I have come to specialize in autoimmunity because very simply put, it is more common than many people think. There is a good chance you will find some degree of autoimmunity in any random person off the street - their immune system loses the ability to determine self tissues from non-self tissues and launch deliberate attacks against them.
This can come in many forms. The immune system may end up attacking…
the pancreas causing Type 1 diabetes
the fatty sheaths covering nerve cells which goes on to develop into multiple sclerosis
the cartilage to develop rheumatoid arthritis
The list goes on. I have even seen a person who was attacking his own testosterone!
According to the American Autoimmune Related Disease Association (AARDA), a national autoimmune non-profit, there are approximately 50 million Americans who are currently suffering from an autoimmune disease. That’s 20% of our population! Chances are very good that you have relatives in this group. These people have a known disease. But it’s important to understand that there is more to the story here. Why wait until disease sets in? I would like to walk you through some concepts here that might help you avoid disease altogether.
A Classic Case
To get started it’s important to understand the difference between autoimmune disease and autoimmune physiology. Babies are rarely born with full blown autoimmune diseases - these things develop over time – but a person could be born with a genetic propensity towards autoimmunity. That means there is an increased potential to develop the disease, not a guarantee that they will. But as people grow up, start school, maybe get into sports, go to college, get married, have children, etc, there is a lot of time for something to go wrong.
Let’s take for example a young woman who contracts mono and is sick for a few months and then shortly after recovering finds out she is pregnant. She is newly married and financial stress is high, and when she thinks about it her stomach is always a little upset! That is a lot of stress on her system.
One day all that stress triggers something in her genes and her autoimmune genetic mechanisms turn on. Does that mean she has a disease? Not yet. It means that her immune system has started down a new path of wanting to attack some random self tissue (or many!).
Let’s say it’s her thyroid gland. In order for her immune system to attack her thyroid it makes antibodies specific to that gland. Antibodies tell the immune system where to attack so they are specific to a particular organ, gland or tissue. If she got a blood test we might find elevated thyroid antibodies, but since she isn’t suffering any frank thyroid symptoms yet, a blood test like this would be unusual. She isn’t on medication and hasn’t even felt the need to contact her doctor. At this point she has autoimmune mechanisms which are currently undetected, so the condition progresses. Fast forward a few more years and she begins to notice that she isn’t losing weight like she used to. She is tired all the time and her hair is falling out! Is this because of the baby? Probably not. More likely, she is progressing into the early stages of disease.
She now has an autoimmune condition because there are symptoms. If she goes to her doctor they may or may not be able to detect thyroid levels bad enough to warrant hormone replacement therapy.
Let’s say they don’t. So they tell her to come back next year for another check. More time passes and her symptoms are getting worse. She is now forty pounds up and not feeling well at all! She goes back and this time there are clear markers showing low thyroid hormones. The autoimmunity has attacked the thyroid gland and killed enough cells to the point that it can no longer produce adequate hormones.
At this point she has a disease. If she is lucky they will recognize that it is an autoimmune disease. But I can tell you from personal experience after working with hundreds of patients, they usually just get a “low thyroid” diagnosis and are given hormones. No testing for autoimmunity was performed. The only reason this became a “disease” is because the medical system needed to intervene and provide hormones for her because she can’t do it on her own anymore. These hormones are essential and I fully endorse their use when appropriate. But has the system provided for her the best care?
An Ounce of Prevention…
Could they have found the autoimmune mechanisms six months earlier, a year earlier, three years earlier, before she destroyed her thyroid gland and required hormones?
The answer is yes. There are ways to find autoimmunity even when it’s only in the “mechanism” stage. It’s important to understand that the mainstream medical approach is very much disease/illness based. We, as patients or advocates for our loved ones, must be in charge of the prevention part of our health. We need to not rely so much on only the things that our particular insurance benefits will cover. Because they won’t cover prevention! I see this pitfall all the time in my patients who would rather not pay for a test because it isn’t covered by their insurance. We need to ask more questions and seek out practitioners who can help with everything leading up to the point of disease.
So What Can We Do?
Well, I have written many times in the past about the concepts behind autoimmune support. Get a good blood work-up done by someone like me who is trained in functional blood chemistry. We can spot emerging mechanisms that might be working to promote things like autoimmunity. Keep your blood sugar in check, don’t allow anemia to set in, find and fix any food sensitivities, and keep inflammation low.
These things and more are powerful tools to stop autoimmunity from setting in. We also have some pretty amazing blood tests which screen for early autoimmune mechanisms well before the disease stage. Though these tests can cost a little money out of pocket, if you have concerns about your status, or have a family history of autoimmune disease, it could be some of the best money you could spend on yourself. I can offer these tests here though my clinic and can work remotely as well if you are not in the San Diego area.
This post is a call to action for people to be proactive about their health. Do not let yourself join the one out of five Americans currently suffering from full blown autoimmune disease! Find it early and take the steps necessary to stop or slow the progression. I take great pride in offering these services. And I want to help you understand conditions like this. Don’t let distance stop you from getting in touch. Schedule a consultation anytime on my website and we can start the conversation!