We’re hearing a whole lot about autoimmune conditions these days, and for good reason: autoimmune disease affects over 80 million people, and there’s been a sharp rise in autoimmune disorders. In comparison, cancer affects up to 9 million and heart disease up to 22 million. There are over 80 (some sources say 100) known autoimmune diseases; they are chronic and last a lifetime; and your chance of being diagnosed is one in 13.
Most Common Autoimmune Diseases
- Graves’ disease
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
- Systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus)
- Type 1 diabetes
- Multiple sclerosis (MS)
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Psoriasis & eczema
- Celiac disease
What is Autoimmune Disease?
Autoimmune disease is a case of mistaken identity. In response to some kind of trigger, the immune system starts overreacting and misfiring, producing antibodies that attack the body’s own tissues instead of foreign invaders. This causes ongoing inflammation. Organs and tissue (such as the thyroid gland) can be damaged as a result. People often suffer autoimmune “flare-ups” when an inflammatory trigger causes severe symptoms to surface for a period of time. I see this most often in my Celiac clients who accidentally eat gluten, causing them severe digestive pain for days. Emotional trauma may also cause a flare.
Scientists theorize the origins of autoimmune conditions are in the digestive tract. A recent study linked autoimmune reactions to a bacteria in the gut called Enterococcus gallinarum. An autoimmune response, can be triggered when the bacterium spontaneously migrates from the gut to other organs in the body, such as the spleen, liver, and lymph nodes. (source)
Conventional treatment for autoimmune diseases generally focuses on reducing immune system activity with immunosuppressive drugs. While these medications can be effective at reducing some of the symptoms of the condition, because they suppress the entire immune system, they aren’t without many unwanted side effects: fatigue, weight gain, depression, increased infection rates and even cancer, and obviously they do not address the underlying cause.
Risk Factors for Autoimmune Disease
There are several key factors that have to be present in order to develop autoimmune disease. Certainly there is a genetic component, but triggers must occur in order to for the disease to express itself. Often this can be exposure to toxins or physical trauma or a traumatic event that’s a major stressor on the body. But just because you have a history of autoimmune disease in your family does not mean you will develop it. You can overwrite your genetic code and prevent the disease via diet and lifestyle (epigenetics).
One of more of the following must be present for autoimmune disease to surface:
- history of autoimmune disease in your family
- toxins (from heavy metals, mold in your environment, etc)
- GI infections such as candida and/or pathogenic bacteria like H pylori, klebsiella, enterococcus gallinarum
- Viruses such as Epstein-Barr, herpes, and/or mononucleosis
- Food intolerances: There is a specific link between autoimmune disease and gluten intolerance.
- Leaky gut syndrome, which causes an overactive immune response
The devastating issue I see with my clients is that they’ve been shuffled around to specialists and doctors for years before their autoimmune condition is even diagnosed. A rise in specific antibodies has to be detected via blood testing in order for a proper diagnosis to be made, so it doesn’t show up on regular bloodwork (though patterns can be spotted that should clue your physician into requesting further testing for a diagnosis). Then patients are given anti-inflammatory or immunosuppressive drugs and told their condition is not curable (true) or reversible (not true).
Though symptoms vary widely, here are a few signs of autoimmune disease:
- Joint pain, muscle pain or weakness or a tremor
- Weight loss, insomnia, heat intolerance or rapid heartbeat
- Recurrent rashes or hives, sun-sensitivity, a butterfly-shaped rash across your nose and cheeks.
- Difficulty concentrating or focusing
- Feeling tired or fatigued, weight gain or cold intolerance
- Hair loss or white patches on your skin or inside your mouth
- Abdominal pain, blood or mucus in your stool, diarrhea or mouth ulcers
- Dry eyes, mouth or skin
- Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet
- Multiple miscarriages
8 Steps to Reversing Autoimmune Disease
If you’ve been diagnosed with an autoimmune condition, I have good news for you. It may be possible to reverse certain autoimmune conditions and free yourself from symptoms and flares. I have seen it in colleagues and clients (mostly regarding autoimmune thyroid conditions): blood tests that reveal no presence of the high antibody levels that indicates autoimmune disease is present. The disease is reversible through changing your diet and lifestyle habits and balancing your immune system.
