The Three Faces of Autoimmunity
Autoimmunity is a form of friendly fire where your immune system attacks your own tissue. This condition has three faces or stages: Silent Autoimmunity, Reactive Autoimmunity, and Autoimmune Disease. Early on, signs of autoimmunity may be present without any symptoms or tissue damage. If caught early, steps can be taken keep your body’s autoimmune response from leading to autoimmune disease with tissue damage.
Autoimmunity: Friendly Fire
When your immune system is functioning properly, it’s able to distinguish foreign substances (non self) from your own tissue and cells (self). For example, when an infection occurs, one group of your immune cells identifies the bacteria or virus as a foreign threat and tags it so that your immune system can mount an attack, destroy the invading pathogen, and return your body back to a state of health. This process of distinguishing self from non-self can, however, malfunction. In autoimmunity, your immune system erroneously tags your own tissue as “foreign” and, thus, marks it for destruction.
Although the exact mechanisms by which autoimmunity develops are not fully known, several factors have been identified that can trigger the autoimmune process:
- Food: Allergies or sensitivities to foods such as gluten, dairy, soy, or eggs.
- Toxins: Chemical triggers include BPA, pesticides, heavy metals, and benzene
- Infections: Infectious triggers include Epstein Barr Virus, Herpes Virus, Candida, Lyme, and Hepatitis C.
- Lifestyle: Triggers include chronic stress, insomnia, lack of physical activity, smoking, and drug/alcohol use.
Autoimmunity: The 3 Faces
Autoimmunity has three faces, each of which reflect the different stages of the development of an autoimmune disease.
Your immune system starts to tag your own tissue as a threat, creating antibodies to various body parts including, but not limited to:
- Your Thyroid: Can progress to Hashimotos Thyroiditis
- Your Joints: Can progress to Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Your Pancreas: Can progress to Type 1 Diabetes
- Your Nerve Sheaths: Can progress to Multiple Sclerosis
- Your Gut: Can progress to Celiac Disease or Crohn’s Disease or Ulcerative Colitis
While you may not be experiencing symptoms at this time, antibodies are detectable in your blood. The functional medicine approach evaluates your risk for autoimmunity based on your health history and your family history. Since autoimmune disease can run in families, it’s important to identify if you are at risk so that you can take preventative measures. Moreover, if you have one autoimmune illness, you have an increased risk of developing a second autoimmune illness.
As the autoimmune attack on your tissue progresses, you begin to experience symptoms but have not yet developed a full-blown autoimmune disease with its characteristic tissue changes and blood markers.
However, antibody levels may have increased further, and initial tissue or organ damage can begin to occur.
Symptoms of autoimmune reactivity are often common health complaints that become chronic such as:
- Brain fog
- Digestive problems
- Dry mouth
- Skin rashes including eczema and acne
- Joint or muscle pain
- Weight loss or gain
If you are continually plagued by any of these symptoms, it’s important for your healthcare provider to assess you for autoimmunity. Because the early symptoms are often brushed off or attributed to other causes, a diagnosis of autoimmunity and effective care for it can be delayed for several years. That’s why it is important to see a functional medicine practitioner if you think your symptoms may be autoimmune in nature or if you have a family history of autoimmune disease.
At this stage, increased levels of antibodies are measurable in your bloodstream and your symptoms have become more severe with evidence of tissue destruction.
Autoimmunity: Steps You Can Take To Limit Progression
The good news is that you can not only improve your symptoms, but you can also reduce your chances of developing autoimmune disease. The functional medicine approach to autoimmunity involves identifying and removing the root causes of your autoimmunity. Since many of the triggers of autoimmunity are related to your environment, it’s important to develop a lifestyle that promotes healthy immune system including:
- Eating a whole food diet that avoids your food triggers as well as processed foods or foods high in sugar & corn syrup.
- Getting restful sleep regularly
- Staying physically active
- Effectively managing stress
- Detoxifying your body on a regular basis
- Addressing chronic viral or bacterial burdens
Autoimmune Disease: Prolonging Remission and Managing Relapses
If you have developed an autoimmune disease, you can experience remission. In this case, the same steps initially recommended to limit the progression of your autoimmunity apply to managing your autoimmune disease. Your functional medicine provider will provide you with a care plan that aims to improve your symptoms and halt or even reduce some of the damage done to your tissues.
- Understanding how your autoimmunity developed and developing a strategy to keep it in check is essential to optimizing your immune health and to recover from possible relapses. This management strategy includes:
- Anti-inflammatory food plan: Foods which you can eat that to prevent or recover from a relapse.
Supplement protocol: Custom supplement plan that promotes a balanced immune system.
Self-care plan: Specific daily activities such as quality sleep, physical activity, and supportive personal interaction that reduce stress and support healthy immune function.
- If you think you might be suffering from autoimmunity, it’s crucial for you to have your healthcare provider properly assess your symptoms. Standard lab testing and yearly checkups often fail to identify the signs of autoimmunity. The functional medicine approach is designed to not only check you for autoimmunity, but also effectively address and manage your autoimmune triggers.
For more information on how you can optimize your health and evaluate your risk for autoimmunity, please contact us.
Arango, Chapter 19 MT, et al. Infection and autoimmune diseases. Autoimmunity: From Bench to Bedside. Anaya JM, Shoenfeld Y, Rojas-Villarraga A, et al., editors. Bogota (Colombia): El Rosario University Press; 2013 Jul 18.
Autoimmune disease? 6 tips to master your healthcare | Dr. K. News (drknews.com)
Vodjani, A. et al. Environmental triggers and autoimmunity. Autoimmune Dis. 2014;2014:798029.
Vodjani, A, Vodjani, E. Food-Associated Autoimmunities: When Food Breaks Your Immune System.
A&G Press; Los Angeles:2019.
The contents of this blog are intended for educational purposes only. The information presented here is not a substitute for proper medical attention, diagnosis, or treatment by a qualified healthcare professional. Always seek the advice of your healthcare provider before starting or making any changes to an existing treatment plan, exercise program or dietary regimen, and before using nutritional supplements.
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