The Root Cause of Autoimmune Disease

March 5, 2013
2013_03_autoimmune

Autoimmune disease is a diagnosis that, unfortunately, I see in my practice every day as a naturopathic doctor (ND.) The best modality of care for autoimmune patients is a cooperative approach between MDs and NDs who can work together to determine the root cause of the disease and then treat the resulting side effects. This type of MD/ND co-management is ideal for a patient who can benefit from both preventative lifestyle changes and traditional medications as needed. There are many different naturopathic approaches to autoimmune disease that can be effective, including diet, food sensitivity testing and supplements.

Autoimmune disease is a diagnosis that, unfortunately, I see in my practice every day as a naturopathic doctor (ND.) The best modality of care for autoimmune patients is a cooperative approach between MDs and NDs who can work together to determine the root cause of the disease and then treat the resulting side effects. This type of MD/ND co-management is ideal for a patient who can benefit from both preventative lifestyle changes and traditional medications as needed. There are many different naturopathic approaches to autoimmune disease that can be effective, including diet, food sensitivity testing and supplements.

Why I Began To Treat Autoimmune Patients

As I studied to become an ND, there was a personal motivation behind my quest to treat patients with naturopathic methods. I had a passion for learning about autoimmune disease, and my goal was to open a practice someday that would specialize in these areas. Many years later, I did just that.

My late sister-in-law suffered from Scleroderma, a connective tissue disease that involves changes in the skin, blood vessels, muscles, and internal organs. The immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys healthy body tissue. She was diagnosed in her early 20’s and MDs predicted that she would probably only live a few years before the disease would lead to her demise.  She immediately began drug treatment, but reacted negatively to the medications. Most of the drugs’ side effects were worse than the disease symptoms.

She tossed all the pharmaceutical meds in the trash and sought help from a naturopathic physician in California where she lived. The ND began by placing her on a restricted diet, and like most people, I’m sure she thought that she could NEVER stick to the plan.  It was an insane diet of no dairy, no wheat, no sugar, and avoidance of all night shade vegetables such as potatoes, peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes. Tomatoes?!?! This Italian born and raised gal was not going to eat tomatoes?!

As her skin continued to show signs of the advancing disease, she finally decided to give up all of the foods that her ND had advised. She began to exercise as often as she could and used only the remedies suggested by the ND, unless she absolutely had to go to standard medicine for help. Her friends and family were terrified that she was seeking treatment from a naturopathic doctor and wasn’t taking all of the prescribed drugs from her MD. They surely must have thought she was taking a big risk with her disease management.

Once I enrolled in medical school, my sister-in-law began calling me for advice, then she would check with her own ND and proceed with a plan that she felt comfortable with. She did this because she was the manager of her own health care. She made the final decisions, knowing what was going to work best for her. Taking care of her health was a constant job that she never gave up on, and never stopped learning about. This is also a core value of naturopathic medicine.

Her Scleroderma over the next several years went into remission, or was at the very least, advancing at a much slower pace now. She was able to maintain her health in a way that was very different from the bleak prognosis that she was first given by her doctor. She lived over 20 years beyond the prediction of the MDs. She learned how to handle the ups and downs of the disease, with mostly natural remedies, until she ran into a situation that required standard medical help. She ended up taking the prescribed drug that she had shunned for more than 20 years. After a year on the medication, she passed away.

I felt then, as I feel now, that she made the right decision to go with a natural medicine route. Not that she didn’t need the standard medicine at one time or another, she did.  Unfortunately the MDs who cared for her back then were not open to discussing alternative options. I believe that she would still be with us today if her MDs had worked with her ND to determine to her healthcare plan. After all, it was the ND who had preventatively helped to keep her healthy for so many years.

Hopefully we’re closer to the day when MDs and NDs can work together on a cooperative plan for patients that utilizes the best of both approaches. MDs are slowly becoming more aware that naturopathic physicians do practice traditional medicine, but with some philosophies that are different than their own pharmaceutical-based training. NDs do recognize the need for pharmaceuticals, but only as a last resort. We also follow up after a prescription with the goal of determining when the drugs are no longer needed, instead of continuing them indefinitely.  This of course requires the commitment and cooperation of all involved.

Patients should manage their own health care, make their own decisions, and seek treatments that work for them. If they don’t find the answers they are looking for with a practitioner, they should keep looking. To paraphrase an old saying, “No one person, doctrine or religion has the monopoly on knowledge.” Patients with autoimmune conditions should keep this in mind as they begin the search and education for their own wellness.

Diet

 

 

Autoimmune patients need to know that what they are eating has a HUGE, let me say it again, HUGE, effect on their condition. Don’t believe the people who say that nutrition doesn’t matter. It’s only logical that the human body requires the ability to assimilate all of the available nutrients in order to function. This is especially true for patients who have health conditions, including autoimmune disease.

When I advise a patient to alter their diet in order to treat autoimmune issues, a frequent response that I hear is, “I’ve been eating this way my entire life, so how could food be an issue now?” Think about this statement.

If food plays even a small part of the equation, and the patient has been eating the same way their entire life, then doesn’t it make sense that diet is at least part of what is causing the damage that has led to a bigger health problem? 

The human body, when given the proper tools (such as nutrients), has the amazing ability to heal itself.  It is also amazing how much abuse it will take before breaking down and creating a condition that is going to be more difficult to repair down the road. 

