Health agencies and doctors have done their jobs as far as making us aware of the biggest killers in America like smoking, cancer, and heart disease, but most people know next to nothing about another condition that at least 50 million Americans struggle with. Any guesses?
It is autoimmune disease that indeed affects about 1 in 7 Americans. The number of diagnoses involving autoimmunity sits right around 100 – 100 diseases with autoimmune processes at the root. Those best known are lupus, Type 1 diabetes, chronic Lyme disease, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, thyroid disease, arthritis, psoriasis, Celiac disease, and Chron’s; all of them capable of being debilitating and some even fatal. The scariest part of autoimmune conditions is if you develop one you are far more likely to develop another. Most of them are also incredibly hard to treat, and tend to be “mystery diagnoses” presenting with symptoms that are hard to identify or see on labs and other tests. The average patient sees SIX to TEN doctors before being diagnosed, and this process takes an average of FIVE years! So it’s helpful to know what to look for. General symptoms might include the following, in addition to disease-specific effects.
- Skin rash or eczema
- Digestive problems
- Sore or swollen joints
- Changes in mood
- Dramatic weight changes
- Chronic fatigue
- Frequent bouts of sickness (cold, flu)
Current pharmaceutical research is focusing largely on the immune process involved in these diseases to deliver large, complex molecules that interfere with pathways of the immune system. However, these drug therapies are risky (potentially deadly), produce inconsistent results, and cost several thousands of dollars.
In a nutshell, autoimmune disease is the process of the immune system wrongly attacking the body’s own healthy cells instead of only dangerous invaders like viruses and pathogens. Molecules called antibodies have the job of grabbing onto things that could cause harm. Harmful cells have lock-like structures on them called antigens, which fit like a key in a specific lock – their matching antibody. When the two factors meet up, it tells the rest of the immune system to destroy the harmful cells that have the antigen. In a state of disorder and stress, the signaling is misunderstood and the destroying cells wrongfully kill cells of our own tissues. In Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism, for example, an antibody called TPO links to an antigen on our own enzymes called thyroid peroxidase – a molecule that allows the thyroid to use iodine to produce thyroid hormone. There is another antibody involved in this disease as well, and the combination of the two problems significantly hinders the ability of the thyroid to keep up with the body’s demand for thyroid hormones T3 and T4. This antigen-antibody principle is fundamental to all autoimmune conditions.
For the sake of this discussion, we can attribute autoimmune flares to inflammation in the body. And inflammation is caused by stress – stress from being flooded with processed foods, antibiotics, infections, environmental toxins, or emotional stress. Autoimmune conditions can often be traced back to a “trigger” that sent the person into a full downward spiral. Patients may say “but I’ve always ate junk food” or “I’ve never slept more than 4 hours a night, how could it be a problem now?” Stressors build up over the lifetime, but the load to bear reaches a tipping point. Perhaps your bucket overflows by experiencing a cold or flu or a stressful promotion at work or having a new baby! This is an example of why I’m a fan of keeping a little health journal where you can regularly document how you feel and trace back any mishaps to possible triggering events.
Autoimmune conditions are usually treated with steroids or other immunosuppressants which have a long list of side effects and variable efficacy. They definitely have a place in some diseases and for those who really find relief with them, but I think we could all benefit from understanding how to lower the risk of slipping into a case in the first place. The key is reducing stress and inflammation. Below are some effective methods for doing just that.
- Eat healthfully, meaning no processed foods, and lots of high quality produce and meats. Gluten, soy, and sugar are the culprits for food-related inflammation in the majority of Americans. I am an advocate for the value of eating grass-fed, raw dairy, but commercial dairy products from animals raised on soy and corn (not a cow’s natural diet at all) that are harshly pasteurized and stripped of nutrients can also be extremely inflammatory. A doctor named Terry Wahls is the perfect example of how food can beat autoimmune disease. She once was crippled by MS and confined to a wheelchair, and literally cured her disease with nutritional therapy. If you’d like to read more about Dr. Wahls’ healing journey with MS, check out her book, The Wahls Protocol.
- Reduce your toxic load. Switch out your personal care products for clean, natural alternatives, which I talk about in this blog post. Do the same to the best of your abilities for the cleaning products you use in your home. Perhaps you can buy a few plants to help detoxify and clean the air in your home/workspace (plus they’re gorgeous!). Depending on the age of your home, it may also be beneficial to have your home checked for mold. Experts say mold exposure could be the next big cause of illness as serious as smoking. Not many people are talking about it yet, but breathing in spores chronically can lead to major inflammation.
- Take care of your emotional well-being like it’s all you have. In this post I talk all about the stress hormone, cortisol, and the detrimental effects it can have on your health when you’re dealing with chronic stress. Many Americans feel like they don’t have enough time in the day to incorporate acts of healthful self-care, but I challenge you to find it.* Emerging research suggests mindset can literally change the course of disease and healing. Imagine the good it can do before you get sick!
*Tip: when you tell yourself you don’t have enough time, you won’t find it. Convince yourself that you have enough hours in the day and the hours will go much more slowly, giving you the time to do what’s best for your well-being.
Obviously there is a lot that contributes to stress and autoimmune disease and it may seem overwhelming. But I choose to see it as empowering. Instead of deciding it’s too much and changing nothing about diet and lifestyle, think instead about the variety of areas in life you can dive into to make yourself healthier.
In conclusion, many professionals in the functional medicine community agree that conventional medicine is missing some key elements in treating and preventing these diseases that can be debilitating and deadly. If you think you may be struggling with an autoimmune condition, I urge you to continue working with and updating your primary provider, but also search out a functional medicine practitioner or a naturopathic doctor to get to the root cause of disease and help you heal.