Autoimmune disease is becoming a serious problem in this country. The National Institute of Health estimates that 23.5 million Americans currently suffer from an autoimmune disease, and some sources estimate that this number is closer to 50 million. To give you a comparison, cancer only affects around 9 million Americans, and heart disease around 22 million. On top of that, autoimmune disease is one of the top 10 leading causes of death in females up to age 64.
While these numbers are continuing to increase, conventional medicine has not been able to come up with any good solutions. Many autoimmune processes are treated with strong immunosuppressant drugs that do nothing to stop the disease progression, and at the same time have significant long-term side effects (www.aarda.org). The bottom line is that there are not a lot of good answers out there for the millions of people who suffer from autoimmune disease.
This topic hits home for me because when I was in my early 20’s, I was one of those people. After feeling vaguely unwell for a couple of years, my health drastically deteriorated a point where I could no longer be enrolled in college or live on my own. After being evaluated by a large variety of medical doctors, I diagnosed with multiple autoimmune conditions. While I was glad to have a name for my symptoms, I was not so happy with my treatment choices. There was no medication available to stop my body from attacking itself, and most of the drugs that would help “manage” my symptoms were not recommended by my doctors because they felt the side effects would actually be more unpleasant than the symptoms I was experiencing. I was only 22 when I learned that I was expected to suffer for the rest of my life, and the news was absolutely devastating.
With nothing to lose at that point, I decided to try one of those “crazy” naturopathic doctors that I had heard about on the internet. And slowly, over the next couple of years, I began to learn from first-hand experience how the body actually works and how to stimulate it to heal. I learned that there are no quick fixes and magic potions in the treatment of any type of chronic disease, but there are real, time-tested and verified ways to promote optimal functioning in the body. While my health (and as I have now learned everyone’s health) will always be a “work in progress”, naturopathic medicine has freed me from chronic pain and given me the strength and energy needed to complete medical school and open my own naturopathic medical practice. I now get to help people who are where I once was, and I use the exact same principles and techniques that worked for me.
What exactly have I found to be effective in the treatment of autoimmune disease? It really comes down to practicing “individualized medicine”. There is no one-size-fits-all treatment for any condition, and that is why the pharmaceutical companies continue to struggle to “cure” diseases. But there are some common threads in how to treat any type of autoimmune condition effectively. I have outlined them below in five very important steps.
1. Decrease Inflammation Levels
Most people with autoimmune disease have high levels of inflammation in the body. This is often reflected in a patient’s bloodwork as an elevated ESR (erythrocyte sedimentation rate) and/or CRP (C-reactive protein). Bringing down the level of inflammation is vitally important. One of the best ways to do this is through diet. Quite simply, eating foods that your body is sensitive to creates inflammation in the body, and avoiding these foods helps to bring down inflammation. Unfortunately, despite the current media advertisements, there is no “autoimmune diet” that works for everyone. This is because everyone has different genetics and different heritages, and therefore different foods that they react positively and negatively to. Individualized genetic testing for food sensitivities allows me to give each patient a specific and highly effective personalized nutrition plan that helps to lower inflammation levels as well as improve the digestion and absorption of vital nutrients.
In addition to diet, supplements can be very helpful in lowering inflammation levels. Studies show that omega-3 fish oil is highly beneficial in lowering specific inflammatory factors in the body. Many different herbs can lower inflammation as well, with some of the most common ones being turmeric, licorice, ginger, and milk thistle. It is important to remember that herbs are powerful medicinal substances, and they should only be used when prescribed by a licensed naturopath or herbalist who has taken a full health history and is informed of all your medical conditions and medications.
2. Support the Liver
Toxemia is old-school naturopathic concept that is not discussed today to the extent that it should be. Toxemia defined as, “the generation and accumulation of metabolic wastes and exogenous toxins in the body”. Toxins may accumulate in the body for many different reasons, but two of the most common reasons are inadequate digestive processes and environmental exposure to xenobiotics. When toxins build up in the body, they create inflammation, which can then either trigger or exacerbate an autoimmune condition.
I find that most of my patients with autoimmune disease greatly benefit from gentle liver detoxification protocols. That being said, this population may experience negative effects from the more extreme types of detoxification such as juice fasting and water fasting.
3. Mental-Emotional Release
While the cause of autoimmune disease is usually multifactorial, many autoimmune patients report a period of physical or psychological stress before the onset of their symptoms. While stress or trauma can be a trigger for several different types of chronic disease, there seems to be an even bigger correlation with autoimmune disease. It is important to mention that the stressful event may or may not be something that the patient even perceives as stress. It could be something such as viral or bacterial infection, a pregnancy, training for a marathon, a move to a new city, or a new job. Of course, it could also be something more severe like an abusive relationship, car accident, divorce, or a death in the family.
One of the most essential naturopathic principles is to find and treat the cause of disease. Why is this so important? Because if the cause is still there, it is impossible to get rid of the effects (i.e. disease symptoms). We may be able to mask symptoms through the use of medications, supplements, and even dietary changes, but when these treatments are stopped, the symptoms will come right back. To me this is not a cure, but simply a palliation.
