What is What?: Autoimmune Disease
Welcome to our first health education post! In this series, What is What? We'll tackle major health topics to provide you with a thorough-but-not-overwhelming overview of buzz topics in the health world.
"What is Autoimmune Disease?" is a topic that's near and dear to our hearts, as both Katey and I have autoimmune diseases — I have Ulcerative Colitis, and she has one that is yet to be determined (AKA the worst kind! But more and more common these days, unfortunately). As autoimmune diseases have gotten more and more common, it's likely that you or someone you know has been diagnosed with one. We've done a lot of research, so we wanted to share what we know.
Let's dive in!
Autoimmune diseases now affect over 24 million people, 80% of whom are women. Autoimmunity happens when your immune system can no longer recognize you from not-you, so the immune response switches from attacking intruders to attacking your own body. When the immune system attacks the body, it causes chronic inflammation. While short-term inflammation is actually helpful for fighting infections and more, long-term inflammation brings with it a slew of symptoms and can cause a ripple effect of dysfunction throughout the body.
Here are common symptoms associated with autoimmune disease:
- Chronic fatigue
- Joint pain/inflammation
- Hair loss
- Geographic tongue
- Brain fog (difficulty concentrating)
- Skin sensitivity/frequent rashes
- Cold extremities
- Cold/heat intolerance
- Blood/mucus in stool, diarrhea, mouth ulcers
- Excessive weight loss/gain with no easily identifiable reason
Most common autoimmune diseases:
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Hashimoto's Thyroiditis
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease (Crohn's and Ulcerative Colitis)
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Grave's Disease
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Autoimmune diseases are not only disruptive, they are often life-threatening, and are the 8th leading cause of death among women. Furthermore, it's expensive to be sick. Especially with autoimmune! Dr. Hyman writes in his blog, "The annual health care cost for autoimmune diseases is $120 billion a year representing nearly twice the economic health care burden of cancer (about $70 billion a year)." More than cancer! That was a shock for me to read.
And us autoimmune sickies don't have the greatest options for medical care. There are currently no known cures for autoimmunity, so the available treatments only mask symptoms and often come with serious side effects. I've tried "chemo" treatments, immunosuppressants, steroids and biologic therapies (TNF blockers) to no success (yet), and have had a lot of the side effects (fever, acne, hair loss, weight loss, weight gain, rashes, etc.). The best possible solution (and the best hope!) that I've found is that these treatments can be used to calm the inflammation while finding and treating the root cause — most effectively with the help of a functional medicine doctor.
What causes autoimmunity?
This is a tricky question because no one is really sure. After working with hundreds of people with autoimmune, my integrative MD, Dr. McMinn, narrows it down to 3 things in succession:
- Genetic predisposition
- Environmental contributors
- A trigger
Genetic predisposition increases the likelihood of developing an autoimmune disease, but it doesn't mean that you definitely will develop one if someone in your family has one. My mom and I are almost identical in our health issues — I sometimes tell people, "When her back hurts, mine does, too." It's weird how alike we are! We both have MTHFR genetic mutation (more on that later, and no, it is not shorthand for a curse word), and we're fairly certain she struggles with some kind of autoimmune disease that the doctors just haven't figured out yet. However, neither of my sisters have any health issues, so it's definitely not a guarantee that you'll develop one just because the possibility exists in your genetic makeup (thank goodness!). It's certainly a reason to take preventative measures with your diet and environment to prevent it, though. Thanks to more and more research in epigenetics (more on that later, too!), we are discovering that genes are more easily manipulated by our environment and behaviors than we once thought... Which helps explains why bad environmental contributors are a HUGE part of why we get sick.
Environmental contributors include diet, exercise/activity, exposure to mold, constant stress, use of toxic makeup/home cleaning products, etc. Even whether or not you were birthed vaginally or by c-section or breastfed vs. bottle-fed can play into this aspect because those factors change your microbiome quite drastically. The more toxins we expose our bodies to, the likelihood of the gene carrying the mutation for autoimmune will be flipped "on." And flipping it off again is like climbing up a slide with socks on.
Usually, autoimmune disease can be traced back to a trigger: it could be the stress of law school or an abusive work situation, the stress of a divorce, a bacterial infection, exposure to toxic mold, a parasite, a major life event, etc. Basically, after years of a chronic stress or being exposed to toxins, something happens that cause your system to snap and rebel. Think of it in terms of "the straw that broke the camels back."
