An Integrative Approach to Autoimmune Disease

If you've been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, your doctor probably told you that there is no cure, it will continue to get worse, and the only treatment option is a powerful medication that suppresses your immune system (and has really bad side effects). That probably made you feel scared, helpless, and depressed. Like your life is over.

But you do not need to resign yourself to this fate. You have other treatment options and you can feel better. You simply need an integrative approach to autoimmunity.

The Conventional Approach

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Conventional medicine views autoimmunity as a genetic predisposition triggered by some unknown factor. This model does not give us many treatment options. We can't change your genetics and we can't do anything about a trigger that we don't know or understand. So that leaves us with only dealing with your immune system.

The standard treatment for most autoimmune disease is a medication that shuts down your immune system to stop it from attacking your body. And yes, it will stop it from attacking your body, but it also stops your immune system from defending your body against pathogens and even cancer. 

This approach is like using a sledge hammer to put a small nail in the wall. It will get that nail in the wall, but it will also do a lot of damage to the wall. It is a blunt tool and we need a more refined tool.

The Integrative Approach

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Integrative medicine views autoimmunity as much more complex. We recognize genetics, epigenetics, lifestyle factors, immune imbalances, and known environmental triggers as playing a role in developing autoimmune disease. This model gives us a lot more treatment options and therefore, a greater chance of healing your body.

Genetics & Epigenetics

"Genetics loads the gun, environment pulls the trigger." While you may have a genetic predisposition for a certain disease, that does not mean that you will develop the disease. And that is because of epigenetics, how our genes are expressed. Our diet, lifestyle, and environment can impact what genes our body turns on and what genes are body turns off. Understanding this is most important for preventing an autoimmune disease, but we can still use epigenetics to impact how our immune system functions with an autoimmune disease. To do that, we need to explore the lifestyle factors and environmental triggers.

Lifestyle Factors

Nutrition, physical activity, stress, sleep, hydration, and lymphatic function all play a role in developing autoimmunity. These factors can create hormonal imbalances, neurotransmitter imbalances, oxidative stress, and mitochondrial dysfunction that puts us at risk of developing an autoimmune disease. A lot of this is through epigenetics, but these factors can also directly impact our immune system. 

Environmental Triggers

Toxins and infections can predispose, exacerbate, or trigger an autoimmune disease. Toxins include heavy metals & chemicals found in plastics, pesticides & herbicides, and other products. Infections may include chronic viral or bacterial infections or intestinal dysbiosis.

For example, exposure to PCBs (found in coolant) is associated with the autoimmune disease, Hashimoto's thyroiditis. Mercury toxicity is associated with lupus. The Epstein-Barr virus (causes mono) is linked to multiple sclerosis. The presence of the bacteria Klebsiella in the digestive tract is associated with ankylosing spondylitis.

The toxins and infections may trigger autoimmunity in a few different ways. They may cause inflammation and cell damage that exposes the immune system to parts of the cell and body that the immune system falsely interrupts as foreign. Thus, triggering the immune attack on your body. The infections may trigger autoimmunity through molecular mimicry. Basically, a viral or bacterial protein looks like one of our own proteins. The pathogenic protein triggers our immune system to start attacking and our immune system ends up attacking our proteins that look similar.

The presence of these toxins and infections will continue to stimulate the autoimmune response. In an integrative approach to autoimmunity, it is important to identify and then removes these environmental triggers.

Immune Balance

The immune system can be divided into 3 relative parts: 

  1. The part that turn on immune reactions
  2. The part that attacks foreign invaders
  3. The part that shuts off immune reactions

In autoimmune disease, there are several imbalance among and between these parts. We see an imbalance in the part that turns on immune reactions (Th1 vs Th2), overactivity in the part that does the activity, and not enough regulation to shut down immune reactions.

In an integrative approach, instead of using a blunt tool to completely shut down the immune system, we try to bring balance to the immune system. Much of this involves eliminating environmental triggers and modifying lifestyle factors, but we do have natural tools (such as botanicals) that have a direct impact on immune function.

What does an integrative treatment plan look like?

Reduce inflammation using targeted botanicals & nutrients 

Often the first step is to try to control your symptoms so that you have the energy to work on the underlying causes. Since inflammation is causing your symptoms, we first try to reduce your inflammation as much as possible using botanicals & nutrients. Sometimes, pharmaceutical interventions are needed to manage inflammation at this stage.

Identify Triggers

While we are managing your symptoms, we are also looking beyond your symptoms to identify your triggers and underlying imbalances. This is best accomplished through comprehensive laboratory testing to evaluate for toxins, intestinal dysbiosis, oxidative damage, mitochondrial dysfunction, hormonal & neurotransmitter imbalances, and food sensitivities. 

Heal the Gut

Some estimate that up to 80% of your immune system lives in your gut. Basically, your gut is the front lines of your immune system. So if we want to modulate your immune system, this is the best place to start. Because this is also the place where your immune system was most likely first exposed to your autoimmune triggers.

We often find that people with autoimmune diseases have digestive dysfunctions, such as imbalances in gut bacteria (like SIBO) and leaky gut. We suspect that these dysfunctions were and still are huge contributing factors to the autoimmune state. 

We correct these imbalances and heal the gut using targeted dietary therapies, antimicrobial therapies, nutrient & botanical therapy to heal gut cells, and probiotic therapy to restore normal flora. Specific therapies depend on the nature of the dysfunction.

Eliminate Toxins

If toxins are apart of your autoimmune picture, the next steps is to eliminate these toxins from your body. This involves identifying the sources and reducing or eliminating exposure and detoxification. Detoxification may involve chelation therapy, sauna therapy, therapeutic fasting and other protocols depending on your specific exposures. Optimizing lymphatic function is extremely important in this phase of treatment.

Optimize Cellular Health

Once we have eliminated toxins causing cellular damage and mitochondrial dysfunction, we can repair the damage. This involves short term targeted nutrient therapy to reverse oxidative damage and replenish depleted nutrients.

Modify lifestyle factors

We want to make sure that your nutrition, physical activity, sleep, and stress levels are promoting an environment for health in your body. This is important for not only healing your body, but also for preventing flares and recurrences. Healthy lifestyle factors will need to be maintained for the rest of your life.