Understanding Autoimmune Disease + EXACTLY What To Do After A Diagnosis

Photo: Darren Muir

Despite what conventional medicine may tell you, autoimmunity is not a black-and-white issue. Instead, there’s what I call "the autoimmune spectrum," and how much inflammation you have determines where you fall on that spectrum. I coined this term back when I first began writing about autoimmunity, and now it’s become the established term in functional medicine to explain how autoimmune conditions develop and, more importantly, how to reverse them.

I myself struggled with autoimmunity during my second year as a medical student. Despite experiencing rapid weight loss, tremors, a racing heart, and a number of other frightening symptoms, my doctor brushed it off as "medical school stress." However, I knew my body and was certain that something wasn’t right, and so I insisted on a complete work-up and lab testing. Sure enough, I was not going crazy: I had Graves’ disease. Graves’ disease is a condition in which the thyroid overperforms. It enlarges to up to twice its normal size, producing all the symptoms I had been suffering from: racing heart, tremors, muscle weakness, disturbed sleep, and excessive weight loss.

The treatments conventional medicine offered for Graves’ were almost as scary as the disease itself, and after a brief stint with the drug propylthiouracil (PTU), which caused me to develop toxic hepatitis, I resorted to radioactive thyroid ablation and a lifetime of supplemental thyroid hormone. I only wish I had known then what I know now—that having an autoimmune disease does not mean you are destined to a life of painful symptoms and harsh medications.

The good news is that by reducing inflammation, you CAN work your way down the autoimmune spectrum and reverse your condition! By understanding the factors that are contributing to your inflammation, you can get to the root cause of your autoimmunity and start leading your best life.

Autoimmunity: your immune system gone rogue

Autoimmune disease is a disease of the immune system. Aside from the nervous system, the immune system is the body’s most complex system, made up of your digestive system, skin, tonsils, bone marrow, lymph nodes, spleen, and the thin skin on the inside of your nose, throat, and genitals. All of these tissues, organs, and cells work together to keep your entire body healthy.

Under our current medical system, autoimmune diseases are not recognized as diseases of the immune system as a whole; rather, they are treated as diseases of particular organs. However, when you have autoimmunity, it means that somewhere along the way your immune system went rogue and began attacking your own tissues. It could be your thyroid under attack, your intestines, your skin, your brain, your pancreas, or another organ. No matter what part of your body is under siege, the underlying problem is within your immune system. In order to treat, prevent, and reverse your autoimmune disease, you’ll need to get your immune system back under control.

Inflammation and the autoimmune spectrum.

So what caused your immune system to go rogue in the first place? One word: inflammation. And unfortunately, nearly everyone has at least some inflammation thanks to our modern lifestyles. The five factors that I’ve identified in my patients that contribute to chronic inflammation are diet, leaky gut, toxin exposure, infections, and chronic stress—or a combination of these factors.

For many people, diet is their primary source of inflammation. Gluten and dairy are two of the most inflammatory foods, along with corn, soy, grains, and legumes. Even those of us with a clean diet are exposed to thousands of environmental toxins that contribute to inflammation every day in the form of plastics; pesticides, herbicides, and hormones in our food; heavy metal exposure from fish and dental fillings; and air and water pollution—the list goes on.

Family history can also affect where you fall on the spectrum. The more relatives you have with an autoimmune condition, the higher your risk is, especially when it’s a first-degree relative such as a parent or sibling. Even so, genetics account for only about 25 percent of the chance you’ll develop an autoimmune disorder. The remaining 75 percent of the picture is environmental and, therefore, up to you. I find that an incredibly empowering statistic.

Once you figure out where you fall on the spectrum, you can assess your risk for developing autoimmunity. Or if you’ve already been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, take the proper steps to reduce inflammatory factors in your life to work your way back down the spectrum.

At the low end of the autoimmune spectrum are those of you who are only moderately inflamed. You may get occasional symptoms such as acne, digestive issues, and fatigue, although these tend to come and go, and you haven’t begun to show signs of illness.

Toward the middle of the spectrum are those of you who experience symptoms of chronic inflammation that have not yet turned into full-blown autoimmune disorders. These symptoms might include joint pain, obesity, allergies, muscle aches, fatigue, and digestive issues. Although you don’t have an autoimmune condition at this point, you are at significant risk to develop one if you don’t address your inflammation.

