I personally became aware of the complexity of autoimmune conditions as an adolescent when my mother was diagnosed with lupus and rheumatoid arthritis and suffered the challenges of these illnesses. I learned quickly that autoimmune conditions can take different paths and intensities but follow the same fundamental core issue, your immune system is mistakenly attacking your body. Autoimmune conditions damage your tissues and organs and can’t tell the difference between foreign cells and your own cells.
Though there are no scientifically proven reasons why the immune system inappropriately misfires, there are some commonalities in why some individuals having a greater risk than others. For example, there are genetic susceptibilities like lupus that runs in families, women are at twice the risk particularly during child bearing years, and ethnic groups are affected more, particularly African American and Hispanic women.
There are more than 80 types of autoimmune conditions and some of the most common ones include rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, lupus, multiple sclerosis and Type 1 diabetes. Each of these conditions attack different cells in the body. It often takes several doctors before a diagnosis occurs and the symptoms can mimic other conditions or be vague and unclear. Additionally, individuals may have flare-ups where symptoms get worse or symptoms may even disappear. Common symptoms in autoimmune conditions include fatigue, body pain, swelling, redness and a low-grade fever. It is important to seek care from a medical provider if any of those symptoms persist and to ensure appropriate blood tests are completed. Lab work must be paired with clinical symptoms to be diagnosed with an autoimmune condition.
Is there anything we can do for an autoimmune condition outside of medication? Absolutely! Here are some key areas to support autoimmune conditions that have been successful in my practice:
1. Phase I: Assessment/Identification of Barriers.
It important to initially complete comprehensive blood work with your provider to rule out and increase specificity of autoimmune condition type. In our office, we complete specialty autoimmune test panels that include 32 markers. Additionally, it is good to consider other infectious disease types that may contribute to symptoms or may be the true source, for example, Lyme disease, or Epstein-Barr virus. I have seen a multitude of patients with these conditions which mimic autoimmune conditions causing symptoms like fatigue and migratory joint pain.
2. Phase 2: Strengthen/Fortify.
Stress may aggravate an autoimmune condition and initiate flare-ups. Stress can cause low energy, insomnia and altered circadian rhythm. Long term stress and even acute stress in many instances affect the adrenal glands, therefore, it is important to support your adrenal gland functioning. Consider adaptogenic herbs like Rhodiola rosea, Siberian ginseng, Ashwaganda, or Holy Basil. They have their own individual function and support your body’s ability to manage stress and regulate to the needs of your body at any given moment. One of my favorite herbs to help with anxiety and stress is l-theanine which promotes calmness, supports the brain and stimulates GABA, the relaxing neurotransmitter. Other herbs like Valerian and Passionflower can aid with sleep problems like having trouble falling and staying asleep. Additionally, nutritional supplementation with B vitamins and Vitamin C which support the adrenal gland functioning are important.
Since the immune system is overstimulated in an autoimmune condition, I look to support the system long term with immune-modulating supplementation. Consider herbs like Smilax, Reishi mushroom, and Ashwaganda. Artemesia has been widely studied for immune-modulation for lupus especially in the summer months that induce flares and is also helpful for spirochetes like Lyme. Supplementation that increases immunoglobulins are good sources of support; e.g. Colostrum, or other bovine or egg derived immunoglobulin concentrates, if no food allergies are present. Immunoglobulins additionally support the intestinal tract. I also utilize low dose immunotherapy/LDI, a specialized therapy, that down-regulates TH2, the part of the immune system that is overreacting; this is a good long-term strategy. When active inflammation is present, some key anti-inflammatory herbs include Curcumin and fish oil high in Omega 3.
3. Phase III: Support Detoxification Pathways.
Individuals with autoimmune conditions often have digestive tract issues. I usually recommend a high dose probiotic; over 50 billion, in addition to spore based probiotics. It is beneficial to alternate probiotics regularly to mimic how you would naturally receive them from foods. It may be recommended to be on supplements for GI repair like l-glutamine, or DGL. I frequently use Arabinogalactan/Larch which is a pre-biotic, source of fiber, and stimulates the immune system.
Autoimmune conditions often affect proper excretion through the kidneys and need strengthening of the pathways through the liver, sometimes due to high medication usage. Liver supporting supplements include liposomal glutathione; vegetables like broccoli, dandelion greens, and spinach; NAC; milk thistle and artichoke. For kidneys, hydration is important, eating less sugary and processed foods, and unsweetened cranberry juice, amongst others.
In addition to the key areas identified above, it is important make lifestyle changes and to avoid foods that are more pro-inflammatory like red meat, saturated fat, simple sugar and processed meat. For many of my patients, we may consider the autoimmune paleo diet on the initial onset of disease and a maintenance plan thereafter. These recommendations are highly beneficial to overall health and management of your autoimmune condition and proper care with a trained ND professional will help to keep your symptoms at bay.
Dr. Jaquel Patterson is a naturopathic physician and Medical Director of Fairfield Family Health. She has over 11 years of experience with a focus on autoimmune conditions, Lyme disease, allergies, women’s health, anxiety and depression and childhood developmental disorders. She is active member of ILADS, AAEM, MAPS and CNPA. She also serves as the President for the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians. If you are interested in receiving our healing autoimmunity toolkit, please email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org.