Whenever I see a woman with an autoimmune disease in my office, one of the first things I ask her is how she’s handling the stress in her life, and if she’s finding time to rest.
That’s because I know”and research shows”that can bring on a flare in diseases such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and psoriasis. One study found, for instance, that the daily stress of everyday living affects how women with lupus feel more than major life stresses like moving or starting a new job.19 I also know that fatigue is a major component of many of these diseases.
Women, this is no time to put yourself last. You have a chronic, lifelong disease that can be held in check by medication and lifestyle changes”if you incorporate both into managing your condition.
So here are some things I recommend:
1. Take a walk.
It doesn’t have to be long, and it doesn’t have to be fast. But get outside or to an indoor mall or museum and walk for at least 20 minutes. Studies find such moderate exercise can help with the stiffness and pain of autoimmune diseases and improve your mood.
2. Take an hour a day to rest.
You don’t have to nap if you don’t want to, but just lying in a quiet room reading or meditating can be amazingly restorative. Don’t be embarrassed about this. Tell your boss, children and partner that this one hour is what enables you to remain productive and energetic the rest of the day.
3. Learn at least one technique to reduce stress hormones in your body.
Notice I didn’t say reduce stress”I know that’s impossible. But studies find that things like deep breathing, meditation and visualization can reduce levels of stress hormones in your body. These hormones are inflammatory”contributing to the inflammation behind many autoimmune diseases.
4. Find a support system.
This might be your family, or it might be friends. It could even be a support group of other people with your condition. Whoever you choose, you need supportive people in your life who understand why you have days when you can’t lift the laundry basket or make it through a grocery shopping trip, and who are there to help you on such days.
5. Learn to slow down.
Women who cope well with chronic autoimmune diseases say they’ve learned to slow down. Some change to less stressful jobs or work parttime; others readjust their expectations of what they can accomplish on and off the job. Instead of making your disease fit your life, readjust your life to fit your disease. You’ll feel better and will find you’re able to cope better.
6. Participate in your care.
If your doctor doesn’t listen to you, minimizes your complaints, refuses to discuss integrating alternative approaches into your care or doesn’t recommend other approaches to cope with the side effects of treatment (like osteoporosis drugs to minimize the effects of steroids on your bones; medications to reduce fatigue, etc.), it’s time to find another doctor. You should be working as a team with your health care professional to identify what works and what doesn’t. Remember who is in charge: you, the patient.
7. Understand you are on a journey without end.
Living with a chronic illness isn’t like having a stroke or even cancer, which can be “cured.” When you have a condition like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, your life is a series of two steps forward and one step backward. Learn to accept this new rhythm in your life. Instead of focusing on a cure, focus on having as many good days as you possibly can.
Autoimmune diseases, when taken all together, become a HUGE health burden. Among these are rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, Celiac disease, and thyroid disease. In fact, over 80 diseases have been classified as autoimmune and the list is growing.
Autoimmune disease now affects over 24 million Americans and five percent of the population in Western countries. They often include weird, hard-to-classify syndromes like inflammation, pain, swelling, and general misery.
What are autoimmune diseases? Well, your immune system is your defense against invaders. Imagine your immune system as an army that must clearly distinguish friend from foe. Autoimmunity occurs when your immune system gets confused and your own tissue get caught in friendly crossfire.
Put another way, your body is always fighting something, whether it’s battling infections, toxins, allergens, or a response to stress. Sometimes, your immune army redirects its hostile attack against you. Your joints, brain, skin, and sometimes your whole body become casualties. This whole concept is called molecular mimicry. Conventional medicine accepts this problem, but they stop there and no one LOOKS for what might be creating the problem. They don’t dig to find out which molecule your cells are MIMICKING.
Using anti-inflammatories like Advil, or steroids, or immune suppressants like methotrexate, or TNF alpha blockers like Enbrel can lead to intestinal bleeding, kidney failure, depression, psychosis, osteoporosis, muscle loss, diabetes, not to mention overwhelming infection and cancer. Don’t get me wrong. These drugs can be life saving and help people get their life back, but they miss the point. There is another way to deal with this.
The Problem with a Conventional-Medicine Approach
While classified as many different diseases, they have one thing in common. In every case of autoimmune disease, the body attacks itself.
Is there another way to treat these problems than deploying powerful immune-suppressive drugs that put patients at increased risk of infection and even death? Historically, medical discoveries originated from physicians’ keen observations of their patients’ diseases and responses to treatment. Doctors reported their findings to their colleagues or published them as case studies.
Today these “case studies” are often dismissed as “anecdotes” and have become increasingly irrelevant. Instead, we now focus on randomized controlled trials as the only standard of “evidence.”
Sadly, this approach dismisses the experience of thousands of patients and physicians as they apply new scientific findings to treat difficult conditions. Basic scientific discoveries often take decades to be translated into medical practice. Unfortunately, this prevents millions from accessing therapies that could benefit them now.
The determining factor in deciding whether to try a new approach with a patient is the risk/benefit equation. Is the treatment more likely to help than harm? How risky is the treatment? What are the side effects? How dangerous or risky is the current approach to a problem? How debilitating or life threatening is the disease being treated?
Except for treating infections with antibiotics and treating trauma, medicine today approaches most disease by suppressing, covering over, blocking, or otherwise interfering with the body’s biology. We generally do not attempt to seriously address the underlying problems that lead to the disease in the first place.
