Is there a better way to manage Autoimmune Disease?

autoimmune disease in scrabble letters

Autoimmune disease is a hot topic right now. Many wonder if there is a cure to autoimmune disease. Rightfully so, as its prevalence is increasing.


Cure? That may be bold but reversing or halting damage or remission of most autoimmune diseases is possible! There are three main criteria to take into consideration when thinking of the development and improvement of an autoimmune disease. These are often referred to as the Autoimmune Triad and they include:


  1. Genetic predisposition
  2. Enhanced intestinal permeability or leaky gut
  3. Environmental trigger


Genetic Predisposition


Research has shown that people who develop autoimmune disease carry specific genes that make them susceptible. This does not mean, however, that if you have the gene you will develop the disease. It’s just not enough to induce this kind of disease. A good example of this is Celiac Disease, an autoimmune disease in which the villi and cells of the small intestines become damaged by one’s immune system viewing this tissue as a threat.This damaged tissue leads to problems with nutrient digestion and absorption that extend far beyond the gut including neurological changes. 

People who develop Celiac disease have at least one of 2 genes called the HLA gene. To put this into perspective, about 30% of Americans carry one of these genes yet only 1% of them will develop Celiac disease. Only 1 in 22 people with celiac disease have a direct family member with the disease.


So not exactly a done deal if you have the gene as many think. 


Emerging research also shows that these genes may increase your genetic susceptibility by unfavorably altering your gut microbiome leading to the loss of gluten tolerance which is a hallmark of Celiac Disease. This further supports that the health of our gut plays a key role in disease.


But if having the gene isn’t enough to develop an autoimmune disease, what else is happening? 


It means that the gene has to be activated. This happens when enhanced intestinal permeability or leaky gut and an environmental trigger or triggers are present. These other parts of the triad must be present in order to increase your risk. Knowing this begs so many questions as our genes have not changed since we began walking this earth yet numbers of autoimmune diseases began to increase about 40 years ago. 


So What Has Changed?...


Well, for starters, our lifestyle has changed pretty dramatically. And while much of it has improved our quality of life, much has not. We’ve done a 180 when it comes to eating healthfully and exercising. Back in the day, hunters and gatherers were onto something - incorporating both nutrient dense sources of food including protein, unrefined carbohydrates and healthy fats all while exercising. Just think of all the running and lifting they did! Here are some other not so positive changes to our environment that have upped the ante on autoimmune disease development:


  • Increased stress - but not the good kind, the kind that’s chronic and relative. I don’t think the pressure to post to social media, having an angry boss or traffic jams constituted examples of persistent stress way back when.  
  • Exposure to processed and refined foods - while we really stepped up to the plate when tasked with feeding our growing population post WWII, we began to bury the more traditional, usually healthier ways of eating eventually favoring convenience over nutrients. Fast food and packaged foods replaced real foods. These days, some are overtly nutrient void while others are marvelous marketing ploys to make us think we are “eating healthy”. Think Lean Cuisine, as just one example of many? At the end of the day, this is all junk food that is harming you. 
  • Increased toxin exposure - From increased toxins in the air we breathe, the food we eat, the personal “care” products we lather on our skin, the vast majority of American adults have experienced significantly increased cumulative toxin exposure. These toxic exposures can be linked to everything from obesity in the person exposed to future offspring of that person. This is epigenetics. These toxins damage our genes and cells beyond measure. Remember that when someone argues but “it’s just a little”.



Did Someone Say “Leaky Gut”?


From stress to the increased toxin exposure together with our standard American diet, perhaps leading the way, these are just some environmental triggers that compromise and wear down the gut lining and alter our gut microbiome - Yes! That’s a thing. This makes us more vulnerable to pathogens and foods that will provoke an immune response. This impairs our immune system since upwards of 80% of our immune system is housed in our gut. This compromise or breach if you will, causes a cascade of imbalance which leads to disease. From classic GI signs and symptoms to extra GI signs and symptoms or ones that extend far beyond your gut including emerging autoimmune disease. Inflammation underpins the very vast majority of diseases. Its effects are far reaching and ultimately cause the immune system to be confused. Trust me, you don’t want a confused immune system - lol. You see, our immune system’s job is to tolerate most things. Its purpose is to act swiftly and effectively when a threat presents itself and return to a state of tolerance. 


How can we help ourselves?


What we think of as a million dollar question is actually not. But it does require you to stop, sit and listen. It requires honest self inquiry and commitment to cultivating self awareness. Without this, true healing is not possible. Start here then:


  • Begin a journal practice in the morning, even if it’s 5 min. It’s a start, you can grow from there. Physically write down an action that you want to engage in for the day - yes - actually write it with a pen and paper - this helps to slow you down and begin the shift to intentionality. Each person may have a different action but the point is to put it out into the universe and create thought about how you will accomplish it. Notice that there’s no mention of perfection. This is the perfect place to begin to develop loving, patient, kindness towards yourself.
  • Breathe - intentionally. This act of self care is quite possibly one of the most underrated actions you should be engaging in throughout the day. Breathing is something that we don’t have to think about because it is automatic or part of your autonomic nervous system. Intentional breathing is quite different. If you are experiencing chronic stress whether it be from emotional/mental stressors or physiological ones such as poor diet - yes - a poor diet is stressful on the body for many reasons intentional breathing can begin to shift that chronic stress response. Inhale for 5 counts and exhale for 10 counts. This lets your body and mind and immune system begin to rest.
  • Eat whole, nutrient dense foods and eliminate gluten and dairy - You receive about 70% of information about your environment from what you eat. Crazy, I know, right? If you are eating a Standard American Diet (SAD) you are eating pro-inflammatory foods which are not nourishing you, creating leaky gut and provoking an immune response. Most convenience and prepared foods fall into the SAD category - think highly manipulated seed oils such as soybean oil. The answer to this is to eat whole, nutrient dense foods that will nourish you. Eat the rainbow in fruits and vegetables, not Skittles - lol. You will not only get nutrients but you will be giving your immune system a gift - the gift of rest - it knows real food when it sees one.



Remember to treat yourself with loving, patient kindness. Imagine if we all did that when we were struggling? There are so many other ways to influence how you feel each day. Your daily choices matter.  This may mean learning and unlearning patterns of long term behaviors and lifestyle but that’s ok. Everyone starts somewhere. Will you start today?

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