Unexplained Health Problems? It Could Be Autoimmune Reactivity
I call this the age of autoimmune. Autoimmune conditions, in which the immune system attempts to destroy the body with inflammatory cells, are growing by leaps and bounds, with no apparent signs of stopping. The immune system, meant to protect against viruses and bacteria, now mistakes the body for an enemy.
What does this mean for you? Research from the medical journal Nature estimates that about 25 percent of us have some sort of dysfunction of the immune system, including autoimmunity. And according to the American Autoimmune-Related Diseases Association, 50 million Americans have a diagnosable autoimmune disease.
Meanwhile, millions more have autoimmune spectrum problems with no explanation for their symptoms.
Why Are Autoimmune Conditions Rising?
So far, there are close to 100 recognized autoimmune diseases, and an additional 40 that could have an autoimmune component.
Researchers aren't sure yet what causes autoimmune conditions. But it often involves a genetic weakness being triggered by an immune system response to toxins; food proteins like gluten and casein; or chronic bacterial, yeast, or parasite infections. This inflammatory-immune response can lead to intestinal permeability or leaky gut syndrome, further perpetuating the inflammatory-immune cycle.
This mismatch between the rapidly changing world around us and our DNA is at the center of autoimmune research.
Stanford research estimates that about 77 percent of the immune system is determined by things we can control, with the remainder due to genetics. (Read How Much of Autoimmune Disease Is Genetics vs. Environment? for more information.)
Are You on the Autoimmune Spectrum?
To be diagnosed with most autoimmune diseases, the immune system has to destroy a significant amount of tissue (such as the brain, gut, or thyroid) to be officially diagnosed.
For example, there has to be 90 percent destruction of the adrenal glands to be diagnosed with Addison's disease (a disorder in which the adrenal glands don't produce enough hormones). There also has to be severe destruction of the neurological and digestive systems to be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) and celiac disease, respectively.
Of course, these diseases do not happen overnight! This is merely the end stage of the larger autoimmune spectrum.
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.
I find there are countless people in Stage 2 of the autoimmune spectrum: not sick enough to be labeled with an autoimmune disease but still damaged by the effects of autoimmune reactivity.
So what are some symptoms of autoimmune reactivity? Early symptoms may include fatigue and aching muscles and joints. I've also written about how in some cases unexplained anxiety and depression could be due to autoimmune reactivity of the brain.
What Should You Do Now?
Why wait until you're sick enough to be labeled with an autoimmune disease? I believe that early detection, and identifying the initial stages of autoimmune conditions before extensive damage, could allow a grace period to address, stop the progression, and, in some cases, reverse the autoimmune spectrum symptoms.
Some research suggests that antibodies can show up on labs several years before the diagnosis of many autoimmune diseases.
One lab I typically run on patients is what's referred to as predictive autoimmunity. This lab allows us to see whether there is any abnormal immune response against many parts of the body.
Some of the more common antibodies we find are:
- Stomach: parietal cell antigens, which are associated with gastric autoimmunity
- Thyroid: thyroid peroxidase antigens, which are associated with Hashimoto's disease.
- Brain: synapsin antigens, which are associated with inhibited neurotransmitter release
- Adrenals: 21 hydroxylase (adrenal cortex) antigens, which are associated with autoimmune endocrine disorders.
- Gut: tropomyosin antigens, which are associated with inflammatory bowel disease.
- Joints: arthritic peptide antigens, which are associated with rheumatoid arthritis.
This simple blood test may be beneficial for someone who:
To be clear, functional labs like this are not used to diagnose autoimmune diseases, which is still done in the mainstream medical setting. We use labs like this to investigate underlying factors and tailor a health program to improve these issues.
Consider taking advantage of a free evaluation to talk about your specific case and to see what might be right for you.
Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C., is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He has holds a level 2 Doctor of Natural Medicine (DNM) certification. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Cole specializes in clinically investigating underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is also the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and bestselling author of Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum, and the New York Times bestseller Intuitive Fasting.