of over 80 autoimmune diseases, and the American Autoimmune-Related Diseases Association says about 50 million Americans suffer from one or more of these illnesses, which also include celiac disease and lupus. As a functional nutritionist who specializes in gastrointestinal (GI) problems, I’ve found symptoms of autoimmune diseases often overlap, making them hard to identify. Some clients discover they simultaneously have several autoimmune diseases, and I frequently find gut problems make them worse.
Whatever name you call them, right under the surface of all autoimmune diseases is the fact that the body is attacking itself. Let me explain: Think of your immune system as an intelligent, well-intended army that keeps out pathogens and other havoc-causing enemies. Usually, it does a fantastic job keeping out the bad guys, but one day it becomes confused and starts attacking its own territory. That’s how autoimmune diseases develop: Your immune system incorrectly thinks a "friendly" organ like your joints or brain is the enemy and wages war.
When your immune response ramps up its defenses and attacks its own tissue, chronic inflammation results, setting the groundwork for symptoms like pain, swelling, and fatigue. But rather than providing medications or looking for a quick fix like conventional medicine, functional medicine tries to understand why the body attacks itself in the first place. In other words: What's creating this inflammation? The many triggers include food sensitivities, toxins, antibiotics, a bad diet, chronic stress, and environmental pollution. I noticed Jessica also had leaky gut, which provided some clues to her trigger: Studies show RA and celiac disease (CD), an extreme autoimmune gluten intolerance, often overlap.
While testing is sometimes become necessary to identify autoimmune diseases, Jessica’s trigger revealed itself almost immediately. In her food journal, many of her meals contained things like whole-grain bread, wheat pasta, and low-fat crackers: gluten-containing foods she considered healthy but that actually created a reaction that triggered leaky gut and RA. As she and other clients learned, the best medicine is what you put on your fork. In my practice, I’ve found these five strategies can heal your gut, calm your immune system, reduce inflammation, and help you better manage autoimmune diseases.