Autoimmune Disease and Naturopathic Treatment

It was not very long ago that I became interested in Naturopathic Medicine. I always thought if I was ever to become a Naturopathic Physician I would strive to have a specialty in autoimmune disease and allergies. Autoimmune diseases were interesting to me particularly because my sister in law was suffering from Scleroderma and her health began to improve greatly after seeking Naturopathic Medicine in California, where she was living. She had been diagnosed when she was in her early twenties and told by MD’s, that she only had a few years to live before this disease would inevitably lead to her demise. The drug treatments began immediately, but she reacted negatively to everything she was given.

She tossed all the pharmaceutical meds into the trash and sought help from a Naturopathic Physician, who began by placing her on a restricted diet. Although I didn’t know her at that time, I’m sure she thought she could NEVER eat the way he was telling her to. It was a radical diet stripped of all dairy, wheat, and sugar; while avoiding all nightshade vegetables (potatoes, peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes).  As her skin continued to show signs of advancing disease she gave up all these foods, exercised as often as she could, and vowed to use only the remedies the ND suggested unless she had a dire need for standard medicine assistance.

Her friends and family were nervous that she was seeking treatment from some Natural Doctor and not getting all her medicine from the socially respected MDs. They must not have known very much about natural medicine and been under the assumption that she was taking a big risk with her disease management. She had her ups and downs, but taking care of her own health was a constant job she never gave up on, and more importantly never stopped learning about. Once I was in medical school she began calling me for my advice, as well as checking with her own ND. Between the two of us she would decide what was going to work best for her and followed through with it, acting as the manager of her own healthcare. Because of our advice, she lived for more than twenty years beyond the prediction of the MDs. She learned how to handle the ups and downs with mostly natural remedies until she ran into a situation in which she needed standard medical help. After a year of having to rely on the medicine she had shunned more than twenty years previous, she passed. I have held the same opinion all these years that she made the right choice in dealing with natural medicine. Although she did need the standard medicine at one time or another, the MDs working with her were not open to discussing options that might have been best for her healthcare. In the end it was the NDs who had preventatively helped keep her healthy for so many years.

Had she been able to discuss alternative methods earlier, I believe she would still be with us. Hopefully the day of compromise between these two medicines is now closer than ever to becoming a reality for other patients who suffer from autoimmune conditions. MDs are becoming increasingly aware that the Naturopathic Physicians practice traditional medicine with a number of modalities and philosophies that are different than their own pharmaceutically based training. NDs recognize the need for pharmaceuticals, but only use them as a last resort, followed by the goal to determine when the drugs are no longer needed. This, of course, requires the commitment and cooperation of all involved.

The lessons from this case that helped drive me into naturopathic medicine, I now see repeated over and over when treating autoimmune conditions. It isn’t necessarily which medicine the patient takes for the condition, but more importantly, it is what they do or don’t do with their lifestyle changes and managing their own health care choices. Patients should always try to make their own decisions and seek treatments that work for them. If they don’t find the answers they desire with a practitioner, they should keep looking. There is an old saying that I have heard, possibly of Buddhist origin, which states something to the effect of “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 wellness.


No matter what anyone else has told autoimmune patients they should know that the food they ingest has a huge effect on their condition. It is logical sense that the human body requires the ability to assimilate all the nutrients possible to function. A frequent response I hear when I explain this to a patient is, ‘I have been eating this way all my life so how could food be the issue?’ Think about this statement. If food is even part of the issue and the patient has been eating the same way their entire life then couldn’t this have been causing the damage that has lead to a bigger health problem? The human body is amazing in what it can do given the correct tools to heal. It is also unbelievable just how much abuse it will take before breaking down and creating a condition that is going to be more difficult to repair. With any chronic condition the patient will improve by eating naturally and eliminating foods that do not help and can even be causing more issues. The first two foods to be eliminated are inevitably dairy and wheat. In case you haven’t read any labels on food items, just about every processed food has wheat in it. To help you avoid having to go through the process of reading tons of labels, the easiest way to know which foods to eat is to stay with plant based foods. No label, no guessing, only eat whole foods.  Some may be concerned that elimination of dairy will cause a calcium deficiency. Look at all the whole foods that contain calcium and take into account all the cultures around the world that don’t consume nearly the amount of dairy Americans consume. Then think about how much dairy probably has to do with healthy bones and teeth. If there is still worry about calcium requirements, take a supplement.