For this reason, I highly encourage my autoimmune patients to find mental-emotional release techniques that work for them. While counseling and journaling is often helpful, I have found that EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) is highly effective in breaking up and releasing the negative energy patterns held in the body after a trauma. For this reason, I have received extensive training in this modality and use it often in the treatment of my patients. For more information and studies on EFT, please visit: http://eft.mercola.com/ and http://innersource.net/ep/images/stories/downloads/Acupoint_Stimulation_Research_Review.pdf
4. Assess the Adrenals
Likely in relation to the above discussion on stress, I find that many autoimmune patients have some sort of adrenal imbalance. The adrenals are two tiny organs that sit on top of your kidneys and secrete many important hormones, two of which are adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones are released when the body senses that it is under stress. While our bodies actually thrive and function best on relatively short periods of stress that are interspaced with periods of rest and recovery, chronically high or low levels of cortisol and adrenaline can lead to all sorts of health problems, including autoimmune disease.
The most accurate way to test adrenal hormone status is through the saliva. Salivary testing measures the biologically active component of these hormones, and, because it can be done at home, it allows for precise measurement of hormones at different times of the day. This gives the physician a complete picture of how much hormone the body is actually able to utilize and how that hormone level fluctuates based on bodily rhythms. This is especially important with the adrenal glands because they do not secrete hormones at a constant level throughout the day. Cortisol is released in a cycle, with the highest value in the morning and the lowest value at night (when the adrenals are functioning properly). This 24-hour cycle is what is known as the circadian rhythm, which is shown below.
When a patient comes to my office with an autoimmune diagnosis and/or symptoms that suggest an adrenal imbalance, running a salivary adrenal hormone profile is one of the first things that I do. This allows me to compare the patient’s cortisol rhythm throughout the day to a normal circadian rhythm. Depending on the severity and length of the stress, cortisol levels could be either high or low at one or many different times of the day. Because of their intimate correlation with cortisol levels, the profile also tests DHEA, progesterone, and fasting and non-fasting insulin. This information allows for very specific treatment based on exactly what is going on the patient. While every treatment is individual, here are some treatments that I use to treat adrenal imbalances in my autoimmune patients.
- Prescribing DHEA, cortisol, progesterone, and/or testosterone supplements to directly combat a deficiency.
- Prescribing vitamins, minerals, and/or glandular products that provide cofactors and ‘fuel’ needed for proper adrenal functioning.
- Prescribing herbal combinations that both tonify and strengthen adrenal function or “cool down” overactive glands.
- Supplementing with the serotonin precursor molecule 5-HTP and/or melatonin.
- Using homeopathic remedies to re-regulate the body and stimulate proper adrenal function.
- Providing dietary advice on foods that both “feed the adrenals” and combat blood sugar imbalances caused by stress.
- Teaching mind/body techniques that modulate the stress response.
In my practice, I use homeopathy as the backbone for all my treatments. The reason for this is simple: out of all the different treatment modalities I have ever worked with or experienced, I have found that homeopathic treatment provides the best and most long-lasting results. Homeopathy is a system of medicine that was developed in Germany by Dr. Samuel Hahnemann over 200 years ago, and it is currently the fastest growing system of medicine in the world. While conventional medicine treats disease and all the symptoms that disease comes with, homeopathy treats the sick person individually. This may seem like a subtle difference at first, but it is actually profound. By treating the person, you can stimulate that person’s body to begin healing itself.
While stimulating self-healing is always important, with autoimmune disease I find it is absolutely crucial. There are many different reasons for this. First of all, no one knows exactly why the body starts to create auto-antibodies that attack its own tissues, and there are no medications that can selectively “turn off” this self-destructive mechanism. While homeopathy cannot “bring back to life” any tissues that have been destroyed by antibodies, it can be effective in lowering antibody levels, sometimes to the point of zero*. Secondly, there is evidence that some autoimmune diseases may have an infectious trigger. Whether the infection is viral, bacterial, or fungal, homeopathy can enhance the body’s immune response and help it fight infections without the use of strong and possibly ineffective drugs. For more information on homeopathy and the immune system, check out this article: http://www.homeopathic.com/Articles/Introduction_to_Homeopathy/Homeopathic_Medicine_and_the_Immune_System.html.
I would have never discovered homeopathy if I hadn’t experienced my own health problems, and let me tell you, I tried almost everything else first! The beauty of doing it that way was that I was able to personally experience the difference between having my symptoms “band-aided” by conventional treatment, and then feeling what it was like have my body literally wake up and start healing itself. While there is a time and a place for drugs and palliative treatment, after experiencing its effects personally, I will always have a special love for homeopathy. For more information on homeopathy, please visit http://www.beyondflatearth.com/.
The bottom line is this: despite what the conventional world tells you, an autoimmune diagnosis does not have to be a death sentence. While every patient and every condition is different, there are natural methods for improving health that have been time-tested and confirmed both in clinical practice and in scientific research. If you would like more information on the natural treatment of your autoimmune condition, please call Horizon Natural Medicine at 602-359-2893.
*While homeopathy can be effective in lowering antibody levels, every case is unique. No matter what healing modality or medication is used, physicians can never guarantee a positive response to treatment. To discuss your particular health condition with Dr. Katie, please call the office for a 15 minute free consult.
- Posted by Dr Katie Nuckolls
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