Autoimmune diseases are on the rise, and we all know someone (may even be yourself) who is struggling with an autoimmune disease. Any disease where your body starts to attack its own cells and tissues falls under autoimmunity. This is an umbrella term that many well-known diseases fit into including type I diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis or crohns disease), Hashimoto’s thyroiditis plus many more. You need three factors present to trigger an autoimmune condition:
- genetic predisposition
- gut dysfunction (dysbiosis and/or leaky gut)
- environmental trigger (pathogen, toxin, stressor)
So why is the rate of autoimmune conditions on the rise in the United States? It can be attributed to our increased exposure to common root causes like toxins, allergens, microbes/pathogens, poor diet, and stress. We live in a society where stress and the number of hours we put in each day for personal and professional work dictates our worth. Plus, the average American is eating the Standard American Diet (SAD – what a perfect acronym), which is highly inflammatory and low in medicinal-like foods like fresh vegetables, fruit, healthy fats, and fiber. Additionally, toxins such as heavy metals and pesticides are contaminating our food and water systems.
All of these tax our gut, which trigger leaky gut, which increases our risk for autoimmunity. And ~70% of us have gut dysfunction. Each of us has a different root cause or driver of autoimmunity, but inflammation is always present, and by addressing the inflammation, you can start to reverse autoimmune disease and promote remission.
If the rate of autoimmune conditions are increasing in prevalence (and there are well over 80 different kinds), why are we not being properly diagnosed? Oftentimes, our doctors don’t test for them. For instance, Hashimotos thyroiditis (the most common thyroid dysfunction) requires elevations in one or two thyroid antibodies but rarely does a doctor test for anything other than TSH.
An autoimmune diagnosis can be scary and overwhelming. Western medicine treatments typically involve medications like are anti-inflammatories or immuno-suppressives. These medications may be effective in the short-term, but they come with a host of potential side-effects, plus expense, and they don’t offer long-term remission. Functional medicine, on the other hand, strives to uncover the root cause(s), rather than covering (medicating) the symptoms. It focuses on personalizing one’s nutrition, supplement, and lifestyle plan to best support the healing process.
If you are dealing with an autoimmune disease, here are some steps to help you improve your symptoms:
- Adopt the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) Diet
This diet temporarily cuts out grains, beans and legumes, dairy, sugar, processed foods, eggs, nuts, seeds, and alcohol. These are common triggers for those battling autoimmune conditions, but can be overwhelming to restrict in your diet. During the protocol, it’s encouraged to eat a wide variety of allowed vegetables and fruits to increase your intake of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, all of which help decrease inflammation levels and are the eptiome of ‘food as medicine’. After 4-8 weeks, I encourage adding one food back into your diet at a time to determine your personal triggers.
- Incorporate physical activity or movement into your daily life
My favorite ways to move my body include walking, cycling, yoga, and pilates. Physical activity can help reduce inflammation, it improves your mood, and it decreases stress. If you experience joint pain, consider trying low impact exercises such as swimming, Tai Chi, or Qi Gong. Find what makes you feel good and energized!
- Adopt a mindfulness practice
Your mind is much stronger than your physical body and requires regular training. It helps build resilience against your daily stressors, which are difficult to omit from your day-to-day life. Mindfulness practices can include guided meditation, restorative yoga, breath work, and progressive relaxation to name a few. This is one of the hardest things you will try, so I encourage starting small with 5 minutes a day and slowly extending the duration as tolerated.
- Prioritize 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night
While you sleep, your body works to heal, repair, restore and detoxify. It all starts with practicing good sleep hygiene by not using electronic devices 30-60 minutes before falling asleep, sleeping in a dark and cool room, and striving for bedtime before midnight. Deep sleep, when your body physically repairs, occurs best before midnight. This helps your body sync with your natural circadian rhythms.
- Consider adding fish oil, vitamin D, and a probiotic to your supplement regimen
Supplements are a great way to ‘enhance’ (but NOT replace) the positive impact of the AIP and/or anti-inflammatory diet.
- Fish oil (Omega 3) has been shown to decrease inflammation in the body. Most people do not eat enough fatty fish, such as salmon, to get adequate omega-3s to reduce the amount of inflammation.
- Vitamin D regulates hundreds of genes that control inflammation. We are heading into winter, so it is now more important than ever to start taking a vitamin D supplement, since we primarily convert vitamin D in the body via sun exposure to the skin.
- Probiotics can help optimize the gut microbiome. This helps rebalance our bacterial balance in our gut. When our gut is functioning properly and the barrier is not leaky, our inflammation levels decrease.
If you are looking for a more personalized treatment plan, I’d love to help you devise a tailored program and offer professional referrals