Understanding autoimmune diseases, the potential causes, and risk factors will help us better manage the associated symptoms. Symptoms range from fatigue to organ failure making understanding these risk factors essential. Autoimmune disease affects more than 24 million individuals in the USA, and the prevalence is growing. This article comprehensively examines the mechanisms and factors leading to autoimmune disease. It will also provide insight into functional medicine approaches to addressing autoimmunity, including labs to assess the contributing influences and various treatment considerations. As a result, we hope to present multiple functional methods to manage these conditions for improved outcomes.
What is Autoimmune Disease?
Autoimmune diseases encompass a range of conditions characterized by the immune system attacking the body's own healthy cells, tissues, and organs instead of defending against foreign invaders. This misguided immune response leads to chronic inflammation, tissue damage, and potential organ failure. The effects of autoimmune diseases can manifest in various body parts, including the joints, skin, thyroid gland, nervous system, and blood vessels. There are more than 80 identified types of autoimmune conditions. These conditions include rheumatoid arthritis (RA), Lupus, multiple sclerosis (MS), and type 1 diabetes, each with distinct symptoms such as inflammation, pain, and organ damage.
Living with an autoimmune disease can significantly impact a person's quality of life, as symptoms can fluctuate and affect different aspects of daily life. However, early diagnosis and proper treatment can help manage symptoms to prevent further damage. Individuals with autoimmune diseases may need to make lifestyle adjustments, such as reducing stress, engaging in regular exercise, and maintaining a nutritious diet, to effectively manage their symptoms and avoid flare-ups. If an autoimmune disease is suspected, it's recommended that you consult a healthcare professional for proper evaluation and management. It is worth noting that while autoreactive antibodies can be found in most healthy individuals, it is chronic immune dysregulation over time that leads to the development of autoimmune diseases. Research has indicated that autoantibodies may be present in the blood for a period ranging from 3 months to 19 years before the onset of active autoimmune disease. The presentation of active autoimmune disease can vary among individuals depending on the type and location of the autoimmune activity.
What Causes Autoimmune Disease?
Research suggests that it's a combination of genetic and environmental factors that cause autoimmune conditions. However, the precise cause still needs to be understood at this time. These conditions often have a family history component, and some genes have been identified. Specific genetic factors vary depending on the condition. While genetics play a role in predisposition, environmental triggers and lifestyle factors contribute significantly to developing autoimmune diseases.
Environmental factors such as infections, exposure to environmental toxins, or medications may also trigger autoimmune disease in genetically predisposed individuals. For example, infections caused by certain viruses and bacteria have been linked to the development of autoimmune diseases like RA and MS. It's also possible that exposure to certain chemicals and pollutants can also trigger autoimmune diseases. Environmental toxins, like heavy metals and toxic solvents, can induce epigenetic changes and disrupt immune function.
Additionally, antibiotics and antiseizure medications have been linked with the onset of autoimmune diseases. Overall, the underlying causes are complex and associated with multiple factors. More research is required in the future to figure out the exact causes of these conditions.
Risk Factors for Autoimmune Disease
Many risk factors contribute to the development of autoimmune disease and are connected with the possible underlying causes. Genetic factors can play significant roles in the increased risk of autoimmune disease, as having a family history is often associated. Environmental factors also play a part, including exposure to certain infections, environmental toxins, and medications. Gender may also be a risk factor. Women have been shown in studies to have a higher prevalence of autoimmunity.
Other risk factors contributing to autoimmunity include lifestyle and body system imbalances. Chronic stress can trigger autoimmune responses and inflammation. Intestinal permeability, leaky gut, and imbalances in the gut microbiome can further contribute to inflammation and immune dysregulation. Systemic inflammation and imbalances in the immune system, particularly abnormal T-cell response, play a crucial role in autoimmune conditions. Hormonal imbalances, especially in thyroid function, can impact the immune system and contribute to autoimmune disease. These imbalances can lead to the immune system attacking healthy tissues and cause chronic inflammation seen in autoimmune conditions. It's imperative to keep in mind that just because you have these risk factors doesn't necessarily mean you will develop autoimmune disease, as the development of autoimmunity is more complex than just having the risk factors.
Symptoms of Autoimmune Disease
Autoimmune diseases can cause various symptoms, depending on the specific condition and affected organs. Some common symptoms include:
- Pain, redness, and swelling in the affected areas caused by autoimmunity-related inflammation.
- Persistent tiredness, weakness, and difficulties in concentration.
