Autoimmune disease is a bit of a specialty of mine and I can tell you that it is on the rise. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH) there are currently 23.5 million Americans suffering from full blown autoimmune disease.
Researchers have discovered over eighty different autoimmune diseases plus another forty or so which may have an autoimmune origin. To put this into perspective, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in the United States approximately 370,000 people die annually from heart attack. Although autoimmune disease does not strike a person dead quite like a massive heart attack, it does promote disability and suffering due to the chronic and progressive nature of the condition.
How Does Autoimmunity Occur, and What Is It?
It is important to understand one major concept regarding autoimmunity: no one is born with an autoimmune disease. People are often born with a genetic propensity to develop a disease, but it tends to be factors in that person’s life that turn autoimmunity on. This is called epi-genetics and is a fast-growing area of research.
Interestingly, people who end up turning on their autoimmune physiology do so silently at first. It may have been a trauma in their life that pushed them over the edge, or the flu, or smoldering food sensitivities. Usually there is a blend of several things, but at some point in their lives the immune system changes. It no longer knows the difference between self tissue and non-self tissue. They just wake up one day and start making antibodies to their thyroid gland for example, or to the cartilage in their joints, or the 80+ other parts of the body that have been established so far.
What Does Autoimmunity Feel Like?
Just because a person is making antibodies to some tissue or organ does not mean they are sick. Simply put, they are just in the autoimmune club and probably don’t even know it yet. But fast forward ten years and they start experiencing vague symptoms that no doctor can figure out. They complain of fatigue, or brain fog. Or achy joints. Or increasing reactions to the foods they have eaten their whole lives. Things just don’t feel right and it isn’t just that they’re getting older, though that is the common excuse from both patient and doctor.
Under the surface autoimmune physiology is at play and they can feel it. They don’t have an actual autoimmune “disease” until the destruction of that gland or tissue progresses to a degree that there is a failure of some sort in that system. Once an MD needs to intervene with medicine or surgery it is officially a disease.
23.5 million people in the NIH statistic counts only those with full-blown disease. It does not count the multiple millions of other people in the early stages who feel lousy but aren’t sick enough yet to be categorized as having a disease. Our system of medicine is unfortunately disease oriented with very little attention to prevention or to those very early stages of disease. So those people smoldering through the years with early autoimmunity are simply allowed to progress until they require stronger medicines. But why wait? Why don’t we begin to work with the underlying inflammatory pressures impacting these people sooner rather than later? If we can reduce these pressures, the autoimmunity tends to slow way down and in some may not ever progress to the disease state at all! How do we do this you ask? Please read on.
What Does the Gut Have to Do with Autoimmunity?
The surface area of the digestive tract is enormous! Something akin to the square feet of a tennis court if spread out flat. So if you are eating something that is inflammatory to your digestive tract, you are inflaming a massive area of your body. This inflammation leaks into your blood stream and literally turns up the immune system to attack everything it remembers to attack. In the case of autoimmunity, that can be any organ in your body.
It is one thing to promote attacks on joint tissue in the case of Rheumatoid Arthritis, which can lead to pain and disability, but it is another thing altogether to promote attacks against brain tissue, or pancreas, or adrenal glands. These can all lead to very serious diseases with grim outcomes. Food sensitivities, “leaky gut” conditions, inflammatory bowel disease, etc. all work to promote autoimmune disease expression. So working to avoid or to heal from these conditions can go a long way towards creating an environment where autoimmune disease simply does not like to exist.
Don’t just take my word for it - all you need to do is go to PubMed, a mainstream medical literature data base, and search these terms. The medical journal Frontiers in Immunology published an article just last year titled, “Leaky Gut as a Danger Signal for Autoimmune Diseases,” in which they detail just how connected autoimmune disease is with the breakdown of the intestinal barrier system. Long story short, the more inflamed the intestinal tract, the more that can get through into the blood stream. This enrages the gut immune system which then stimulates the entire immune system to switch into overdrive. This is “leaky gut” in a nutshell. By taking measures to repair these inflamed tissues in the digestive tract we can not only help with the obvious symptoms of bloating, gas, gut pain, etc., but we can also turn down a major pathway to the development of full-blown autoimmune disease.
Find Help in Functional Medicine and Start Feeling Better!
Once a person starts to look outside of the mainstream approach to autoimmunity they will soon find that the functional medicine community provides access to a lot of diagnostic tools and protocols not usually offered at the typical medical visit. For example, we can test for “leaky gut,” food sensitivities, and a wide range of autoimmune markers. We can also test for the status of the gut microbiome. These are things that simply do not get tested for otherwise, or at least until significant damage has occurred.
So I ask the question again… Why wait? If you are like many millions of other people in America who feel that something just isn’t right, but no one can seem to figure out what’s wrong, then it may be time to look a little further on your own. The first step is finding a functional medicine literate practitioner who can think outside the box and start looking in the right places. The gut, in my experience, is the most potent place to start. Aside from the testing, there are gut repair programs that can turn around long-term symptoms someone might be having in as early as one month! Of course everyone’s pathologies are different, but once a person really addresses gut inflammation some amazing things can start to happen.
I hold gut repair programs for groups or individuals and have access to all of the testing mentioned above, and more! Please consider me a valuable resource for you and your path to wellness. Autoimmunity is a complicated web of interconnected mechanisms all happening at once in the body. But with a little patience and focused inquiry these things can unravel. When they do, you can start to feel a whole lot better!