When I was in medical school in 1996, I was told that I would not see autoimmune disease in practice.
I was taught that autoimmune disease was rare and that treatment would be limited to the realm of the specialists and at universities. Diseases like celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and even PANDAS were conditions I was told I would never see. We discussed autoimmune disease only for academic purposes because, supposedly, I would never need to treat them.
My how times have changed. Today autoimmune disease accounts for the second or third most common cause of chronic illness in the country. These autoimmune diseases include Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism, Graves disease, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, eczema, asthma, and over 120 other autoimmune diseases.
Currently, one out of twelve people have some kind of autoimmune disease and 20% of the population has a positive autoantibody.
What are Autoimmune Diseases?
Basically autoimmune diseases result from a confused immune system. Ideally, our immune systems are designed to do nothing 99.999% of the time. They are supposed to see bacteria in your gut, viruses you’re exposed to, yeast in your GI tract, dust, chemicals, etc. – and ignore them. They’re not supposed to respond to these things.
However, sometimes the adaptive part of the immune system develops a memory and learns how to fight off viruses and other foreign substances. It can start to react with the body. When that happens, a person develops something called TILT syndrome (toxin induced loss of tolerance). TILT syndrome happens when chemicals from the environment (either synthetic or natural) bind to cells, change the shape of those cells, and start creating a little inflammation. As inflammation increases over time, eventually the body becomes aware of what’s going on and starts making antibodies to combat this process. Then over even more time, inflammation can increase to the point that autoimmune disease results.
A Trajectory Toward Autoimmune Disease
On average, a person will have a positive thyroid autoantibody for about eight to ten years before they’re diagnosed with Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism. Someone who develops lupus can have a positive AMA (automitochondrial antibody test) for 15 to 20 years before they’re diagnosed with lupus.
So we can see a spectrum of low-grade inflammation from toxins, which over time, trigger your immune system to start activating against itself.
Four things are needed to develop an autoimmune disease:
- Genetic predisposition
- A chronic infection of some sort
- A triggering event
- Leaky gut
Now we can see why addressing gut health and chronic infections is so vitally important when we’re talking about autoimmune disease.
Leaky gut can present with various symptoms like brain fog or fatigue. Chronic infections can come from things like mono, viral infections like HSV (herpes simplex virus), chronic strep infections, and chronic GI infections.
Triggering events can be almost anything – a trauma in the past, a head concussion, a severe accident with hospitalization, and the like.
Now that we understand this pathway to autoimmune diseases, we can work with people to address the inflammation and start turning back the clock on the mediators. We can work to address this trajectory and correct the course of health.
Autoimmune Diseases are Systemic
The world of traditional medicine generally compartmentalizes autoimmune diseases. For example, if you have thyroid autoimmune disease, you see the endocrinologist. If you have a joint issue like rheumatoid arthritis, you see the rheumatologist. If you have inflammatory bowel disease, you would see the gastroenterologist. But we know now that all autoimmune diseases actually interact with each other.
While you might mainly experience joint symptoms from rheumatoid arthritis, or thyroid symptoms from Hashimoto’s, the reality is that every autoimmune disease is systemic. For example, some people with celiac disease will present with tics, ADHD, and seizures. Some people with Hashimotos will present with fatigue, brain fog, and fertility issues. Patients with rheumatoid arthritis might present with lung issues since rheumatoid often also affects the lungs.
A Functional Medicine Approach to Autoimmune Diseases
Now that we know that autoimmune diseases are systemic, we can see why they must be addressed holistically, treating the patient as a whole. With this whole body, holistic approach, functional medicine is really the ideal approach to autoimmune disease. Functional medicine addresses the immune system by focusing on gut health, sleep, stress reduction, nutritional deficiencies, environmental factors, and infections.
A holistic, whole-body approach, not just symptom treatment, is critical when treating autoimmune disease. This is where functional medicine shines. While autoimmune diseases are now common and on the rise, a functional medicine approach can slow and prevent these devastating diseases.
Want to Learn More?
Stay tuned for next week’s post when I’ll talk about how chronic infections can be an underlying cause of disease.
If you’d like more information on inflammation and 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 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.
Take care and be well. We’ll talk to you soon.
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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