What is Autoimmune Disease?
Autoimmune (AI) disease occurs when the immune system begins targeting self-tissue of the body causing destruction of that tissue and related organ. AI diseases include: rheumatoid arthritis (RA), multiple sclerosis (MS), lupus (SLE), Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis (UC), type I diabetes, Sjogren’s syndrome, scleroderma, psoriasis and celiac disease (CD), among others.
- Autoimmune disease can affect any tissue in the body
- AI disease is usually progressive over time
- Patients usually suffer with symptoms for many years before AI is finally diagnosed
- Most AI disease remains undiagnosed so its prevalence is not known
- It is thought that about 72 million people in the USA have an AI disease
- Researchers have identified 80-100 different autoimmune diseases and suspect at least 40 additional diseases of having an autoimmune basis
- Medical education (outside rheumatology) provides minimal learning about autoimmune disease
- Genetics plays a role in these conditions but environmental factors, including diet, toxic exposures and chronic infections probably play a much larger role
Conventional Treatment of AI Disease
Steroids and other immune-suppressing medication
Autoimmune disease is usually not identified until significant tissue destruction has already occurred.
Once AI disease has been diagnosed, the standard of care is steroids and other immune-suppressing medications such as DMARDs (disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs) and biologics.
There really is little available in the conventional model of healthcare for patients with autoimmunity issues other than immune-suppressing medications with their serious associated side effects.
Functional Medicine Management of AI Disease
A comprehensive approach to the management of complex conditions such as autoimmune disease must take into consideration many aspects of health, including gut barrier integrity and imbalances of gut flora, liver detoxification capacity and toxic burden, hormone imbalances, energy production capacity, nutrient status and most importantly, immune imbalances which promote autoimmune states. More specifically, Functional Medicine approaches autoimmune disease by identifying the triggers and mediators of the autoimmune attacks, minimizing the self-destructive immune responses and enhancing the body’s ability to recover from flare-ups.
There are 4 areas of management of autoimmune conditions in the Functional Medicine approach:
- Identifying and avoiding the triggers of autoimmune responses
- Modulating the autoimmunity and reducing tissue destruction
- Enhancing and supporting recovery from flare-ups
- Addressing associated conditions that promote autoimmune responses
Identifying and avoiding the triggers of autoimmune responses
Lab testing is a critical first step in identifying the extent of systemic inflammation and ruling out many environmental insults which act as triggers and mediators of autoimmunity, such as chronic infection, heavy metal toxicity and decreased capacity to perform liver detoxification.
Food sensitivities can also promote inflammation and potentially drive autoimmune responses.
Identifying and addressing these issues is critical in autoimmune patients to minimize damage and promote restorative function.
Modulating the autoimmunity and reducing tissue destruction
Functional Medicine addresses diet and lifestyle issues as well as using anti-inflammatory and immune-modulating herbs and nutritional compounds to decrease immune responses to self-tissue.
Identifying the triggers of autoimmunity and modulating the immune response can have powerful long-term positive effects on slowing or stopping tissue destruction and improving quality of life.
Enhancing and supporting recovery from flare-ups
There are a number of natural compounds that help support a faster recovery by breaking down offending triggers, increasing blood flow to target tissue, and dampening the immune response.
Addressing associated conditions that promote autoimmune responses
Intestinal permeability promotes autoimmunity
There is growing evidence that increased intestinal permeability plays a pathogenic role in various autoimmune diseases. Increased intestinal permeability and compromised gut integrity appears to precede AI disease and predisposes to immune activation and chronic inflammation. Assessment and proper restoration of the integrity of the intestinal barrier is crucial in managing autoimmune conditions.
The following nutritional interventions are usually used:
Anti-inflammatory and immune-modulating compounds
Anti-inflammatory and immune-modulating herbs and nutritional compounds to decrease excessive immune responses can very often be helpful.
Nutrients to regenerate the epithelial lining
There are various plant compounds, vitamins and minerals that have been shown to have a restorative effect on a damaged intestinal barrier and a proper selection and regime can be very effective.
Nutrients to decrease food sensitivities
Food sensitivities are very common in people with autoimmune disease. Compounds that have been shown to decrease specific immune responses in the gut related to food sensitivity can be helpful.
There is growing evidence that increased intestinal permeability plays a pathogenic role in various autoimmune diseases. Identifying the existence of intestinal permeability and addressing this condition, leads to a more comprehensive and satisfactory outcome in the autoimmune patient.