- Rashes, hives, sensitivity to sunlight, and skin lesions.
- Abdominal pain, bloating, and discomfort.
- Numbness, tingling, and weakness.
- Severe cases such as liver damage and cirrhosis may lead to impaired organ function.
These symptoms can vary among individuals and specific autoimmune diseases. Consulting with a qualified healthcare provider is crucial for accurate diagnosis and appropriate management.
Functional Medicine Labs That Can Help Individualize Treatment for Autoimmune Disease
Functional medicine labs offer a range of tests to assess the underlying causes of autoimmune diseases, providing a comprehensive understanding of an individual's health. These tests help identify the pieces of the puzzle that contribute to autoimmunity.
Key functional medicine labs for autoimmune assessment include:
Comprehensive Stool Test
This stool test evaluates the gut microbiome, examining bacteria's diversity, composition, and response. Imbalances in the microbiome can contribute to autoimmune conditions.
Anti-Nuclear Antibodies (ANA)
The ANA test assesses the presence of antibodies associated with autoimmune diseases. A positive result can indicate autoimmunity. However, further lab testing may be needed to confirm the diagnosis.
C-Reactive Protein (CRP)
CRP test measures inflammation levels. CRP serves as a marker for immune activity and can help screen for autoimmune disorders.
Comprehensive Thyroid Panel
This panel is crucial for autoimmune conditions targeting the thyroid, such as Hashimoto's or Graves' disease. It will assess for antibodies associated with these conditions.
Food Sensitivities/Food Allergies
This toxin screen evaluates environmental toxin exposure through a urine sample, shedding light on potential causal factors for autoimmune diseases that can affect the thyroid, immunity, and gut.
This test identifies nutritional deficiencies common in autoimmune diseases due to factors like malabsorption, ensuring adequate support for the body's needs.
Genetic tests offer insights into inflammation, detoxification, and hormonal aspects of health. This information helps us understand how genetics can influence body system functions and susceptibility to certain conditions.
Testing for antibody responses to common infections associated with autoimmune nervous system conditions aids in evaluating their potential role in autoimmunity.
These functional medicine labs provide valuable information to practitioners, enabling a comprehensive assessment of the contributing factors to autoimmune diseases and guiding personalized treatment approaches.
Conventional Treatment for Autoimmune Disease
Conventional treatments focus on symptom management and trying to diminish the progression of the disease through medications. Some medications include anti-inflammatory drugs, immunosuppressants, and disease-modifying medications to reduce inflammation and decrease the immune response. While nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are used to alleviate pain and inflammation. Other medications include Disease-Modifying Antirheumatic Drugs (DMARDs). DMARDS have shown promise in slowing the progression of certain autoimmune diseases. Immunosuppressants are another medication used to help prevent the immune system from attacking healthy tissue. These pharmaceutical interventions can be effective in symptom control. However, they can cause many side effects and may not be effective for everyone.
Functional Medicine Treatment for Autoimmune Diseases
Functional medicine treatment for autoimmune diseases involves a comprehensive approach. It includes integrative methods such as personalized nutritional planning and the use of clinically relevant supplements to address the underlying imbalances that are contributing to the risk factors or causes involved with autoimmune conditions. Here are some functional medicine approaches to consider.
Nutrition for Autoimmune Disease
Integrative nutritional approaches for managing autoimmune diseases often include reducing inflammation, supporting gut health, and promoting nutrient density. One such method is utilizing a specific diet called the autoimmune protocol (AIP) diet. The AIP diet focuses on eliminating inflammatory foods often associated with autoimmune triggers, such as grains, legumes, dairy, refined sugar, and processed foods, while incorporating nutrient-rich foods that provide essential minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants. It emphasizes non-starchy vegetables like leafy greens, broccoli, carrots, and sweet potatoes, which are all rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. It also includes high-quality proteins such as grass-fed meats, wild-caught fish, and organ meats, which provide essential amino acids for tissue repair and immune support. Healthy fats like avocado, olive oil, and coconut oil, known for their anti-inflammatory properties, are also included.
The AIP diet is intended as a temporary therapeutic approach, followed for a specific period before gradually reintroducing foods and monitoring symptoms. This diet should be part of a comprehensive approach to managing autoimmunity, including other lifestyle modifications, evidence-based supplementation, and other integrative interventions to support overall health and well-being.
