At RIFM, we treat autoimmune issues every day. This is where functional medicine shines. So today I’d like to clear up some common myths that I hear regarding autoimmune disease.
1. Autoimmune diseases are rare; not that many people have them.
Actually, the opposite is true. If you look at all the autoimmune diseases together, one in 12 Americans has an autoimmune disease. Twenty percent of the population currently has an auto-antibody. So as you can see, autoimmune issues are quite common and are becoming more so.
2. There’s no way to predict if I will get an autoimmune disease or not.
A whole field of medicine called predictive autoimmunity has come about in the last several years. Tests within this field include antibody tests like rheumatoid factor, anti-CCP, anti-mitochondrial antibody (AMCA), and others. For example, a positive anti-thyroid globulin antibody for thyroid issues like Hashimoto’s becomes positive eight to 10 years before the actual disease is diagnosed. In functional medicine, we can begin addressing the antibodies BEFORE full-blown disease presents. We work to improve diet, exercise, lifestyle, and other interventions to help normalize antibodies, which we do see happen in our clinic.
3. Autoimmune disease runs in my family, so I will get it as well.
I hear this argument often. There are four things you have to have in order to get an autoimmune disease. First, you need a genetic predisposition. Second, there needs to be some sort of triggering event such as trauma, illness, etc. Third, you need to have a chronic infection of some kind. And finally, you need to have a leaky gut. All four have to happen in order to get an autoimmune disease. Your genes by themselves can increase your risk, but they do not determine whether or not you’ll get an autoimmune disease.
4. My autoimmune disease is not bad enough to start treatment yet.
I hear this often as well. Someone has a marker for lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, or Hashimotos, but has not developed full symptoms. They may have some mild symptoms, but not severe enough to require pharmaceutical intervention. Again, you can have symptoms and positive antibodies, yet not meet the criteria for an autoimmune disease until you get to a late stage. That’s the typical path. By the time that happens, high-dose medications like biologics and steroids are needed.
We try to avoid this if at all possible, and often it is. This is in the sweet spot of functional medicine. We can help patients to reduce inflammation, improve gut health, and optimize vitamin D levels. We use interventions like low-dose Naltrexone peptides. We look for infections and actually start lowering the load that’s causing inflammation. There are many interventions that can help prevent full-blown autoimmune disease.
5. I just have irritable bowel syndrome. It’s no big deal and I don’t need to address it.
I mentioned this specifically because a third of all visits to gastroenterologists or GI doctors are for irritable bowel syndrome. Newer research and literature is showing that irritable bowel syndrome is actually an autoimmune spectrum disorder. It’s the thing that comes before the autoimmune disease. So your gas, bloating, constipation diarrhea, and general GI upset are actually markers for inflammation and immune dysregulation. Don’t wait for it to progress. Start changing your diet now, because, if you do, you can head it off. There is even advanced testing available now through Quest labs that can show that your irritable bowel syndrome is an autoimmune disease.
6. Once I get started on an autoimmune medication, I can’t get off of it.
This is a concern I hear often. It’s true that, once you start taking an autoimmune medication, if you don’t make lifestyle changes, you don’t change your nutrition, you don’t change anything about your environment, then you won’t get off the medication. But if you do make these radical lifestyle changes, you CAN get off of them. I routinely help people with inflammatory bowel disease. Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and others wean down and get off of their medications. However, first, we have to work on the lifestyle changes necessary to lower inflammation and antibody levels. We need to heal their gut, address their infections, and resolve whatever is triggering their disease. As we work together, I look for those four factors I mentioned above. For autoimmune disease to happen, a person has to have a genetic predisposition, chronic infection, leaky gut, and a triggering event. If we work to find these, we can actually slow the progression or even cause remission. This requires a lot of work on the part of the individual as well as their practitioner to get there.
7. It’s just my thyroid (or other area affected by the autoimmune disease), and it doesn’t affect the rest of my body.
Autoimmune diseases are systemic. Your diagnosis may only describe one part of your body – for example, the thyroid in Hashimoto’s, the joints with rheumatoid arthritis, the brain with multiple sclerosis, or the gut with inflammatory bowel disease. But these diseases cause inflammation in the whole body. For example, having rheumatoid arthritis increases your risk for heart disease just as much as having diabetes When someone has an autoimmune disease, the entire body is inflamed and you have to take a whole-body system approach.
8. I only have one autoimmune disease, and I can’t get another.
The current literature shows that inflammation from one autoimmune disease can set you up for another. We see this often. Someone with Hashimoto’s or thyroid issues might have a positive rheumatoid antibody or a positive celiac antibody. Someone with rheumatoid might have positive celiac and lupus as well. The natural progression, if left to itself, is that the inflammation tends to get worse over time, and one autoimmune disease leads to another. This is the reason why we need to look at the cause, get to the root of it, and start addressing that so that you don’t develop more autoimmune issues.
9. There’s nothing I can do about my underlying autoimmune disease.
I’m sure you realize now, after reading 1-9, that this is just not the case. Dealing with autoimmune diseases is in the realm of functional medicine. This is where we shine. We look at the root causes, and we address them in order to improve people’s health. There’s hope. You just need to partner with a skilled practitioner, get educated, and implement what you know slowly. It can sometimes take years, but progress can be made. Hang in there.
If you’d like more information on autoimmune disease, I’d suggest starting with the recommended reading list on our website. There are several books listed there that I recommend to help you better understand autoimmune disease. Our goal is to provide you with the best information we can to help you on your health journey, to maximize your wellness, and to live the best life you can live.
Since 2010, Richmond Integrative and Functional Medicine has been helping people to restore their health and hope with an integrative approach to conventional and alternative medicine that’s entirely science-backed. We at RIFM believe everyone is made for health. We offer a comprehensive, in-person patient membership program to ensure you get access to the care you need to thrive.
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