Functional Medicine for Autoimmune Diseases

Your body is a fortress, and your immune system is your defense. If your defenses malfunction and attack your fortress, you may develop an autoimmune disease.

What are Autoimmune Diseases?

Autoimmune diseases occur when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells, perceiving them as foreign invaders. This self-targeting can lead to a range of health issues and varies greatly depending on the part of the body affected.

Common Types of Autoimmune Diseases

Autoimmune diseases are diverse and can impact almost any part of the body. Let’s explore some of the common types:

Joint and Muscle Diseases

  • Rheumatoid Arthritis: A chronic inflammatory disorder affecting joints. Rheumatoid diseases can lead to painful swelling and potential joint deformity.
  • Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis: A type of arthritis that occurs in children and causes joint pain and stiffness due to inflammatory cells.
  • Lupus (Systemic Lupus Erythematosus): An inflammatory disease caused when the immune system attacks its own healthy tissues, affecting joints, skin, kidneys, blood cells, brain, heart, and lungs.
  • Polymyositis: A disorder causing muscle inflammation and weakness, affecting skeletal muscles.

Diseases of the Gastrointestinal Tract

  • Crohn’s Disease: A chronic inflammatory bowel disease affecting the lining of the digestive tract, causing pain, severe diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss, and malnutrition.
  • Ulcerative Colitis: A chronic condition affecting the colon and rectum, characterized by inflammation and ulcers in the digestive tract lining.
  • Celiac Disease: An immune response to eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, leading to damage in the small intestine.
  • Autoimmune Hepatitis: A condition where the immune system attacks liver cells, potentially leading to liver inflammation and damage.

Endocrine System Disorders

  • Type 1 Diabetes: A condition where the immune system attacks and destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, leading to high blood sugar levels.
  • Graves’ Disease: An autoimmune disorder that results in the overproduction of thyroid hormones (hyperthyroidism).
  • Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis: An autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks the thyroid gland, often leading to hypothyroidism.
  • Addison’s Disease: A rare disorder where the adrenal glands produce insufficient amounts of certain hormones, including cortisol and aldosterone.

Skin Disorders

  • Psoriasis and Psoriatic Arthritis: Psoriasis is a condition causing skin cells to build up rapidly on the skin’s surface, forming scales and red patches that are itchy and sometimes painful. Psoriatic arthritis is a type of arthritis related to psoriasis. 
  • Scleroderma: An autoimmune disease characterized by the hardening and tightening of the skin and connective tissues.
  • Vitiligo: A condition where the skin loses its pigment cells (melanocytes), resulting in discolored patches.
  • Dermatomyositis: A disease marked by muscle weakness and a distinctive skin rash.

Nervous System Diseases

  • Multiple Sclerosis (MS): A disease in which the immune system eats away at the protective covering of nerves, disrupting communication between the brain and the body.
  • Myasthenia Gravis: A condition causing weakness in the skeletal muscles responsible for breathing and moving parts of the body.
  • Guillain-Barré Syndrome: A rare disorder where the body’s immune system attacks the nerves, leading to muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis.
  • Neuromyelitis Optica: An autoimmune disorder that primarily affects the spine and optic nerves.

Other Types of Autoimmune Disorders

  • Pernicious Anemia: A condition where the body can’t make enough healthy red blood cells because it doesn’t have enough vitamin B12.
  • Autoimmune Vasculitis: A group of diseases that involve inflammation in the blood vessels.
  • Autoimmune Uveitis: A group of diseases causing inflammation inside the eye.

Each of these disorders presents unique challenges and requires specific management and treatment approaches. Understanding them is vital for effective care and improving quality of life for those affected.

Causes and Symptoms of Autoimmune Diseases

What Causes Autoimmune Diseases?

The exact causes of autoimmune diseases are not completely understood, but research suggests that a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors play a crucial role. Here’s a breakdown of these factors:

01

Genetic Factors

  • Genetic Predisposition: Certain genes can increase the risk of developing an autoimmune disease. For example, specific gene variations are linked to diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
  • Family History: Having a family member with an autoimmune disease can raise the risk of developing one, indicating a hereditary component.

02

Environmental Factors

  • Infections: Some infections can trigger autoimmune responses in people who are genetically predisposed. For example, the Epstein-Barr virus is associated with multiple sclerosis and lupus.
  • Toxins and Chemicals: Exposure to certain chemicals or environmental toxins has been linked to an increased risk of autoimmune diseases. For instance, smoking is a known risk factor for rheumatoid arthritis.

