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?" 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 autoimmunity has 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:
Most common autoimmune diseases:
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.
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 increases likelihood of developing 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 breast-fed 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), and 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), seem to have lead me to where I am now. Many people with autoimmune diseases have similar stories.
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 play 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:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org!
The Second Brain by Micheal D. Gershon, Buy here on Amazon