If you’re experiencing symptoms of chronic illness but can’t seem to get a definitive diagnosis, you could be one of the many people with an autoimmune disease. Up to 50 million Americans1 are struggling with autoimmunity, and this number is rising at an alarming rate.
In spite of the growing prevalence of autoimmunity, many patients—and their doctors—are unfamiliar with this condition. What exactly is an autoimmune disease? What are the underlying root causes and triggers of autoimmune disease? Let’s take a closer look at autoimmune disease through the lens of functional medicine.
The term “autoimmune disease” actually refers to a group of many different disorders, all of which develop when your immune system attacks healthy cells in your body.
When it’s functioning properly, your immune system works to protect your body from illness by destroying foreign “intruders” that can make you sick. In the case of autoimmune disease, the immune system mistakes your own cells for these intruders and goes after them, causing illness rather than preventing it.
There are nearly 100 different types of autoimmune diseases, and many other conditions have an autoimmune component. Two of the most common autoimmune diseases are Hashimoto’s disease, which interferes with the thyroid gland’s ability to produce thyroid cells and often leads to a condition called underactive thyroid2, and Celiac disease3, where eating gluten activates the immune system to attack the small intestine. Symptoms of these and other autoimmune diseases include:
Because symptoms of autoimmunity resemble those of many other illnesses, autoimmune diseases are notoriously difficult to diagnose. This is especially true when a physician has only received standard training that doesn’t always include learning to recognize the signs of autoimmune disease. You may not receive an accurate diagnosis until you work with a practitioner who has experience with autoimmunity.
Conventional practitioners tend to view autoimmune disease as something that affects specific organs rather than the immune system as a whole. But functional medicine experts like myself understand that treating autoimmune disease means looking at the patient as a whole person, and working with that patient to identify the underlying root causes of their autoimmunity. It’s a matter of figuring out what is throwing the body off balance so that we can work together to correct the imbalance.
Aside from a small percentage who are genetically predisposed, most people experience autoimmunity as a result of inflammation somewhere in the body4. Some of the factors that can trigger this inflammation include:
A diet high in inflammatory foods is one of the main root causes of autoimmune disease. Gluten, dairy, grains, soy, corn, processed food, sugar, and alcohol are among the most inflammatory foods.
Your digestive tract is an immune barrier, meaning it works to protect your body from pathogens and other invaders. If the lining of your digestive tract is porous—a condition known as leaky gut or intestinal permeability—the barrier is compromised, allowing everything from undigested food to bacteria into your sterile bloodstream. This causes your immune system to launch an attack on the intruders, which may lead to autoimmune disease.
The body’s fight-or-flight response to stress is designed to protect us from immediate threats. When we’re chronically stressed out, our bodies are forced to remain in danger mode all the time, which takes its toll on our health. Chronic stress may play a role in the development of autoimmune disease.
With everything from the air we breathe to the food we eat potentially contaminated by chemicals, many experts5 believe exposure to environmental toxins has contributed to the rise of autoimmune diseases.
You may be experiencing inflammation caused by hidden food allergies6. A functional medicine practitioner can test you for Celiac disease as well as allergies to dairy, soy, and other foods.
If you suspect you have an autoimmune disease but can’t find a doctor who will take your condition seriously, contact us here at My Pure MD. From the perspective of functional medicine, we’ll work to identify the underlying root causes and triggers of your autoimmune disease so that we can formulate a treatment plan. We understand that autoimmune diseases are about the whole immune system, not just individual organs, and we take a patient-centered approach to treating these complex conditions.