With any chronic condition, the patient will improve by eating what helps them and eliminating foods that do not help, or cause further issues. For autoimmune patients, the first two foods to be eliminated are inevitably dairy and wheat. Just about every processed food has wheat in it. To avoid reading a ton of labels, the easiest way to handle wheat avoidance is to focus on eating plant based foods. No labels, no guessing, just eat whole foods.  As far as dairy, do not worry that eliminating it will cause a calcium deficiency.  Many cultures around the world don’t consume the same large servings of dairy that Americans consume.  Also, many whole foods contain calcium. If you’re still concerned, then you can always take a calcium supplement.

Other foods that should be excluded are sugar (of course) and red meat. There is also a group of vegetables called the night shades which are considered highly inflammatory and should be avoided. These include the peppers, tomatoes, potatoes and eggplant. Arthritis patients seem to have the most problems with the night shade varieties.

Food Sensitivity Test

 

 

Food sensitivity tests are available to help patients determine what other foods might be creating issues.  These are not food allergy tests to determine anaphylactic reactions, but rather food sensitivity tests that show what are called, “delayed reactions.” Delayed reactions to foods are notoriously difficult to track. It is hard to correlate a response to a food when there isn’t an immediate connection, and it takes time for the body to react. To many, it doesn’t seem to make sense that food sensitivity could be the culprit, but it can be.  The only true way to determine sensitivity is the elimination of it for at least two weeks, and preferably longer. A long-term condition won’t clear with two weeks of avoiding the possible offending food, but the patient will likely feel much better. That result  - is better than any test result.

Anyone can get started today and make significant changes in their health without going to the doctor, looking up the research, waiting for test results, or waiting for further/future research.  Having a completely wholesome and healthy diet will make all the difference in how a patient feels and how the body handles various conditions.  If a patient can’t handle the diet changes on their own, they need to seek help from someone who can guide them. This is a very important component of anyone’s healthcare, no matter what other treatment options they choose.

Supplements And Other Treatments

 

 

When working with autoimmune patients, each patient is different from the next. The supplements, botanicals, homeopathic remedies, acupuncture and medicine selected for each patient are all dependent on the individual and their symptoms. The modalities used by each practitioner can be very different as well.  Patients have many choices to make when managing their chronic conditions. There is a lot of recent research on the effects of vitamin D, DHEA and omega fatty acid for autoimmune disease. The list grows every year, as does the availability of information about new treatment protocols. Again, the patient is the key component in the equation for what the best heath plan will be for each individual.

The health plan also needs to reflect what the individual is able, or not able, to do. If a patient is not able to make dietary changes to help control the condition, then there is likely going to be a need for more nutritional supplements and possibly protein-fortified drinks. This will differ from a patient who can handle a nutrient rich diet, likes to juice, eats only organic foods and is willing to eliminate all processed foods.  Using other remedies usually does require professional direction.  There are so many options; patients need to work with a doctor who can help to narrow down to a plan that works for the individual. Otherwise, a patient who “tries various methods that they read about” could end up wasting a lot of money and time.

Clinical research can determine if a treatment or therapy will work for some patients, but it doesn’t mean it will work for all patients with the same condition. For example, the hormone DHEA may show promise for treatment… but what about patients who already have DHEA levels that are too high?  The individual factor is also critical when examining the risk of interactions with pharmaceuticals. Even when patients are working with both MDs and NDs, the patient should be aware of contraindications between remedies and pharmaceuticals. Why? Because doctors see so many patients everyday that they don’t remember what each patient is taking. It is very, very

important that you pay attention to what you are taking.  Many patients come into my office with prescribed drugs, and I always ask if they know why they are taking each prescription.  Many times, they don’t know what all the prescriptions are for.Treat The Cause(s) Not Just The SymptomsDigestion is almost always an issue with autoimmune patients and it needs to be addressed right away.  If you can’t process and assimilate nutrients from food or supplements, then getting any remedies into the system is going to take much longer. Systemic treatment requires a systemic approach. Therefore, it is important that the body’s digestive system work in the patients favor, instead of against them.

Ruling out other conditions such as Lyme disease is also important. This has become a fairly consistent test for autoimmune patients now.  When I first began my practice, I was one of the few who ordered Lyme tests.  Now, more often than not, the patient comes in with Lyme Disease results that were tested for early on, usually prior to the diagnosis of an autoimmune condition.

In consideration of the mind body connection, NDs often inquire about the patients’ emotional well-being and stress levels, past and present. Often, a trigger can be found in these areas.  Helping the patient to understand the significance of these types of triggers, and determining how to resolve them, is another step in the direction of better health.

The complex nature of autoimmune conditions usually requires more than one practitioner to assist in a patients’ overall wellness.  Working with doctors who appreciate the needs of a patient, and who are actively seeking and utilizing more than one modality at a time, can be an essential part of treatment.  I advise patients to tell their MDs that they are seeking other treatment options that the MD may not be familiar with.  Hopefully we can all work together to get a protocol that works for the patient. When an MD discourages a patient who explains that there are other specialists involved in treatment, the patient will not share essential information with that doctor. This is clearly not the best scenario for the patients or the doctors.  Therefore it is important for all medical professionals to appreciate the needs of the patient, and what each practitioner brings to the case, as this is the optimal plan that will benefit the patient.

Submitted by Dr. Ann Aresco of ProNatural Physicians in Kensington. To learn more about naturopathic medicine, or to find a licensed naturopathic doctor near you, visit ProNaturalPhysicians.com. All ProNatural Physicians Group NDs are providers for most major insurance carriers. ProNatural Physicians Group, LLC is a network of naturopathic doctors that serve patients throughout Connecticut. The member-based organization provides administrative support such as insurance coding for service reimbursement and insurance credentialing.

Interested NDs may contact Dr. Ann Aresco for membership information at www.ProNaturalPhysicians.com, ProNaturalPhysicians@comcast.net , 860-505-0702.

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