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

Food Sensitivity Test

Food sensitivity tests are available to help patients determine which other foods might be creating issues. These differ from food allergy tests, which are used to determine anaphylactic type reactions, because these sensitivity tests are used to show what are called ‘delayed reactions’. Delayed reactions to foods are difficult to track, because eating some kind of food one day, without reaction for several days afterward, creates an obscure correlation. It doesn’t make sense for these two to be related, but they can be. The only way to truly determine if it is a certain food causing the problem is to eliminate that food for at least two weeks or preferably longer. A long term condition will not clear in two weeks of avoiding the possibly offensive food, but the patient will likely feel much better. That result is better than any test result.

The reason I stress the importance of food is mainly due to the fact that anyone can get started today to make significant changes in their health without going to the doctor, looking up the research, waiting for test results, or waiting for further research. Having a completely healthy diet will make all the difference in how the patient feels as well as how the body handles the condition. If a patient can’t handle the diet changes on their own, they need to seek someone who can guide them responsibly. This is a very important part of anyone’s healthcare regardless of what other treatment options they choose.

Supplements and other treatments

When working with autoimmune patients it is important to remember that supplements, botanicals, homeopathic remedies, acupuncture, and the physical medicine selected for treatment of each patient are each dependent on the patient and their symptoms. The modalities used by each practitioner can be very different as well. What this means is that there are many options to look into when treating these conditions. Recent research on Vitamin D, DHEA, Omega fatty acids, and many others are available for treatment protocols. Again, the individual is the key component in which treatment protocol should be used.

Part of the plan needs to include what the individual is able or not able to do. For example, if a patient is not able to make dietary changes to help with control of the condition, then there is likely a need for more nutritional supplements and protein fortified drinks. This will differ from a patient who can handle a nutrient rich diet, likes to juice their own fruits and vegetables, and eats only organic foods without exception. Using other remedies usually requires professional direction. There are so many options for patients that they should work with someone who can narrow it down to what works best for the individual. Otherwise, gaining their health could end up costing much more money and time for the patient, if they were to actually try each thing they read about to see if it works.

After all, research can determine if a treatment or therapy will work for some patients but it won’t be universal for all patients, even with the same condition. Research also does not include the individual factor. DHEA may show promise for treatment but what about the patient whose DHEA is already too high? There is also the risk of having interactions with pharmaceuticals. Even when patients are working with both MDs and NDs they should be aware of which drugs could interact negatively with other remedies they are taking. Doctors see many patients every day and will not remember everything each individual patient is on. It is important for the patient to pay attention to what they are putting in their body. Many patients come into my office on pharmaceuticals 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 causes(s) not just the symptoms

Digestion is almost always an issue with autoimmune patients and needs to be addressed right away. If the patient 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 takes a systemic approach. Making the system work in the patients favor instead of against them is one key to the success of treating autoimmune patients.

Ruling out other conditions such as Lyme disease is also important. This has become a fairly consistent test for autoimmune patients recently. When I first began my practice I was ordering Lyme tests for these patients. Now, more often than not, the patient comes in with Lyme test results that were done early on, usually before the diagnosis of an autoimmune condition was made.

Always considering the mind-body connection, NDs will want to know about the patient’s 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 the autoimmune conditions usually requires more than one practitioner to assist these patients in being well. Working with doctors who appreciate the needs of patients who are seeking 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. The patient, who is discouraged by the MD when told that there are other specialists involved in treatments, is the patient who will not share essential information with that doctor. This is not the best scenario for the patients or doctors. Appreciating the needs of the patient and what each practitioner brings to the case is the optimal plan that will benefit the patient.

If you are interest in find a Naturopathic Physician to help you with any health issues you can contact ProNatural Physicians Group LLC at 860-505-0702 or email us at drannaresco@comcast.net. Also if you are interested in locating an MD who will work with you and your Naturopathic Physician call us.

Dr. Ann Aresco is a Naturopathic Physician practicing at Kensington Naturopathic Medical Center, 355 New Britain Rd., Kensington, CT 06037. She can be reached at 860-829-0707 or email drannaresco@comcast.net. See ad on page..