I believe conventional medicine has it all wrong when it comes to treating autoimmune conditions. Autoimmune conditions affect over 50 million Americans, a large percentage of whom are women. Autoimmune diseases are now the third leading chronic disease in the country right behind heart disease and cancer. They are a top ten leading cause of death in women under the age of 65, and they come in more than 80 different varieties, including rheumatoid arthritis, type I diabetes, Lupus, thyroid disease, psoriasis, multiple sclerosis, and more. Yet, it takes an average of six-to-ten doctors and five years to receive one of these autoimmune diagnoses. What is conventional medicine doing wrong?
Autoimmune Disease: A Disease Of The Immune System
Under our current medical system, autoimmune diseases are not recognized as diseases of the immune system as a whole. Instead they are seen as diseases of particular organs. Unfortunately, that means that there isn’t a unified branch in conventional medicine to treat autoimmune conditions. With cancer for example, we have cancer specialists called oncologists who treat many different types of cancers no matter which organ system they involve. Yes, there are some subspecialties within oncology, but they typically still fall under one main oncology umbrella.
If, on the other hand, you are suffering from an autoimmune disease, you will see a specialist who focuses on the organ system that is being affected: a rheumatologist for rheumatoid arthritis; an endocrinologist for Hashimoto’s and diabetes, a gastroenterologist for celiac, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s; a dermatologist for psoriasis; and so on. If you have multiple autoimmune conditions, as many people do, you will see several different specialists.
Supporting, Rather Than Suppressing, The Immune System
In conventional medicine, the belief is that once you have an autoimmune condition, there’s nothing you can do to reverse it, only ways to manage the symptoms. Managing the symptoms typically involves harsh medications that are aimed at suppressing your immune system. While these medications can be effective at reducing some of the symptoms of the disease, since they suppress the entire immune system, they aren’t without many unwanted side effects such as fatigue, weight gain, depression, increased infection rates and even cancer.
In contrast, functional medicine sees the body as a whole and works on the principle that the health of one system impacts the health and function of the others. Instead of focusing on disease symptom management, we focus on supporting and strengthening the immune system by getting to the root of why the immune system went rogue in the first place. While there is no known cure for autoimmune disease, I believe that there are five key elements that are at the root of all autoimmune conditions. In my functional medicine practice I have been able to successfully help hundreds of patients lower and reverse antibodies, get off their harsh medications, and become symptom free.
5 Underlying Causes of Autoimmune Disease
1. Gluten Intolerance
Gluten has been linked to more than 55 diseases and is damaging to the gut, causing symptoms that are not always digestive in nature but rather neurological such as pain, cognitive impairment, sleep disturbances, behavioral issues, fatigue and depression — a vague collection of symptoms present in many autoimmune conditions.
2. Leaky Gut
In order to absorb nutrients, the gut is somewhat permeable to very small molecules. Many things including gluten, infections, medications and stress can damage the gut, allowing toxins, microbes and undigested food particles — among other things — directly into your bloodstream. Leaky gut is the gateway for these infections, toxins, and foods like gluten to begin to cause systemic inflammation that leads to autoimmunity.
Toxic molds (mycotoxins) and heavy metals such as mercury are the two main toxins I see in those with autoimmune conditions. Mycotoxins are very volatile compounds produced by toxic molds that wreak havoc on the immune system.
We are exposed to heavy metals like mercury in different ways: mercury amalgam fillings in teeth, fish consumption, and the environment. Mercury is toxic to our bodies and can be one piece of the puzzle for those with autoimmune diseases.
Scientists have long suspected that infections from bacteria, viruses, and other toxins were likely to blame for the development of autoimmunity. And while they have not been able to identify one single culprit, they have found strong correlations between a number of bacteria and viruses.
Stress disrupts immune function through several distinct pathways. Stress is the body’s response to a threat — a wound, injury, or infection. Chronic stress (the kind we face in this day and age) leads to longterm inflammation that never really shuts off, creating autoimmune disease. Once the autoimmune response is in place, immediate stress only exacerbates it.
My Approach To Reversing Autoimmune Disease
1. Remove gluten, grain and legumes from diet.
For my patients with autoimmune diseases, I highly recommend removing not only gluten but all grains and legumes from their diet. These foods contain proteins known as lectins, which act as a natural pesticide for crops and can wreak havoc on the lining of your gut. Changing your diet is the first step in getting well.
2. Heal the gut.
Healing the gut is essential to healing yourself. After all, 80% of your immune system lies in your gut! Avoid foods and, if possible, medications that damage the intestinal lining and restore the balance of your body’s bacterial flora, and your inflammation will subside. Sometimes it can be tricky to identify the foods that are a problem for you. I recommend trying an elimination diet (avoiding certain foods for a period of time and then reintroducing them, one at a time, while gauging your symptoms) to find your personal food sensitivities.
3. Test for heavy metals and mycotoxins.
If your diet is high in tuna, Atlantic salmon, swordfish or other mercury-containing fish, consider reducing your intake or avoiding them altogether. Choose fish that have lower mercury content, like Pacific-caught salmon, tilapia, trout, and flounder. In addition I recommend a DMPS challenge test and that all my patients find a biological dentist to remove their mercury amalgam fillings.
4. Find and treat infections.
There are a number of bacterial and viral infections that have been associated with autoimmune conditions. Have your doctor test for these infections.
5. Manage stress.
I tell all my patients that they should prioritize stress reduction. Take care of yourself by adopting some stress-relieving strategies, such as exercise, meditation and art. If you are having trouble relaxing, try a yoga class or a guided meditation. Even giving yourself five minutes to sit quietly with a fragrant cup of herbal tea can help tremendously.
My approach is based on getting to the root of the problem: removing the elements that derailed your immune system in the first place and strengthening your immune system rather than suppressing it. That’s why using this approach enables you to reverse and prevent many different autoimmune conditions at once.
About the Author
Amy Myers, MD is a renowned leader in Functional Medicine. She received her Doctorate in Medicine from LSU Health Sciences Center and spent 5 years working in emergency medicine before training with the Institute of Functional Medicine. She has helped thousands around the world recover from chronic illness through her dietary based program, The Myers Way. Visit her website for additional information or you can hear her presentation at The Natural Cures Summit discussing Natural Cures for Autoimmune disease.