Autoimmune (AI) disease is exploding in America. At this point, these disorders are the third leading cause of morbidity and mortality in the industrialized world, surpassed only by cancer and heart disease.1 Approximately 8 percent of the United States population is affected by autoimmune disease, which means about 24 million people. To provide a context to evaluate the impact of autoimmune diseases, cancer affected approximately 9 million people and heart disease affected approximately 22 million people in the United States in 2006.
What is Autoimmune Disease?
Your immune system is a series of cells and chemical messengers that keep the body safe from infection and help with the healing process. It is highly sophisticated and was carefully designed to be able to recognize YOU from anything that is not you. We call it Self vs. Non-Self. These cells are like the Special Forces of your body, very deadly and highly trained. Bacteria, parasites, virus’ and cancer cells are being destroyed constantly in your body by this silent assassin to keep you safe.
Unfortunately, for many different reasons, your immune system can be thrown out of balance and become dysregulated. No longer can it distinguish between Self and Non-Self and it starts to attack your body! Remember, this system was trained to fight relentlessly until its foe is completely gone. It can use special messengers to recruit more attackers all the time and your body is happy to supply them, thinking it is under attack. The problem is that you may have developed antibodies against your own thyroid, gastrointestinal tract or even brain! The type of tissue that is destroyed in this process determines the type of autoimmune disease. There are many different AI diseases that have been identified, such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA), multiple sclerosis (MS), lupus (SLE), Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis (UC), Type I Diabetes, Sjogren’s syndrome, scleroderma and celiac disease (CD). Autoimmune diseases can affect virtually every site in the body. At least 15 diseases are known to be the direct result of an autoimmune response, and circumstantial evidence links more than 80 conditions to autoimmunity.3
Autoimmune Disease is Usually Progressive Over Time
There is no cure for most autoimmune diseases. Autoimmune patients generally suffer more and more symptoms of tissue destruction over time. Conventional treatment is focused on suppressing the immune response and controlling symptoms but little is offered to the patient with regard to modulating the autoimmunity and avoiding triggers that cause flare-ups of the autoimmune response. As a result, AI conditions tend to cause more and more tissue destruction over time, eventually leading to severe tissue damage and organ failure in many cases.
Most Autoimmune Diseases Remain Undiagnosed
“Collectively autoimmune diseases have been identified in about 24 million people in the U.S., and only 1/3 are diagnosed. That means about 72 million people have an AI disease. It’s not looked for. Our system waits until the signs and symptoms are severe enough with organ failure and irreversible damage before we identify it.”4
Progression of Autoimmune Disease
Another thing we know about autoimmune disease is that when people have antibodies against one known tissue type, there is likely other antibodies against other tissue as well. In other words, when a person is diagnosed with AI disease, they are at high risk of developing other autoimmune diseases during their lifetime. It is very rare that only one tissue type is targeted by the immune system. When we look at people with AI disease, they may have multiple types of tissue being targeted that have not yet been identified. For example, the literature shows people with thyroid autoimmune disease have over a 50% chance of being affected by another autoimmune disease.5
Conventional Treatment of Autoimmune Disease: Steroids and Other Immune-Suppressing Medication
People with autoimmune reactions usually don’t get diagnosed and don’t get any management or support until they get diagnosed with AI disease in conventional medicine. Once patients suffer sufficient tissue destruction to be diagnosed with AI disease, what does conventional healthcare have to offer? The standard of care is steroids and other immune-suppressing drugs for many autoimmune conditions. Steroids are usually not used in the initial stages because the adverse and damaging effects on the body make it not worth the risks. Some of the side effects of steroids include: immune suppression, bone loss, neurodegeneration, insulin-related issues and blood sugar dysregulation, epithelial thinning, catabolic states, etc. So patients aren’t given steroids until their condition has become severe and progressed. If the tissue destruction is severe enough, doctors may use a bone marrow-suppressing drug to shut down the immune system completely or they may take out the thymus in some of the more severe conditions such as myasthenia gravis.
There really is little hope in the conventional model of healthcare for patients with autoimmunity since the focus of treatment is suppression of the immune system which is costly. These immuno-suppressive agents come with significant adverse effects, including risk of various infections and inability to fight infection when needed.
Functional Medicine: A Better Option for Autoimmune Disease
When you look at the dysregulation of the immune system that occurs in autoimmunity, we know that there are different systems involved in the targeting of tissue for destruction. Autoimmunity is a multi-variant process and the goal should be to calm down the autoimmunity, specifically the immune response against self-tissue. There are several innate regulating systems of immune function that begin to dysregulate in autoimmunity. In functional medicine, we attempt to modulate the autoimmunity by regulating these various systems through diet, lifestyle and nutritional supplements.
- The Journal of Immunology,2005, 175: 4119–4126.
- NIH. Autoimmune Diseases Coordinating Comm. Autoimmune Diseases Research Plan. 2006
- NAT CLIN PRAC GASTRO & HEP SEPT 2005 VOL 2 NO 9
- Jeffrey S. Bland, Ph.D.; Metagenics Educational Programs. 2006
- ACTA BIO MEDICA 2003; 74; 9-33