1. Give up the grains and lectins. Step 1 is changing your diet, and grains are the first to go. As we’ve discussed, gluten is strongly correlated with autoimmune disease, especially Hashimoto’s and Grave’s. Grains contain lectins and phytic acid that irritates the gut lining, contributing to inflammation, and the main goal in reducing autoimmune flares and reversing the disease is quelling inflammation in the gut and systemically. Nightshades may also be problematic, especially for rheumatoid.
2. Ditch the Dairy. Allergies or intolerances to casein are extremely common, and these intolerances contribute to the inflammation we’re attempting to combat. Pasteurized dairy in particular causes inflammation and contributes to estrogen dominance, 2 factors that exacerbate autoimmune thyroid conditions particularly. One caveat: if you are not sensitive to casein, raw dairy may actually boost immune health, but I have everyone eliminate it for 60 days initially. Read more on dairy here.
3. Determine your food intolerances. I put all my autoimmune clients on some form of an autoimmune paleo protocol for at least 60 days to see what improvements they make. This means eliminating grains, dairy, legumes, nuts/seeds, nightshades, eggs, alcohol. Once they start feeling better, we reintroduce foods one by one, slowly, to see which foods produce a reaction. Read the “whys” behind the autoimmune protocol here. Essentially we’re looking for foods that are triggering immune activity and contribute to leaky gut, an underlying cause of autoimmune disease. You want an anti-inflammatory diet that’s right for you. It will look different for each person depending upon to which foods you react. This article outlines how to reintroduce foods and where to go after the autoimmune protocol.
Before you panic about all the foods you have to give up: Don’t worry, you won’t have to be this strict forever. The autoimmune protocol isn’t designed for longterm compliance. It’s an allergy elimination diet to see which foods are causing you inflammation, so you know which foods to eliminate. Even if you react to multiple foods and have to steer clear of those for several months, you can try reintroducing them again a few months later. Healing leaky gut means many food intolerances heal. And you don’t want to be on a restrictive diet long term! I don’t recommend the full autoimmune diet longer than 90 days.
4. Normalize your vitamin D levels. Vitamin D is crucial for a healthy immune system. There is increasing epidemiologic evidence linking vitamin D deficiency and autoimmune diseases including multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease and systemic lupus (source). I recommend starting vitamin D supplementation right away.
5. Fix your gut. Though we aren’t sure about the origins of autoimmune disease, we do know it involves the digestive tract, because 60-80% of your immune system is in the gut. The theory is that multiple food allergies, poor gut flora, and leaky gut constantly keep the immune system firing and working until it finally begins misfiring. How to fix your gut? Fix leaky gut, eliminate allergenic foods and foods high in anti-nutrients (on the autoimmune protocol), and stool testing to determine if pathogenic bacterial infections, viral triggers, parasites, and/or candida are present. Certain strains of bacteria such as Yersinia and H pylori can trigger autoimmune conditions. Rebalance gut flora. I recommend the GI MAP stool test to get an accurate picture of your overall gut health + it tests for pathogens, parasites, yeast, and dysbiosis. You can order it here (about 1/3 down the list).
6. Relieve stress to prevent flares. Stress and trauma are often the straws that break the camel’s back. There is a clear connection between stress wearing down the gut, sending your hormones haywire, and increasing inflammation. I recommend meditation, detox baths, and read these tips to support yourself through the stress that is inevitable in every day life. Exercise also helps. SLEEP 8 hours for repair and recovery.
7. Find hidden infections. We know that autoimmune disease surfaces in those with viruses such as Epstein-Barr, herpes, or those who’ve had mono. Ask your doctor to test for underlying infections that can be addressed. These viruses continually affect your immune system.
8. Reduce inflammation. Aside from curating your autoimmune anti-inflammatory diet and fixing your gut, reduce inflammation by including an omega-3 fatty acid supplement, turmeric tea, and managing cortisol levels. Also include glutathione, one of the body’s most potent antioxidants and detoxifiers.
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Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. In addition to her coaching practice, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and kick nagging digestive issues for good. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.