It’s finally happened. Your doctor has put a name to your illness. The years of not feeling quite right; of fatigue, achiness and brain fog finally have an explanation. And it all makes sense.
You have an autoimmune disease.
Maybe it’s multiple sclerosis, or celiac disease, or lupus, or rheumatoid arthritis, or something else. Whatever it is in your case, you have a name, and you’ve longed for answers for so long that part of you feels like everything is going to be okay now. A diagnosis means a treatment plan…doesn’t it?
You are not alone in your diagnosis, or your thoughts about it. There are 25 million Americans with an autoimmune diagnosis, and another 50 million people that have not felt well for years, with symptoms of pain and fatigue and auto-antibodies but who do not yet have enough damage to their bodies to make an actual diagnosis.
I know most people gloss over numbers like that because it’s not easy to relate to how it applies to “me.” But consider that 75 million means far more Americans have immune cells that inflict damage to their bodies than have any type of cancer (approximately 25 million) or heart disease (also approximately 25 million).
The rates of autoimmune diagnoses have sharply climbed over the last two decades. Currently, more than 140 diseases have officially been classified as autoimmune diseases, and the number is steadily rising with each passing year as we learn more about autoimmunity and its ravaging effects on the body.
Your doctor might be able to give you a name for your disease. We’ve categorized many, but not all, autoimmune conditions. Some we still call “Unspecified.” Your doctor can also tell you that an autoimmune problem means that your immune cells are damaging your healthy cells and organs in a mistaken attempt to rid the body of something it sees as other than itself. Scientists don’t know the precise reason for this, but they do know the result: progressive damage to vital organs (like the kidneys, heart, brain and more) and tissues of the body (like the joints and skin).
Furthermore, your doctor will give you a treatment plan: medication that blocks the immune cells, or cuts off a specific step in the immune pathways, in order to slow the damage being inflicted by the immune cells on the body. The first drugs used to suppress the immune cells were a mild poison to the rapidly dividing immune cells that made them less vigorous in their attack on the self.
We are developing more potent and effective drugs now; drugs that block specific steps in the immune cell pathways. These new autoimmune drugs are part of a multibillion dollar industry, and they aren’t cheap. With prices ranging from $1,000 to $4,500 a month or more, many people have a hard time affording them, and some cannot afford them at all.
The drugs also come with side effects. Since the immune system is a vital part of regulating how our bodies work, these drugs also come with a long list of side effects ranging from mildly annoying fatigue, mouth sores and heart palpitations, to life threatening infections and more.
But there is more to know about autoimmune disease. Much more.
And here’s what doctors won’t tell you about your disease.
Unless you’re seeing a function medicine doctor, your doctor won’t tell you that hundreds, perhaps thousands of studies have demonstrated that all autoimmune conditions are a complex interaction of a person’s genes – that is, their DNA – and the environment.
Each individual gene known to increase the risk of an autoimmune condition increases that risk by only 1 to 2 percent. The rest of the risk comes from the interaction between those the genes and the environment.
This is significant. It means that autoimmunity has a genetic component, as we have long suspected … but it is very small. It also means it has a major lifestyle component.
And that’s the good news for you, so it’s a shame more doctors aren’t spreading the word. Seventy to 95 percent of the risk for getting autoimmune conditions (as well as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer) is due to what you do: What you eat, how much you move, how you live your life, how much support you have, and what you are exposed to every day, from agricultural chemicals and industrial toxins to pollution.
The potent disease modifying drugs doctors prescribe so easily will not address those environmental factors that set you up to develop your chronic disease. They won’t address a diet that fails to provide the necessary vitamins, minerals and fats that your cells require to keep your body healthy. Nor will those medications do anything about the solvents, pesticides, mercury, lead, arsenic, or any of the other toxins stored in your fat that dramatically increase the reactivity of your immune cells, making whatever disease you have more difficult to control.
Nor will medication increase your activity level to help you maintain your strength and endurance and keep your body’s natural detoxification systems moving and functional. Nor will medication address the food sensitivities and reactivities that are contributing to your life-altering symptoms. Nor will medication address your chronic high levels of circulating stress hormones.
All these factors can prevent your cells from working optimally, increasing inflammation, and worsening your disease symptoms. All these factors increase the probability of developing an autoimmune problem in the first place, and al these factors increase the severity of the disease once it has developed. And your expensive medication will do nothing about it.
But you can do something about it. I have seen it time and time again in my clinics. When patients change their diets, alter their exercise patterns (or lack thereof), reduce their toxic exposure, and actually do something about their chronic stress, I see reduced symptoms, increased energy, improved mental clarity, and decreased need for medication. Addressing your personal environmental factors is the most potent intervention available for addressing the impactful and progressive symptoms of autoimmune disease.
And this treatment is free, or mostly free.
The health and vitality you long for requires an optimal environment for your cells. That means you must:
- Consume a maximally nutrient-dense diet that avoids foods to which you react negatively.
- Reduce your toxin exposure.
- Activate and use your muscles.
- Control your stress hormones.
- Maintaining or building connections with supportive people.
I have found that taking these inexpensive and comparatively small steps are the most effective way to reduce symptoms of nearly every chronic disease that afflicts modern society. It is time that we stop blaming our genes for our poor health, using medication as a crutch so we don’t have to change our lifestyles, and address the 70 to 95 percent of the reason why became ill in the first place.