We have the science, the information, and methods for reversing and preventing autoimmune disorders right now. Contrary to once-popular belief, autoimmune disease is not a one-way street!
-Mark Hyman, MD and Functional Medicine pioneer
You’re dealing with an autoimmune condition or mysterious symptoms, so naturally, you go to the doctor, maybe even a specialist. He notes your complaints, runs a few tests, and probably says something like:
“There’s nothing you can do.”
“You’ll need to be on medication for life.”
“You’re just depressed.”
“Diet has nothing to do with this.”
“It’s all in your head.”
“I’d like you to see a psychiatrist.”
If you’ve heard any variation of these before, take heart. You are not alone. So many people who have completely recovered from autoimmune conditions first heard some version of this misinformed medical opinion, including me. For more than two decades I struggled with symptoms of relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis (MS). Over that time, I saw six neurologists at leading institutions, each of whom repeated the refrain: “There’s nothing you can do, except take medication.”
I didn’t buy it. I figured there must be something I could do, so I tried lots of things, from different diets to stress reduction techniques, even medication. Finally, in 2010, I saw a Functional Medicine nutritionist who diagnosed me with a sensitivity to gluten, a tough to digest protein found in all grains. I did my best experiment ever: a 30-day elimination diet, removing the usual suspect autoimmune foods, and by month’s end I was completely free and clear of MS symptoms. To this day, nine years later, I have never had another MS symptom, and I remain medication-free and in the best health of my life.
Could it be that the very specialists we depend on to heal us don’t have the answers we need? While brilliant in handling acute crises like heart attacks, broken bones, and other emergencies, our conventional medical system is not well-equipped to deal with chronic disease.
A recent study commissioned by the non-profit, American Autoimmune Disease Research Association (AARDA) found that two-thirds of doctors are “uncomfortable” or “stressed” when diagnosing an autoimmune disorder. Further, the survey found that three-quarters do not believe they received adequate training for treating these diseases, with roughly six-in-10 reporting they had a total of only one or two lectures on autoimmune disease throughout their entire medical education.
With that insight, it’s not that surprising that the doctors we look to for autoimmune expertise may not be up to speed on advances in autoimmune understanding. Little wonder that common autoimmune myths persist.
The Top 6 Autoimmune Myths and Misperceptions
It’s time to dismantle common myths and misperceptions about autoimmune conditions that may be holding you back from healing:
1. My doctor says there’s nothing I can do, except take medication.
When I asked a half dozen neurologists what else I could do besides take medication, each told me “there’s not enough evidence that food or supplements or other lifestyle changes make any difference for autoimmune diseases.”
This is simply not true. According to Greenmedinfo.com (a source for medical studies), a quick 10-minute search reveals:
- 97 “problem substances” listed for autoimmune conditions;
- 200 studies on wheat, gluten and gliadin — proteins in wheat and other grains;
- Research on 347 beneficial substances; including
- 200 studies on the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids for autoimmune conditions;
- 500 studies on the benefits of exercise in people with autoimmune conditions; and
- 1600 studies on the benefits of vitamin D for autoimmune conditions.
2. I was told I will need to be on medication forever.
It’s not my place to interfere with your decision to take medication. This is a very personal decision and one that needs to be made in consultation with your doctor, your research, and your gut instincts. Some medication may be helpful in the short term for some conditions. But, over the long haul, medication comes with high costs, including unwanted effects like a leaky gut and the possibility of developing additional autoimmune disorders, and even cancer. It may surprise you to learn that at least 100 medications can induce lupus; and conversely, by removing the medication, the lupus can be reversed.1Drug-Induced Lupus Erythematosus, Incidence, Management and Prevention, Christopher Chang and M. Eric Gershwin, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/455f/0fe9f0a5597afaf1476aaac75074153490f6.pdf
The one medication I am aware of that is actually beneficial for many people with autoimmune conditions, is Low Dose Naltrexone (LDN), a very low dose of the opiate antagonist, naltrexone, which is given to people with addiction to opioids. Your doctor may not have heard of it, so you will need to do some research to find a doctor who has and can prescribe.