Cholesterol medications, to provide one example, block an enzyme that produces cholesterol (among other important molecules like CoQ10), but they don’t address why cholesterol may be high in the first place (factors like diet, exercise, stress, and genetics). Doctors use beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers, SSRI’s (serotonin reuptake inhibitors), ACE-inhibitors, antibiotics, and anti-inflammatories.
A Functional Medicine Approach to Autoimmune Disease
As I said, conventional medicine often addresses autoimmune disease by prescribing powerful immune-suppressing medication rather than searching for the cause. That’s like taking a lot of aspirin while you are standing on a tack. The treatment is not more aspirin; the treatment is removing the tack!
If you are one of the millions of Americans who suffers from an autoimmune condition, I’m sure you are eager to find answers that rely less on risky pharmaceuticals and more on lifestyle remedies. Conventional approaches don’t have a method for finding the insult causing the problem. You may have been prescribed mega-doses of intravenous steroids or prednisone, hormones, painkillers, acid blockers, methotrexate, or TNF alpha blocker (a strong immunosuppressant drug) for your autoimmune condition and still not finding relief. In fact, you might be feeling worse.
Every autoimmune disease becomes connected by one central biochemical process: A runaway immune response resulting from your body attacking its own tissues. Functional Medicine provides a map to find out which molecule the cells are mimicking. It looks at the root cause of the inflammation and asks why that inflammation exists.
If we can identify the underlying sources of inflammation, we can heal the body. The underlying causes may include stress, hidden infections,food allergies or sensitivities, toxic exposure, genetic predisposition, nutrient deficiencies, and leaky gut. If you want to cool off inflammation in the body, you must find the source. Physicians are mostly taught to diagnose disease by symptoms, NOT by their underlying cause.
Functional Medicine is a hidden movement sweeping across the globe, and it is based on a different method of diagnosing and treating disease — one that focuses on causes not symptoms, one that is based on an understanding of the dynamic way our genes interact with our environment, one that goes beyond simply treating diseases based on their label. Functional Medicine teaches practitioners to understand the body as a system; to seek the causes of illness; to understand the body’s basic functional systems, where they go awry, and how to restore balance; to understand the interconnections between symptoms and organs rather than segregate diseases into specialties. This approach is a fundamentally different way of solving medical problems, one that allows us to decipher the origins of illness and identify the disturbances in biology that lead to symptoms.
If you have an autoimmune disease, I strongly encourage you to work with a Functional Medicine practitioner to identify and eliminate the root cause(s). Sometimes this requires detective work, trial and error, and patience, but the results are worth it. When patients visit me to determine the root of their problem, I often implement these 10 strategies and the patient typically sees vast improvement:
- Eat a whole food, anti-inflammatory diet. Focus on anti-inflammatory foods including wild fish and other sources of omega-3 fats, red and purple berries (these are rich in polyphenols), dark green leafy vegetables, orange sweet potatoes, and nuts. Add anti-inflammatory herbs, including turmeric (a source of curcumin), ginger, and rosemary, to your diet daily. Eliminate inflammatory foods such as refined, omega-6, and inflammatory oils, including corn, soy, and safflower oils.
- Check for hidden infections. These include yeast, viruses, bacteria, and Lyme. You will want to work with a Functional Medicine practitioner to identify and eliminate these infections.
- Check for hidden food allergies. Again, your Functional Medicine practitioner can do this with IgG food testing. Alternately, you can try The Blood Sugar Solution 10-Day Detox Diet, which is designed to eliminate most food allergens.
- Test for Celiac Disease. This is a blood test any doctor can do.
- Test for heavy metal toxicity. Mercury and other metals can cause autoimmunity.
- Fix your gut. About 60 percent of your immune system lies right under the single-cell-layer lining of your gut. If this surface breaks down, your immune system will get activated and start reacting to foods, toxins, and bugs in your gut. The easiest way to begin healing your gut involves eating a whole food, anti-inflammatory diet and removing gluten and other food sensitivities.
- Implement supplements. Nutrients like fish oil, vitamin C, vitamin D, and probiotics can help calm your immune response naturally. Also consider anti-inflammatory nutrients like quercetin, grape seed extract, and rutin. Using UltraInflamX PLUS 360 as a meal replacement also helps many of my patients with inflammation. You can find professional-grade quality of these and other anti-inflammatory nutrients, as well as an Autoimmune Support Kit in my online store.
- Exercise regularly. Regular exercise is a natural anti-inflammatory. You don’t have to go to the gym, run on a treadmill, and pump iron to stay in shape. Just start moving around more. Go for walks with your friends or family. Go out and do some gardening. Play Frisbee in the park with your kids. Pick up a tennis racket and just knock a tennis ball around. Anything you can do to get out and move your body can be considered exercise. So don’t think that you absolutely have to go to the gym to get fit. Just use your body more.
- Practice deep relaxation. Stress worsens your immune response. Calming techniques including yoga, deep breathing, biofeedback, massage, or my UltraCalm CD can reduce stress and anxiety to promote relaxation.
- Sleep for 8 hours every night. The research is clear: Lack of sleep or poor sleep damages your metabolism, causes cravings for sugar and carbs, makes you eat more, and drives up your risk of numerous conditions from diabesity to autoimmune disease. Getting enough sleep and sleeping well are essential for vibrant health and reversing inflammation. You can get 19 of my top sleep tips in this blog.
If you suffer from any autoimmune disease, have you become frustrated using a conventional-medicine approach? What do you find best helps improve your condition? Share your thoughts below or on my Facebook page.
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