03

Lifestyle Factors

  • Diet: Some evidence suggests that diet may influence the risk of autoimmune diseases. For instance, high salt intake is thought to be linked to an increased risk of some autoimmune conditions.
  • Stress: Chronic stress can affect the immune system, potentially triggering an autoimmune response.
  • Sunlight Exposure: Ultraviolet light can affect the immune system and may trigger diseases like lupus in susceptible individuals.

04

Hormonal Factors

  • Gender and Hormones: Women are more likely to develop autoimmune diseases, suggesting a role for hormonal factors in disease development. For example, the fluctuation of hormone levels during pregnancy, postpartum, and menopause can affect autoimmune disease symptoms.

05

Other Factors

  • Gut Microbiome: Emerging research indicates that the gut microbiome (the bacteria living in the intestines) plays a significant role in regulating the immune system. Imbalances in these bacteria may contribute to autoimmune responses.

01

Genetic Factors

  • Genetic Predisposition: Certain genes can increase the risk of developing an autoimmune disease. For example, specific gene variations are linked to diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
  • Family History: Having a family member with an autoimmune disease can raise the risk of developing one, indicating a hereditary component.

02

Environmental Factors

  • Infections: Some infections can trigger autoimmune responses in people who are genetically predisposed. For example, the Epstein-Barr virus is associated with multiple sclerosis and lupus.
  • Toxins and Chemicals: Exposure to certain chemicals or environmental toxins has been linked to an increased risk of autoimmune diseases. For instance, smoking is a known risk factor for rheumatoid arthritis.

03

Lifestyle Factors

  • Diet: Some evidence suggests that diet may influence the risk of autoimmune diseases. For instance, high salt intake is thought to be linked to an increased risk of some autoimmune conditions.
  • Stress: Chronic stress can affect the immune system, potentially triggering an autoimmune response.
  • Sunlight Exposure: Ultraviolet light can affect the immune system and may trigger diseases like lupus in susceptible individuals.

04

Hormonal Factors

  • Gender and Hormones: Women are more likely to develop autoimmune diseases, suggesting a role for hormonal factors in disease development. For example, the fluctuation of hormone levels during pregnancy, postpartum, and menopause can affect autoimmune disease symptoms.

05

Other Factors

  • Gut Microbiome: Emerging research indicates that the gut microbiome (the bacteria living in the intestines) plays a significant role in regulating the immune system. Imbalances in these bacteria may contribute to autoimmune responses.

01

Genetic Factors

  • Genetic Predisposition: Certain genes can increase the risk of developing an autoimmune disease. For example, specific gene variations are linked to diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
  • Family History: Having a family member with an autoimmune disease can raise the risk of developing one, indicating a hereditary component.

02

Environmental Factors

  • Infections: Some infections can trigger autoimmune responses in people who are genetically predisposed. For example, the Epstein-Barr virus is associated with multiple sclerosis and lupus.
  • Toxins and Chemicals: Exposure to certain chemicals or environmental toxins has been linked to an increased risk of autoimmune diseases. For instance, smoking is a known risk factor for rheumatoid arthritis.

03

Lifestyle Factors

  • Diet: Some evidence suggests that diet may influence the risk of autoimmune diseases. For instance, high salt intake is thought to be linked to an increased risk of some autoimmune conditions.
  • Stress: Chronic stress can affect the immune system, potentially triggering an autoimmune response.
  • Sunlight Exposure: Ultraviolet light can affect the immune system and may trigger diseases like lupus in susceptible individuals.

04

Hormonal Factors

  • Gender and Hormones: Women are more likely to develop autoimmune diseases, suggesting a role for hormonal factors in disease development. For example, the fluctuation of hormone levels during pregnancy, postpartum, and menopause can affect autoimmune disease symptoms.

05

Other Factors

  • Gut Microbiome: Emerging research indicates that the gut microbiome (the bacteria living in the intestines) plays a significant role in regulating the immune system. Imbalances in these bacteria may contribute to autoimmune responses.

01

Genetic Factors

  • Genetic Predisposition: Certain genes can increase the risk of developing an autoimmune disease. For example, specific gene variations are linked to diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
  • Family History: Having a family member with an autoimmune disease can raise the risk of developing one, indicating a hereditary component.

