In Part 1 of this blog series on autoimmune disease, we talked about what autoimmune disease is, how it impacts far more women than men and some common signs and symptoms to watch out for.
In today’s article, we are going to explore autoimmune disease from a functional medicine perspective in terms of both what causes autoimmune disease and autoimmune disease treatment. Let’s dive right in!
Conventional Vs. Functional Medicine
Conventional medicine focuses on the organ or tissue where the autoimmunity is present. For example, treatment for autoimmune thyroid disease is focused on managing thyroid hormone and treatment for rheumatoid arthritis is focused on lowering inflammation in the joints. Western medicine often views autoimmune disease as chronic and incurable, with the main focus on managing symptoms.
In a functional medicine view, autoimmunity is an immune system issue that has specific root causes. For autoimmunity to occur, three things need to be present:
- A genetic predisposition. Certain genetic variations, called SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) predispose us to autoimmunity, which explains why autoimmune disease tends to run in a family. However, genes alone do not produce disease, the other two factors need to be present also showing how important epigenetic factors are.
- Intestinal permeability or “leaky gut.” When the junctions between cells that line the small intestine are “leaky,” proteins and pathogens that are meant to stay in the GI are able to move into the body and the immune system must respond. Modern life predisposes us to leaky gut as a poor diet, high stress, stealth infections and exposure to toxins all contribute.
- A trigger. With genetics and a leaky gut as key root causes, the system still needs a trigger to ignite the fire of autoimmunity. Triggers can be food sensitivities such as gluten, viruses such as Epstein Barr, environmental chemicals and other factors. Recent research suggests that COVID-19 may be a potential autoimmune trigger.
Autoimmune Disease and Diet, Food And Supplements
Now that you can see what needs to be in place for autoimmune disease to develop, we can use a functional medicine approach to uncover, support and correct root cause issues. We can’t change genetics, but we can support optimal genetic expression. In addition, here are some areas to explore:
- Reverse leaky gut. In all autoimmunity, addressing gut health is essential. Often this starts with a stool test to uncover any infections or imbalances in the microbiome and using diet, lifestyle and supplemental approaches to restore the intestinal barrier. An elimination diet may be helpful here as well.
- Eat a nutrient dense diet with plenty of plant foods. Supplying the body and the immune system with the essential nutrients needed for optimal function is important. Whole plant foods are anti-inflammatory and support microbiome health.
- Check your stress. Stress is an underlying factor to all disease, including autoimmune disease. Daily, non-negotiable self-care is paramount.
- Clean up your environment. You are exposed to tens of thousands of man-made chemicals simply by being alive in 2021, but it is in your power to avoid exposures to many of them. This may mean filtering your water and indoor air, choosing clean personal care products, cleaning with non-toxic options and decreasing plastics as much as possible.
- Balance your hormones. Since autoimmune disease affects more than twice as many women as men, there is likely a hormonal component to consider. Work with your functional medicine practitioner for proper testing and a personalized plan to optimize hormonal health. Consider cortisol, progesterone, estrogen, DHEA, testosterone, insulin and other hormones here.
- Supplement smart. There isn’t a single supplement that is a magical cure for autoimmunity, but well placed nutrients and herbs are incredibly supportive for reducing inflammation and supporting immune system balance. Work with your provider for a customized approach. Note that many “immune boosting” herbs and supplements may not be appropriate when the immune system is already overactive.
Understanding the root causes and how they influence the autoimmune process changes the game when it comes to treating and preventing autoimmune disease. In functional medicine, we are always digging deeper and working to restore balance while allowing the body to heal. While many parts of this may be tackled on your own, there is nothing like working with a practitioner who listens, acknowledges and knows how to find the answers that you seek while simplifying what can feel like a really complicated and overwhelming process of discovery and healing. Please reach out for support!
- Wang, L., Wang, F. S., & Gershwin, M. E. (2015). Human autoimmune diseases: a comprehensive update. Journal of internal medicine, 278(4), 369–395. Full text: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/joim.12395
- Vojdani, A., & Kharrazian, D. (2020). Potential antigenic cross-reactivity between SARS-CoV-2 and human tissue with a possible link to an increase in autoimmune diseases. Clinical immunology (Orlando, Fla.), 217, 108480. Full text: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7246018/
- Fasano A. (2011). Zonulin and its regulation of intestinal barrier function: the biological door to inflammation, autoimmunity, and cancer. Physiological reviews, 91(1), 151–175. Full text: https://journals.physiology.org/doi/full/10.1152/physrev.00003.2008