Supplements and Herbs That Increase Immunity
The following supplements are helpful for boosting immunity:
Vitamin D is crucial in regulating the immune system, and it has been observed that many individuals with autoimmune conditions have insufficient levels of this vitamin. Research indicates that supplementing with 8000 IUs of vitamin D daily can have immune-regulating effects, improve autoimmune symptoms, and reduce disease activity. Ensuring adequate vitamin D levels may be beneficial for individuals with autoimmune conditions.
Probiotic supplements play a vital role in supporting a balanced and beneficial gut microbiome, which enhances the integrity of the epithelial barrier, reduces inflammation, and regulates localized and systemic immune responses. By promoting a healthy composition of bacteria in the gut, probiotics have immune-modulating effects and contribute to improved immune function in the context of autoimmunity.
Zinc is a mineral that can help autoimmunity in multiple ways. Some benefits include reducing inflammation, supporting the immune system, and improving gut function, which can improve symptoms related to conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and Chron's disease.
In conjunction with probiotics, antimicrobial herbs can effectively target bacterial and fungal overgrowth, contributing to improved immune responses in autoimmune conditions. Berberine has demonstrated the ability to suppress the production of inflammatory cytokines, alleviate systemic inflammation, and stimulate butyrate synthesis. This beneficial short-chain fatty acid supports the integrity of the intestinal barrier. By incorporating antimicrobial herbs such as berberine, individuals can enhance immune regulation and mitigate the impact of microbial imbalances on autoimmune disorders.
Supplements and Herbs Used for Fatigue
This supplement is specifically helpful for reducing fatigue:
A combination of membrane phospholipids, CoQ10, NADH, L-Carnitine, and α-ketoglutaric acid called ATP fuel was shown to improve fatigue and mitochondrial function in chronic conditions, including autoimmune disease. The dosing of each supplement consisted of membrane phospholipids (2000 mg/d), CoQ10 (35 mg/d), microencapsulated NADH (35 mg/d), l-carnitine (160 mg/d), α-ketoglutaric acid (180 mg/d). Although all these supplements individually were shown to improve fatigue in other chronic conditions, it was the combination of all these supplements that showed an improvement in autoimmune diseases.
Supplements and Herbs Used To Reduce Systemic Inflammation
Below are supplements that can be used to reduce systemic inflammation:
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids have multiple benefits. These fatty acids can reduce inflammatory markers and modulate an immune response which can help support autoimmune conditions. Supplementation with Omega-3s can reduce the relapse in these conditions.
Curcumin is a popular herb and is often used to reduce inflammation. Clinical studies show it can downregulate inflammatory responses in people with autoimmune conditions. Curcumin can support the microbiome balance, further modulating inflammation.
Saccharomyces is a type of probiotic that has anti-inflammatory effects and can regulate inflammation in autoimmune conditions like Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD). It has been shown to inhibit proinflammatory cytokines, and the recommended dosing protocol for conditions like IBD is 750-1000 mg for seven weeks to 6 months.
Ginger is commonly used worldwide and contains more than 400 different compounds. One of the significant benefits of this herb is that it can reduce inflammation by inhibiting proinflammatory responses. The dosing recommendation for ginger as a supplement for general inflammation is 1,000 to 3,000 mg per day for 2 to 3 months.
It is essential to understand that some supplements and herbs can aggravate autoimmunity. There are several supplements and herbs that are usually used for fatigue or immune function that can be harmful in autoimmune patients. For instance, certain herbal supplements, such as echinacea and licorice root, can potentially trigger autoimmune flares. Research has also indicated that herbs like Spirulina, Chlorella, and alfalfa can be immunostimulatory and activate specific immune cells that aggravate autoimmune conditions such as Lupus. Therefore, it's essential to exercise caution when using this approach with autoimmunity, and these should be monitored under the guidance of a qualified functional medicine doctor.
Autoimmune disease can be debilitating for individuals living with any of the 80 associated chronic conditions. Symptoms depend on the associated body system and can range from minor pain and swelling to impaired organ function. Although the causes are not understood, some potential causes involve a combination of genetics and environmental triggers. The risk factors of autoimmune disease include lifestyle and imbalances in the body systems, such as chronic stress and hormonal imbalances. Functional medicine labs such as a toxin analysis can help assess underlying factors contributing to autoimmune symptoms. At the same time, personalized nutrition and evidence-based supplementation can be helpful as an integrative approach to address those underlying factors. These integrative methods can benefit those seeking a more holistic and customized way to manage autoimmune conditions.