Finally, at the high end of the spectrum are those who can officially be diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. While conventional doctors would have you believe that you need to be on medications for life or take other drastic measures to control your autoimmunity, there are simple lifestyle changes you can adopt to live a long, healthy, and symptom-free life.

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A 5-step approach to reverse autoimmunity.

By addressing the root causes of your inflammation, you can stop your immune system’s attack on your tissues and work your way back down the spectrum. In trying to regain my own health, I developed a five-step approach to reverse autoimmunity: Repair your gut, optimize your diet, tame the toxins in your life, heal your infections, and relieve your stress.

1. Repair your gut.

The gut is the gateway to health. If your gut is leaky, you leave yourself open to a number of chronic issues, including autoimmunity. The first step to optimal health is to repair your gut by eliminating anything that contributes to leaky gut, including toxic and inflammatory foods, medications such as antibiotics or NSAIDs, gut infections such as Candida and SIBO, and stress, while adding in nourishing foods, probiotics, digestive enzymes, and other gut-friendly supplements. A few of my favorites are collagen and L-glutamine.

2. Optimize your diet.

Food in particular plays such an important role in immune health since nearly 80 percent of your immune system is located in your gut. Knowing which nourishing foods to eat—and which toxic and inflammatory foods to avoid—can be a huge step in reversing your condition.

Foods to avoid:

  • Gluten
  • Dairy
  • Corn
  • Soy
  • Gluten-free grains and pseudograins
  • Legumes
  • Nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, and eggplant)
  • Eggs
  • Citrus
  • Yeast
  • Sugar
  • Alcohol
  • Processed food, junk food, and fast food
  • Caffeine
  • GMOs
  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Additives, preservatives, and dyes
  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Trans or hydrogenated fats

If you’re brand-new to this way of eating, following an autoimmune-friendly diet can be an adjustment. However, you’ll find that you can still enjoy a huge variety of bright, colorful, and flavorful foods.

Foods to enjoy:

  • Grass-fed, pasture-raised beef, poultry, and pork
  • Wild-caught fish
  • Leafy greens and other organic vegetables
  • Berries and other organic fruit
  • Healthy fats (avocado, coconut, and olive oils and animal fats)

You can find plenty of recipes that incorporate these delicious and nutritious foods in my upcoming book, The Autoimmune Solution Cookbook, along with tips for getting on board and sticking with an autoimmune-friendly diet.

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3. Tame the toxins.

Let’s face it, we live in a toxic world. For this reason, it’s important to minimize your exposure to toxins as much as possible. Some ways you can do this is to eat only organic produce to avoid pesticides and herbicides; choose grass-fed, pasture-raised meat to avoid added hormones and antibiotics; buy clean, chemical-free beauty products; ditch the plastic; and install air purifiers and water filters in your home.

4. Heal your infections.

In addition to clearing your gut of excess yeast and bacteria due to Candida overgrowth or SIBO, you’ll need to address any underlying bacterial and viral infections that might be contributing to autoimmunity or other inflammatory conditions. Some of the most common culprits I see in my practice are herpes simplex (HSV), Epstein-Barr (EBV), and Lyme disease.

5. Relieve your stress.

Chronic stress caused by our modern lifestyles, poor diet, inadequate sleep, and any other physical or emotional stressors you encounter daily wears down your immune system, leaving you vulnerable to infections and contributing to inflammation, leaky gut, and autoimmunity. That’s why it’s so critical to adopt stress-relieving strategies such as meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, or time in nature in order to achieve optimal health.

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Life happens: Here's how to move back up the autoimmune-inflammation spectrum.

Right before I wrote my second book, I became really, really sick. Several of my inflammatory markers were higher than I wanted them to be, meaning I was moving in the wrong direction on the autoimmune spectrum. I knew something was wrong, and I needed to figure out what. After lots of testing and lots of digging, I discovered that there was toxic mold in my house. I became so sick that I actually slept on the balcony for a month, just so I could know that I was breathing fresh, clean air at night.

The important lesson in my story is that life happens to all of us. Even the healthiest of us can move in the wrong direction on the autoimmune spectrum and experience symptoms again because of circumstances that are out of our control. That’s why it’s so important to remember that you always have the power to work your way back to optimal health by addressing the root causes that led to your inflammation. That’s what I did, and I am back to feeling great again after detoxing from the toxic mold and following the five-step approach to reversing autoimmunity.

Even when life throws you a curveball, you can control your place on the autoimmune spectrum using simple dietary and lifestyle changes to reverse your condition and take back your health!

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