You're probably familiar with the most common autoimmune diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, type-1 diabetes, hypothyroidism, and psoriasis. But there are many more autoimmune diseases that affect the nervous system, joints and muscles, skin, endocrine gland, and heart. In fact, the incidence of autoimmune disease has tripled in the last few decades, affecting 24 million Americans. More women are suffering from autoimmune diseases than heart disease and breast cancer combined. Autoimmune diseases are conditions where the body's immune system attacks its own tissues rather than a foreign invader like a virus or bacteria. This happens when something confuses the immune system. That "something" appears to be the enormous load of environmental toxins to which we are all exposed, and which creates a reaction against the self.
Environmental Toxins and Autoimmune Disease
Over 80,000 chemicals have been introduced into our society since 1900, and only 550 have been tested for safety. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), about 2.5 billion pounds of toxic chemicals are released yearly by large industrial facilities. Also, 6 million pounds of mercury are discharged into our air every year. The 2005 National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals found an average of 148 chemicals in our bodies. And those were only the ones for which they tested. More recently, the Environmental Working Group examined the umbilical cord blood of newborns and found 287 industrial chemicals, including pesticides, phthalates, dioxins, flame-retardants, Teflon, and toxic metals like mercury. These fetuses had been exposed to these toxins before they were born! (see Detoxification) Let’s not forget the pesticides found on our foods and those found in our homes as cleaning agents and pest control products, which add to our bodies’ total toxic load.
When it comes to toxins, I practice and recommend the precautionary principle, which says that we should avoid anything with the potential for harm. In the US, something has to be proven harmful before it is taken off the market. In Europe, something has to be proven safe before it is allowed on the market. This is also known as "better safe than sorry."
Dr. Douglas Kerr, M.D., Ph.D., professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, says in his foreword to The Autoimmune Epidemic, "there is no doubt that autoimmune diseases are on the rise and our increasing environmental exposure to toxins and chemicals is fueling the risk. The research is sound. The conclusions are unassailable."
Although, it is clear that environmental toxins are a major cause of autoimmune disease, conventional medicine does not take that into account when treating autoimmune conditions. Unfortunately, it attempts to shut down the patient’s immune response with powerful medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like Advil or Aleve, steroids like prednisone, anti-cancer drugs like methotrexate, and new drugs like Enbrel and Remicade that block the effects of a powerful inflammatory molecule called TNF alpha. These new drugs often provide only partial relief, while they induce frequent and serious side effects and shut down your immune system so forcefully that they increase your risk of cancer or life-threatening infections. These drugs may be lifesaving for some in the short run -- but in the long run they do not address the cause of your illness.
Functional Medicine – Treating the Causes of Your Autoimmune Disease
If your roof is leaking, would you get an umbrella or do you fix the roof? Using the Functional Medicine approach, I have been treating many patients and watched them turning their health around by successfully addressing the underlying causes, such as toxins, infections, allergens, poor diet, and/or stress. I have treated patients with severe arthritis, psoriasis, chronic fatigue, bloody diarrhea and pain of ulcerative colitis, multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus erythematosus, etc. For each one of them, I had to identify and resolve all the causes of their disease (i.e., toxins, allergens, infections, poor diet, and stress). Then together, we designed a healthy lifestyle program, which provided the things their body needed to function optimally, like whole, clean food, nutrients, exercise, stress management, clean water and oxygen, emotional and spiritual support. When patients follow the functional medicine approach, the results are amazing.
Do you suffer from an autoimmune disease? Here are my recommendations:
- Get tested for mercury and other heavy metals and unburden your body
- Get tested for celiac disease, an autoimmune reaction to wheat and other gluten-containing grains, which causes over 60 autoimmune diseases
- Identify your source of inflammation and treat it
- Test and eliminate all allergenic (inflammatory) foods from your diet
- Improve your immune function using a plant-based diet and supplements, including vitamin D, beneficial Omega-3 fats, and probiotics.
- Practice stress reduction techniques
- Improve your body's own detoxification system.
If your current approach has not resolved your symptoms and did not stop the progression of your autoimmune disease, it is time to address the root causes of your condition and start getting well today.