Despite what conventional medicine may tell you, autoimmunity is not a black-and-white issue. Instead, there’s what I call “the autoimmune spectrum,” and how much inflammation you have determines where you fall on that spectrum. I coined this term back when I first began writing about autoimmunity, and now it’s become the established term in functional medicine to explain how autoimmune conditions develop and, more importantly, how to reverse them.
I myself struggled with autoimmunity during my second year as a medical student. Despite experiencing rapid weight loss, tremors, a racing heart, and a number of other frightening symptoms, my doctor brushed it off as “medical school stress.” However, I knew my body and was certain that something wasn’t right, and so I insisted on a complete work-up and lab testing. Sure enough, I was not going crazy: I had Graves’ disease. Graves’ disease is a condition in which the thyroid overperforms. It enlarges to up to twice its normal size, producing all the symptoms I had been suffering from: racing heart, tremors, muscle weakness, disturbed sleep, and excessive weight loss.
The treatments conventional medicine offered for Graves’ were almost as scary as the disease itself, and after a brief stint with the drug propylthiouracil (PTU), which caused me to develop toxic hepatitis, I resorted to radioactive thyroid ablation and a lifetime of supplemental thyroid hormone. I only wish I had known then what I know now—that having an autoimmune disease does not mean you are destined to a life of painful symptoms and harsh medications.
The good news is that by reducing inflammation, you CAN work your way down the autoimmune spectrum and reverse your condition! By understanding the factors that are contributing to your inflammation, you can get to the root cause of your autoimmunity and start leading your best life.
Autoimmunity: your immune system gone rogue
Autoimmune disease is a disease of the immune system. Aside from the nervous system, the immune system is the body’s most complex system, made up of your digestive system, skin, tonsils, bone marrow, lymph nodes, spleen, and the thin skin on the inside of your nose, throat, and genitals. All of these tissues, organs, and cells work together to keep your entire body healthy.
Under our current medical system, autoimmune diseases are not recognized as diseases of the immune system as a whole; rather, they are treated as diseases of particular organs. However, when you have autoimmunity, it means that somewhere along the way your immune system went rogue and began attacking your own tissues. It could be your thyroid under attack, your intestines, your skin, your brain, your pancreas, or another organ. No matter what part of your body is under siege, the underlying problem is within your immune system. In order to treat, prevent, and reverse your autoimmune disease, you’ll need to get your immune system back under control.
Inflammation and the autoimmune spectrum.
So what caused your immune system to go rogue in the first place? One word: inflammation. And unfortunately, nearly everyone has at least some inflammation thanks to our modern lifestyles. The five factors that I’ve identified in my patients that contribute to chronic inflammation are diet, leaky gut, toxin exposure, infections, and chronic stress—or a combination of these factors.
For many people, diet is their primary source of inflammation. Gluten and dairy are two of the most inflammatory foods, along with corn, soy, grains, and legumes. Even those of us with a clean diet are exposed to thousands of environmental toxins that contribute to inflammation every day in the form of plastics; pesticides, herbicides, and hormones in our food; heavy metal exposure from fish and dental fillings; and air and water pollution—the list goes on.
Family history can also affect where you fall on the spectrum. The more relatives you have with an autoimmune condition, the higher your risk is, especially when it’s a first-degree relative such as a parent or sibling. Even so, genetics account for only about 25 percent of the chance you’ll develop an autoimmune disorder. The remaining 75 percent of the picture is environmental and, therefore, up to you. I find that an incredibly empowering statistic.
Once you figure out where you fall on the spectrum, you can assess your risk for developing autoimmunity. Or if you’ve already been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, take the proper steps to reduce inflammatory factors in your life to work your way back down the spectrum.
At the low end of the autoimmune spectrum are those of you who are only moderately inflamed. You may get occasional symptoms such as acne, digestive issues, and fatigue, although these tend to come and go, and you haven’t begun to show signs of illness.
Toward the middle of the spectrum are those of you who experience symptoms of chronic inflammation that have not yet turned into full-blown autoimmune disorders. These symptoms might include joint pain, obesity, allergies, muscle aches, fatigue, and digestive issues. Although you don’t have an autoimmune condition at this point, you are at significant risk to develop one if you don’t address your inflammation.
Finally, at the high end of the spectrum are those who can officially be diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. While conventional doctors would have you believe that you need to be on medications for life or take other drastic measures to control your autoimmunity, there are simple lifestyle changes you can adopt to live a long, healthy, and symptom-free life.