Column: Diagnosed with Auto-Immune Disease -- Now What?
I see many patients who have been diagnosed with an Autoimmune disease and feel extremely overwhelmed and fearful. In Naturopathic Medicine, there are many things we can do to reduce or even resolve the symptoms of autoimmune disease. Autoimmune conditions are now just chronic diseases that can mostly be managed by removing environmental triggers, decreasing overall stress, removing food allergens, and controlling inflammation. There is so much we can do to help your symptoms so please don’t spend too much time on Google freaking yourself out.
What is an autoimmune disease?
To put it extremely simply, an autoimmune disease is when your body decides to start attacking its own healthy cells instead of the unhealthy cells it should be attacking. This results in elevated antibodies against your own cells that can be detected in the blood. There are many different types of autoimmune diseases but some examples are Hashimoto’s (thyroid), Scleroderma (connective tissue) and Rheumatoid arthritis (joints).
In conventional medicine, it is uncommon for your MD to re-check your antibodies to see if they have decreased, however in Naturopathic Medicine I monitor my patients antibodies continuously because it can tell us how well you are responding to treatment.
The disease process is usually triggered by environmental factors (environmental exposure to toxins, emotional triggers, food triggers, and viral or bacterial triggers), however there is a genetic component and people with autoimmune disease in their family are more likely to develop an autoimmune disease unless their environmental triggers are low.
Where do I start?
Below I have listed a few key points to start with after you are first diagnosed. The major component that all of these environmental triggers have in common is that they cause inflammation and inflammation is key to the progression of autoimmune conditions. A Naturopathic Doctor or perhaps even your Medical Doctor can assist you with some of these steps.
1. Figure out your food triggers
There is a lot of evidence regarding the connection between leaky gut (intestinal permeability) and autoimmune conditions. If you are eating foods that your body does not agree with, this can trigger inflammation in the intestines that can exacerbate and trigger symptoms.
The gold standard for figuring out your food triggers is following an elimination diet. An elimination diet consists of eliminating many common allergenic foods and following a basic diet for a few weeks to months then slowly re-introducing foods to see which ones make your symptoms worse. Although this is the gold standard, it takes a lot of time and is symptom based so if something is still causing a problem but not producing physical symptoms you could still have inflammation. Another option for patients that I sometimes recommend is IgG blood testing to figure out which foods are producing antibodies and causing more inflammation for you specifically.
2. Fix your gut
If your symptoms do not improve after addressing your foods, we will look at other causes of intestinal permeability such as SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), SIFO (small intestinal fungal overgrowth), insufficient good bacteria, and potentially parasites.
After addressing foods and/or other imbalances in the intestinal system, we work on repairing the intestinal lining. This involves eliminating the problematic foods and/or bacteria, fungus, parasites then adding herbs and nutrients to decrease inflammation and heal the intestines.
3. Autoimmune Paleo Diet
Although this is a restrictive diet, many patients with autoimmune conditions will feel better following an Autoimmune Paleo Diet. The basics of this diet are avoiding grains, legumes, dairy, sugar, eggs, nuts, seeds, nightshade vegetables, and alcohol. What can you have? Meat, fish, shellfish, herbs & spices, and all fruits and veggies (except the nightshades: tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants and peppers).
4. Find out if there is a viral or bacterial component
This part requires further testing but it is important for your treatment to know if you have been exposed to certain viruses and bacteria that can trigger autoimmunity. For example, Hashimoto’s is often related to Epstein Barr Virus infection and reactivation, and Ankylosing spondylitis and Ulcerative colitis can be associated with Klebsiella infections.
5. Check your vitamin D levels
I check vitamin D levels for every patient with an autoimmune disease. Vitamin D helps modulate our immune system and is often low in people with autoimmune conditions. When we know you vitamin D level we can supplement accordingly and this step along can decrease autoimmune antibodies.
6. Check your mental health & manage stress
An important and often overlooked step is addressing your mental health. While there are many triggers to autoimmune conditions, a large life stressor can be one of them. In addition to this, chronic stress can cause cortisol dysregulation which can lead to more inflammation—something we don’t want with an already inflammatory condition!
Whether you need to talk to a counsellor, take more breaks, decrease your work load, or just take more baths, be honest with yourself and do whatever you believe will help you feel more balanced because these changes alone can improve your immune health.