Here's my path: I was born vaginally, but formula-fed. I had constant ear infections as a child, so I was given antibiotics all the time until I got tubes. I abused my body all throughout college, but I didn't know any better: 4 years of sleeping for 4 hours a night on average, thousands of French Presses filled with coffee, the stress of exams, the stress of juggling 3 side jobs, dozens of pints of Ben & Jerry's, endless trips to get Dollar Pizza. Plus, I have a tendency to suppress negative emotions, which we now know has major physical implications. And then, what we think was the trigger, the beach trip of 2014, where I unknowingly swam in parasitic beach water (contaminated with human waste due to a sewer leakage). My system couldn't handle the bacterial imbalance. My body began to crash quickly. All of these factors (a lot of them uncontrollable, and a lot of them because I didn't have the education I have now), seems to have lead me to where I am now. Many people with autoimmune diseases have similar stories.
So what now?
Functional and integrative medicine has gotten so popular these past few years, and it's only getting better. Information is easily found, but it's VAST and a little daunting. As more research comes out, we're learning so much about how stress, diet, and basically how we treat ourselves plays into triggering autoimmune disease. So, it makes sense that how we treat ourselves can play into treating disease.
Based on what I've written above, there are some clear action items that those of us with chronic illness can enforce immediately. (I love action items!) Here are a few:
- Check for infections. Sometimes, the trigger can be an underlying infection, like Lyme or a parasite. If that's causing the uproar, you'll have to treat those before you begin to feel better!
- Check your environment. Are you exposing yourself to toxins regularly? This could be mold in your house or at work, heavy metals in water and fish, household cleaners, parabens and sulfates in cosmetics — the list goes on. The less you're exposed to toxins, the better! Start cleaning up your products little by little as you run out of your old products. It's so good for you and for your family!
- Evaluate your stress levels. Are you constantly stressed and wearing yourself to the bone? Really take some time to evaluate how you can lower your stress and increase your rest. Stress does not equate success. Managing your stress could mean completely reshaping how you manage your time, pulling out of some activities or relationships that are causing anxiety rather than giving life, putting some self-care practices in place, seeing a therapist, and more. Stress is physiologically tied to your immune response. For me, stress is the main thing that causes flare-ups, so I really have to be protective of my time and energy.
- Heal your gut. It's hard to over-emphasize how important gut health is. It's tied to all of our systems, and when things are off in our gut, they're off in our brain, and you can see the domino effect that would have on your whole body. The implications are expansive, and we're really just now researching exactly what it all could mean. What we do know is that most people with autoimmune have various food allergies, most likely tied to Leaky Gut. This is basically when your intestinal lining becomes way too permeable, so food particles and bacteria can leak out, triggering an immune response. There are lots of anti-inflammatory diets out there. The AIP Diet (autoimmune protocol for Paleo) is my favorite. I won't sugar-coat it, changing your eating habits is hard. And it can often be emotional if for you, food is tied to comfort or other things. Katey wrote a great blog about changing our mindset about food that you can read here.
- Be your own biggest advocate. If you know something is wrong, don't stop until you have an answer! You know your body better than anyone. This means hard work. It means late night research. It means going to yet another new doctor. It might mean saving up for an expensive visit to a functional medicine doctor. If you're living in pain and discomfort, and your life is constantly being put on hold because of your health, it's worth it to find out what your body is trying to tell you. Trust me. I've spent thousands of dollars on my own health (not including the incredible support from my amazing family, which I'm so grateful for!). Would I have rather spent money that I worked for on other things? YOU BET. But ultimately, I can't enjoy those things if I'm not healthy. I can't enjoy my family or friends when I'm not healthy. It's not selfish. You can't be there for others if you can't take care of yourself. You have to decide that you're worth it!
This isn't all inclusive, but hopefully it's given you a little insight into autoimmunity and given you some resources to further explore! If you need help getting started, that's exactly why Katey and I are here. Go to our contact page or shoot us an email at email@example.com!
Sources & Resources:
The Second Brain by Micheal D. Gershon, Buy here on Amazon
Gut and Psychology Syndrome by Natasha Campbell-McBride
Hashimoto's Thyroiditis: Lifestyle Interventions for Finding and Treating the Root Cause by Dr. Izabella Wentz