02

Environmental Factors

  • Infections: Some infections can trigger autoimmune responses in people who are genetically predisposed. For example, the Epstein-Barr virus is associated with multiple sclerosis and lupus.
  • Toxins and Chemicals: Exposure to certain chemicals or environmental toxins has been linked to an increased risk of autoimmune diseases. For instance, smoking is a known risk factor for rheumatoid arthritis.

03

Lifestyle Factors

  • Diet: Some evidence suggests that diet may influence the risk of autoimmune diseases. For instance, high salt intake is thought to be linked to an increased risk of some autoimmune conditions.
  • Stress: Chronic stress can affect the immune system, potentially triggering an autoimmune response.
  • Sunlight Exposure: Ultraviolet light can affect the immune system and may trigger diseases like lupus in susceptible individuals.

04

Hormonal Factors

  • Gender and Hormones: Women are more likely to develop autoimmune diseases, suggesting a role for hormonal factors in disease development. For example, the fluctuation of hormone levels during pregnancy, postpartum, and menopause can affect autoimmune disease symptoms.

05

Other Factors

  • Gut Microbiome: Emerging research indicates that the gut microbiome (the bacteria living in the intestines) plays a significant role in regulating the immune system. Imbalances in these bacteria may contribute to autoimmune responses.

01

Genetic Factors

  • Genetic Predisposition: Certain genes can increase the risk of developing an autoimmune disease. For example, specific gene variations are linked to diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
  • Family History: Having a family member with an autoimmune disease can raise the risk of developing one, indicating a hereditary component.

02

Environmental Factors

  • Infections: Some infections can trigger autoimmune responses in people who are genetically predisposed. For example, the Epstein-Barr virus is associated with multiple sclerosis and lupus.
  • Toxins and Chemicals: Exposure to certain chemicals or environmental toxins has been linked to an increased risk of autoimmune diseases. For instance, smoking is a known risk factor for rheumatoid arthritis.

03

Lifestyle Factors

  • Diet: Some evidence suggests that diet may influence the risk of autoimmune diseases. For instance, high salt intake is thought to be linked to an increased risk of some autoimmune conditions.
  • Stress: Chronic stress can affect the immune system, potentially triggering an autoimmune response.
  • Sunlight Exposure: Ultraviolet light can affect the immune system and may trigger diseases like lupus in susceptible individuals.

04

Hormonal Factors

  • Gender and Hormones: Women are more likely to develop autoimmune diseases, suggesting a role for hormonal factors in disease development. For example, the fluctuation of hormone levels during pregnancy, postpartum, and menopause can affect autoimmune disease symptoms.

05

Other Factors

  • Gut Microbiome: Emerging research indicates that the gut microbiome (the bacteria living in the intestines) plays a significant role in regulating the immune system. Imbalances in these bacteria may contribute to autoimmune responses.

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Common Symptoms of Autoimmune Disorders

Autoimmune disorders can have so many symptoms, which can range from mild to severe and vary greatly depending on the specific condition and the individual. Each disorder presents differently based on the individual, and this is part of what makes them so difficult to diagnose.

Despite the diversity of these diseases, many share common symptoms, making the identification of autoimmune disorders challenging. Let’s expand on some of these common symptoms:

Fatigue:

This is one of the most common symptoms across various autoimmune diseases. It can range from mild tiredness to a more debilitating fatigue that interferes with daily activities.

Joint Pain and Stiffness:

Joint pain is commonly experienced in conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. Joints may feel stiff, especially in the morning or after periods of inactivity. Pain can be localized to one area or widespread.

Skin Problems:

Rashes, redness, and itchiness are common in diseases like psoriasis, lupus, and dermatomyositis. Some disorders lead to specific patterns or types of rashes, while others might cause general skin dryness or sensitivity.

Abnormal Organ Function:

Many autoimmune disorders target specific organs or systems, leading to their impaired function. For example, type 1 diabetes affects pancreatic function, while autoimmune hepatitis affects liver function.

Muscle Weakness or Pain:

Conditions like polymyositis and myasthenia gravis cause muscle aches and weakness. Pain and tenderness in the muscles can also be a symptom.

Gastrointestinal Issues:

Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis can cause abdominal pain, diarrhea, and weight loss. Even in autoimmune diseases not directly targeting the digestive system, symptoms like bloating or gastrointestinal discomfort can occur.

Fever and General Malaise:

Low-grade fevers are common, often indicating the body's ongoing battle against perceived internal threats. A general feeling of being unwell or malaise is frequently reported.

