The human body has an amazing capacity to heal itself, and most of the time it can do so effectively if we are able to consistently support its needs by giving it the nutrition, rest and movement it needs in order to maintain a state of physiological and psychological balance. The problem is – we don’t.
In early stages of disease our bodies often speak to us through the subtle language of symptoms (i.e. headache, constipation, fatigue, etc) as a way to inform us that “something isn’t right” and yet because these symptoms are often not yet significant enough to disrupt our day to day lives, we ignore the cry for help and often resort to using simple therapies to suppress the symptoms. However as this battle continues, and our body, mind and spirit continuously try to adapt to an increasingly harmful and imbalanced state, our symptoms increase in number, frequency and intensity. The body then begins to breakdown. In the case of autoimmune disease, our immune system begins mistaking healthy cells and tissues within our body for antigens (i.e. bacteria, viruses), resulting in a chronic inflammatory attack on our own tissues as if they were infected by something foreign. Common examples include the formation of immune complexes to joints as seen with Rheumatoid Arthritis or to the thyroid gland as seen with autoimmune thyroid disorders like Hashimoto’s or Graves disease.
Autoimmune diseases vary widely and are classified based on the tissues that are being attacked and the symptoms they cause. Examples of autoimmune diseases include Rheumatoid Arthritis, Multiple Sclerosis, Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and Celiac Disease – all of which are on the rise in the United States.
A Conventional Medical Approach to Autoimmune Disease
Conventional medical treatments for autoimmune diseases typically include immunosuppressive medications, steroidal anti-inflammatories or hormone replacement therapy (in the case of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis or Type 1 diabetes mellitus). While these medications can effectively relieve pain and/or treat the outcome of the disease, they do not address the underlying cause for the immune dysregulation nor do they prevent the disease from progressing. Depending on where someone is the stages of the disease process, pharmaceutical interventions may or may not be necessary. Dietary and lifestyle factors are often overlooked and their impacts on health are dismissed.
A Naturopathic Medical Approach to Autoimmune Disease
Acknowledging that the human body functions as a complete unit with each organ system influencing and impacting another, a naturopathic medical approach to autoimmunity includes looking at all aspects of a person’s health including their diet, lifestyle, environmental exposures, physical and emotional stress, hormonal balance, as well as digestive health. Because every person interacts with their internal and external environment in a unique way, it is important to understand how each person’s body, mind and spirit responds to a stressor and the adaptations it makes in attempt to restore balance. In the case of autoimmunity where the body is mistakenly attacking itself, discovering how to best support the body can take time and often requires the use of specialty laboratory testing to identify triggers (i.e. infections, food sensitivities) and treatments that will maximize healing and minimize further destruction.
Topics for All Patients Diagnosed with an Autoimmune Condition to Consider
The type of foods you consume has a significant impact on your overall health and autoimmune condition. Giving your body the fuel it needs for proper nourishment and detoxification is crucial. Eating foods rich in the right kind of nutrients, avoiding foods that trigger inflammatory responses, and eating a diet that stabilizes your blood sugar appropriately provides the fuel your body needs to thrive and serves as a form of "medicine" that can be used to restore and maintain health.
Exposing your body to toxic chemicals can have devastating, long-lasting effects on your overall health. Consistent exposure to pollutants in the air, water, and food increases the toxic load that the body must regularly rid itself of through the pathways of elimination (i.e., feces, urine, perspiration, and respiration.) Unfortunately, if the body’s ability to eliminate appropriately is compromised, the increasing toxic burden can overwhelm the body and result in the development of autoimmunity. Minimizing your exposure to toxic chemicals is an important element in treating autoimmune diseases. Sources of toxic exposures to consider include heavy metals (including amalgams), diet, plastics, cleaning agents, and hygiene products.
Did you know that over 60% of the body’s immune system (lympathic tissues/nodes, immune cells, etc.) resides in the gut? Having healthy gastrointestinal function ensures that there is proper immune "surveillance" against pathogens and serves as a barrier to prevent passage of foreign particles into the body interior. In the case of auto-immunity, there is often intestinal inflammation that challenges this surveillance, thereby compromising the integrity of the cell to cell junctions lining the gut wall. The resulting "leaky gut" allows undigested and potentially antigenic food particles (as well as foreign pathogens like bacteria and parasites) to enter into the blood stream resulting in autoimmune reactions. Restoring gastrointestinal health is essential in the management of autoimmune diseases.
Inflammation is an underlying theme in the pathogenesis of autoimmune diseases. Sources of inflammation include poor blood sugar regulation, underlying chronic infections, chronically elevated cortisol and insulin, heavy metal and other toxic burdens, food sensitivities, and unnecessary body fat – all of which are considered when creating short term and long term treatment plans.
Our overall health is affected by how we eat, breathe, think, move and supplement. The negative impacts that stress has on the health of our mind, body and spirit is significantly underestimated in modern medicine. Because high levels of cortisol can disrupt the healthy functioning of every and any organ system in the body, restoring proper adrenal function, incorporating effective stress management techniques, and addressing nervous system imbalances are always integrated into treatment plans and considered to be an essential aspect to managing autoimmunity.
Not all supplements are created equally and, in fact, taking certain supplements may aggravate your autoimmune condition.