Autoimmune diseases, when taken all together, become a HUGE health burden. Among these are rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, celiac disease, and thyroid disease. In fact, over 80 diseases have been classified as autoimmune and the list is growing.
What are autoimmune diseases? Well, your immune system is your defense against invaders. Imagine your immune system as an army that must clearly distinguish friend from foe.
Autoimmunity occurs when your immune system gets confused and your own tissue get caught in friendly crossfire.
Put another way, your body is always fighting something, whether it's battling infections, toxins, allergens, or a response to stress. Sometimes, your immune army redirects its hostile attack against you. Your joints, brain, skin, and sometimes your whole body become casualties.
This whole concept is called molecular mimicry. Conventional medicine accepts this problem, but they stop there and no one LOOKS for what might be creating the problem. They don't dig to find out which molecule your cells are MIMICKING.
Using anti-inflammatories like Advil, or steroids, or immune suppressants like methotrexate, or TNF alpha blockers like Enbrel can lead to intestinal bleeding, kidney failure, depression, psychosis, osteoporosis, muscle loss, diabetes, not to mention overwhelming infection and cancer.
Don't get me wrong. These drugs can be life saving and help people get their life back, but they miss the point. There is another way to deal with this.
The Problem with a Conventional-Medicine Approach
While classified as many different diseases, they have one thing in common. In every case of autoimmune disease, the body attacks itself.
Is there another way to treat these problems than deploying powerful immune-suppressive drugs that put patients at increased risk of infection and even death?
Historically, medical discoveries originated from physicians' keen observations of their patients' diseases and responses to treatment. Doctors reported their findings to their colleagues or published them as case studies.
Today these "case studies" are often dismissed as "anecdotes" and have become increasingly irrelevant. Instead, we now focus on randomized controlled trials as the only standard of "evidence."
Sadly, this approach dismisses the experience of thousands of patients and physicians as they apply new scientific findings to treat difficult conditions.
Basic scientific discoveries often take decades to be translated into medical practice. Unfortunately, this prevents millions from accessing therapies that could benefit them now.
The determining factor in deciding whether to try a new approach with a patient is the risk/benefit equation. Is the treatment more likely to help than harm? How risky is the treatment? What are the side effects? How dangerous or risky is the current approach to a problem? How debilitating or life threatening is the disease being treated?
Except for treating infections with antibiotics and treating trauma, medicine today approaches most disease by suppressing, covering over, blocking, or otherwise interfering with the body's biology. We generally do not attempt to seriously address the underlying problems that lead to the disease in the first place.
Cholesterol medications, to provide one example, block an enzyme that produces cholesterol (among other important molecules like CoQ10), but they don't address why cholesterol may be high in the first place (factors like diet, exercise, stress, and genetics). Doctors use beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers, SSRI's (serotonin reuptake inhibitors), ACE-inhibitors, antibiotics, and anti-inflammatories.
We are inhibiting, blocking, or anti-ing everything. But we don't ask two simple questions:
Why is the body out of balance and how do we help it regain balance?
There is a new approach to medicine that is beginning to ask these questions.
A Functional Medicine Approach to Autoimmune Disease
As I said, conventional medicine often addresses autoimmune disease by prescribing powerful immune-suppressing medication rather than searching for the cause. That's like taking a lot of aspirin while you are standing on a tack. The treatment is not more aspirin; the treatment is removing the tack!
If you are one of the millions of Americans who suffers from an autoimmune condition, I'm sure you are eager to find answers that rely less on risky pharmaceuticals and more on lifestyle remedies.
Conventional approaches don't have a method for finding the insult causing the problem. You may have been prescribed mega-doses of intravenous steroids or prednisone, hormones, painkillers, acid blockers, methotrexate, or TNF alpha blocker (a strong immunosuppressant drug) for your autoimmune condition and still not finding relief. In fact, you might be feeling worse.
Every autoimmune disease becomes connected by one central biochemical process: A runaway immune response resulting from your body attacking its own tissues.
Functional Medicine provides a map to find out which molecule the cells are mimicking. It looks at the root cause of the inflammation and asks why that inflammation exists.
If we can identify the underlying sources of inflammation, we can heal the body. The underlying causes may include stress, hidden infections, food allergies or sensitivities, toxic exposure, genetic predisposition, nutrient deficiencies, and leaky gut.
If you want to cool off inflammation in the body, you must find the source. Physicians are mostly taught to diagnose disease by symptoms, NOT by their underlying cause.
Functional Medicine is a hidden movement sweeping across the globe, and it is based on a different method of diagnosing and treating disease -- one that focuses on causes not symptoms, one that is based on an understanding of the dynamic way our genes interact with our environment, one that goes beyond simply treating diseases based on their label.
Functional Medicine teaches practitioners to understand the body as a system; to seek the causes of illness; to understand the body's basic functional systems, where they go awry, and how to restore balance; to understand the interconnections between symptoms and organs rather than segregate diseases into specialties.
This approach is a fundamentally different way of solving medical problems, one that allows us to decipher the origins of illness and identify the disturbances in biology that lead to symptoms.
If you have an autoimmune disease, I strongly encourage you to work with a Functional Medicine practitioner to identify and eliminate the root cause(s). Sometimes this requires detective work, trial and error, and patience, but the results are worth it.
- Eat a whole food, anti-inflammatory diet. Focus on anti-inflammatory foods including wild fish and other sources of omega-3 fats, red and purple berries (these are rich in polyphenols), dark green leafy vegetables, orange sweet potatoes, and nuts. Add anti-inflammatory herbs, including turmeric (a source of curcumin), ginger, and rosemary, to your diet daily. Eliminate inflammatory foods such as refined, omega-6, and inflammatory oils, including corn, soy, and safflower oils.
Wishing you health and happiness,
Mark Hyman, MD.
Mark Hyman, M.D. believes that we all deserve a life of vitality -- and that we have the potential to create it for ourselves. That's why he is dedicated to tackling the root causes of chronic disease by harnessing the power of Functional Medicine to transform healthcare. He is a practicing family physician, a nine-time #1 New York Times bestselling author, and an internationally recognized leader, speaker, educator, and advocate in his field. He is the Director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine. He is also the founder and medical director of The UltraWellness Center, chairman of the board of the Institute for Functional Medicine, a medical editor of The Huffington Post, and has been a regular medical contributor on many television shows including CBS This Morning, the Today Show, CNN, The View, the Katie Couric show and The Dr. Oz Show.