Numbness or Tingling in Hands and Feet:

Conditions like multiple sclerosis can cause neurological symptoms, including numbness or tingling sensations.

Hair Loss:

Autoimmune diseases like alopecia areata specifically target hair follicles, while others may lead to hair thinning or loss as a secondary symptom.

Changes in Weight:

Unexplained weight gain or loss can be a symptom, particularly in thyroid disorders.

Sensitivity to Cold or Heat:

Particularly in thyroid-related autoimmune disorders like Hashimoto's thyroiditis and Graves' disease.

Memory Problems or Difficulty Concentrating:

Cognitive symptoms, often referred to as "brain fog," can be present in various autoimmune conditions.

Diagnosing and Treating Autoimmune Diseases

A senior woman tending to vegetables in her garden, promoting nutrition and managing her autoimmune disease

How are Autoimmune Diseases Diagnosed?

Diagnosing autoimmune diseases is a comprehensive process that typically includes a combination of symptom evaluation, blood tests, such as a complete blood count (CBC) test, imaging studies, and sometimes more specialized tests. Initially, healthcare professionals assess the patient’s medical history and conduct a physical examination to understand the symptoms and their patterns.


Blood tests are crucial in this process, where the presence of autoantibodies – immune proteins that mistakenly target the body’s tissues – can be a key indicator. Inflammatory markers, such as C-reactive protein (CRP) and erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR), are also tested to gauge the level of inflammation in the body.


Additionally, tests specific to organ function, like liver or thyroid function tests, may be performed depending on the symptoms. Imaging studies, including X-rays, MRI, or CT scans, help visualize the affected areas, especially in conditions impacting joints or internal organs. In certain cases, more specific tests, like skin biopsies or nerve conduction studies, may be necessary to pinpoint the diagnosis.

Specialists Treating Autoimmune Diseases

Treatment often requires a team of specialists due to the varied nature of these diseases.

Rheumatologists are key in managing diseases affecting the joints and muscles, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

Endocrinologists specialize in disorders of the endocrine system, including conditions like type 1 diabetes and thyroid diseases.

Gastroenterologists play a crucial role in treating autoimmune diseases of the digestive tract, like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

Dermatologists are involved in the treatment of skin-related conditions, such as psoriasis and scleroderma.

Neurologists may be consulted for autoimmune disorders that impact the nervous system, like multiple sclerosis.

Sometimes, a patient will need to see multiple specialists in order to find an accurate diagnosis.

Nutrition plays a key role in managing autoimmune disease

Treatment for Autoimmune Disorders

The treatment approaches for autoimmune disorders aim to control the autoimmune reaction and manage symptoms to improve quality of life. This often involves a combination of medications, lifestyle changes, and physical therapy.

Medications like immunosuppressants are commonly used to reduce the activity of the immune system. Biologic agents, which are targeted therapies, and corticosteroids, used for their anti-inflammatory properties, also play a significant role in treatment.

Lifestyle changes, particularly in diet and exercise, can help mitigate symptoms and improve overall health. Physical therapy is particularly beneficial in conditions that affect mobility, such as rheumatoid arthritis, helping patients manage pain and maintain function.

Managing Symptoms

Managing the symptoms of autoimmune disorders is a critical aspect of treatment, involving medication management, dietary changes, stress management, and regular medical check-ups. Patients are encouraged to adhere to their medication regimen and monitor for any side effects.

Dietary modifications can also be beneficial, especially in avoiding foods that might trigger or worsen symptoms. Stress management techniques, such as meditation, yoga, or counseling, are helpful in coping with the stress that can exacerbate symptoms.

Regular check-ups are essential for monitoring the progression of the disease and adjusting treatments as necessary. This comprehensive approach to symptom management aims to improve the quality of life for individuals living with autoimmune diseases.

A woman examining her hair in the mirror, considering autoimmune disease and treatment options

FAQs

Currently, most autoimmune diseases cannot be cured, but treatments can manage symptoms and improve quality of life.
Triggers can include genetic factors, environmental triggers, and lifestyle factors.
Risk factors vary but can include family history, certain environmental exposures, and gender, with women being more commonly affected.
No, autoimmune diseases and autoinflammatory diseases are not the same thing, although they share some similarities. Both involve the immune system and can cause inflammation, but they differ in their underlying mechanisms and how the immune system is involved.

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