What is an autoimmune condition?
It is estimated that around 10% of people in Europe have an autoimmune disease (1). Examples of common autoimmune conditions include Coeliac Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Lupus, Hashimoto’s (the most common form of underactive thyroid), Graves (the most common cause of overactive thyroid), Ulcerative Colitis, Crohn’s Disease and Type 1 Diabetes.
So what’s going on?
Autoimmunity is essentially where our immune system has lost tolerance to certain proteins in our own body, and starts to attack them. It’s an inflammatory reaction that can cause huge tissue or organ damage and destruction, and is responsible for an estimated 80 diseases. Although the actual figure may be higher as we learn that there could be an autoimmune element to perhaps more than 100 diseases.
For example, in Rheumatoid Arthritis the immune system has launched an inflammatory attack against the sufferer’s joints, leaving joints swollen, painful and sometimes immobile. In Hashimoto’s it’s the thyroid gland, in Ulcerative Colitis it’s the colon. When you have an autoimmune disease, it’s important to recognise that it’s an immune system issue, and not, for example a gut issue, a thyroid issue or a joint issue. This helps us to unravel the root cause, by trying to identify why the immune system has gone rogue. And there are many possible reasons for this.
We see a higher incidence of autoimmune conditions in women. It is thought that oestrogen and oestrogen fluctuations play a key role in mediating this. Not only our internal production of oestrogen, but also the oestrogenic effect of environmental chemicals, including those in our beauty products and cookware.
How Do You Know If You Have An Autoimmune Condition?
The type of symptoms will depend on the type of disease you have. Quite often, if you have one autoimmune disease, you may be further predisposed to pick up more. For example Hashimoto’s, the main cause of an underactive thyroid has also been linked with a higher prevalence of coeliac disease.
Symptoms to watch out for include fatigue, aches and pains in the joints and muscles, headaches, weight gain, weight loss, brain fog, digestive pain, skin conditions etc
Autoimmune disease is diagnosed by assessing symptoms, and often by measuring antibodies in the blood. In very simple terms, antibodies are like small flags created by the immune system to mark the spot where it should launch an attack. The immune system puts these flags in areas that it considers to be a foreign invader.
The reason it’s behaving that way is that it has lost self-tolerance. It is seeing the parts of the host eg your thyroid or colon etc as a danger to be eradicated. It has lost self-tolerance because it has become confused, potentially due overstimulation by substances (chemicals, food), chronic infections and stress (trauma and chronic).
The issue is that autoimmune conditions are often under-diagnosed. Whilst you may be experiencing distressing symptoms, your GP blood testing may come back normal. A diagnosis of stress, depression, fibromyalgia or IBS may then be given, for which anti-depressants, anti-inflammatories and laxatives may be prescribed as necessary.
Standard treatment generally revolves around controlling symptoms and supporting tissues with medication. Common medications include corticosteroids, and immunosuppressant drugs. However, many of these have unpleasant side effects and may become unsuitable in the long term. They may also involve drugs to replace hormones affected by the condition eg levothyroxine for an underactive thyroid, or insulin for Type 1 Diabetes.
You may be told that there is no known cause for autoimmune conditions and no cure.
The Functional Medicine Approach to Autoimmune Conditions
Functional medicine offers a different approach. It focuses on finding the root cause and triggers of an immune system that has gone rogue.
All potential immune triggers are explored where suspected: food sensitivities, underlying and unidentified chronic infections (bacteria, parasites, yeast, viruses), toxins, nutrient deficiencies, chronic stress and past history going as far back as pre-natal triggers. This is done through a combination of obtaining a thorough case history and functional laboratory testing where appropriate.
The course of action is then to support the immune system, by removing triggers and giving the individual the nutrients the immune system needs that may be deficient or required in higher amounts. This involves dietary and lifestyle changes.
Whilst it is not possible to say that an autoimmune condition can be cured, we see many cases where symptoms are vastly reduced and the condition is put into remission. By removing triggers and root causes, the body can move toward optimum health. This approach is called a 5R Programme
The 5R Programme
Remove – identify and remove the possible barriers to healing. This may be pathogenic bacteria, yeasts, parasites, toxic metals and chemicals, stress, food sensitivities, poor lifestyle choices
Replace – with healthful foods that may be lacking. Optimising vitamin and mineral levels and digestive function
Reinoculate – Our microbiome (the complex ecosystem located in our gut) plays a major role in our overall health and immune system function . Levels of beneficial bacteria may become depleted due to poor diet, lifestyle and illnesses. We need to support and replenish our levels of beneficial bacteria using diet, supplements and lifestyle change.
Repair – Using diet, supplements and lifestyle changes to facilitate the repair and recovery of tissues that may have become affected by illness or inflammation in the body.
Rebalance – The final stage seeks to balance other areas of each individuals life that can optimise health. Not only through diet and suppelments, but also looking at emotional wellbeing, stress, sleep and exercise interventions.