3. Aren’t autoimmune diseases irreversible?
The idea that autoimmune disorders are a one-way street is last century thinking. Since the turn of this century, we learned that epigenetics (literally means “above the gene”) trounces genetics, 90 to 10. Meaning how you live your life: what you eat, drink, think and do are waaaaaaay more important than the genes you were dealt.2https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/exposome/
While your genes represent a small potential outcome, your lifestyle choices determine whether those genes get expressed or not. Furthermore, a groundbreaking study in the early 2000s confirms that there are 3 necessary elements for autoimmune conditions to develop: genes + environmental factors + a leaky gut. The beauty of this autoimmune equation is that if we turn it around, we can halt the autoimmune process and return to good health:
Remove your triggers (root causes) + heal your gut = arrest and reverse the autoimmune attack.3Leaky gut and autoimmune diseases. A. Fasano, MD, Clin Rev Allergy Immunol. 2012 Feb;42(1):71-8. doi: 10.1007/s12016-011-8291-x., https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22109896
4. There are so many diets out there, I don’t know what to trust or who to believe.
Keto, Paleo, vegan, carnivore, low fat, vegetarian, blood type… the list is long and getting longer. No wonder your head may be spinning. Bottom line, you are in the best position to determine which diet is best for you.
I have personally tried just about all of them. I did the worst on vegetarian and vegan when I added more whole grains and beans. My digestion rebelled and my MS symptoms flared up. And, I had low energy and persistent MS symptoms on a low- or no-fat diet.
The best experiment I ever did was a 30-day elimination diet in 2010. By removing gluten, grains, dairy and sugar I stopped the expression of MS in my body. By adding healthy fats like avocado, coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, and grass-fed meats all my systems responded beautifully, from my nervous system to my hormones, digestion and skin.
From my research and expert interviews, most people fare best on a “Paleo template” diet, meaning emulating our ancestors — even our grandparents — by eating real, unprocessed foods, low in insulin-spiking elements, and without added chemicals. Our grandparents didn’t have to call food “organic.” It was just “food,” grown without toxic, gut-harming chemicals (herbicides and pesticides) like glyphosate and atrazine.
I have found this Paleo template food plan, a sometimes-ketogenic (high healthy fat with loads of above-ground vegetables) diet, along with periodic fasting to be ideal for optimizing our biology. For help in discovering your best foods, I urge you to do your own experimentation.
5. I can’t afford organic food or a Functional Medicine doctor.
Do what you can to prioritize your health and the health of your family. Costco, Trader Joe’s, Safeway and Walmart now have more organic food choices at pretty good prices. Download the Dirty Dozen food list from EWG.org to determine the conventional produce you must avoid due to higher pesticide and herbicide content, and the Clean 15 list for the best produce to buy conventionally grown.
Functional Medicine (FM) is root cause-based medicine, and there are an increasing number of books on natural healing with a root cause focus as well as Functional Medicine nutritionists and health coaches that can be cost-effective resources. Finally, consider the far higher cost in dollars, time, and energy for you not to invest in your health right now. What I would have given to have had access to a Functional Medicine, naturopath, or integrative practitioner 30 years ago!
6. I don’t have time to take care of myself.
I get it. The number one stressor in America, according to Executive Director of The Institute of Stress, Heidi Hanna, PhD, is the perception that we don’t have enough time. No doubt about it, making time for yourself, on top of your other demands is tough. But, here’s the deal: to be well, you must prioritize time for self-care.
People, especially women, may think that prioritizing self-care is selfish, but it’s actually the opposite. By putting your own oxygen mask on first, you will likely have even more energy for your daily responsibilities. If you’re really pressed for time, try doubling up, like deep breathing while you’re commuting to work, or walking while you’re on the phone, or doing guided meditations while you’re lying in bed. If 20 minutes sounds impossible, start with 5 or even 1.
So, what can you do?
- You must take charge of your own health and wellbeing. Your doctor works for you, not the other way around.
- To heal, you must work at the root cause, not symptom level. Educate yourself about the root causes of autoimmune conditions.
- Work with a root cause practitioner. As a Functional Medicine Health Coach I collaborate with a skilled Naturopath to serve clients as efficiently and effectively as possible with the right testing and custom treatment protocols. If you’re ready to reclaim your health and you want my personal help, the starting point is a 30-min Discovery & Strategy Session. During this session, we will discuss your health situation and your goals. By the end of the call, you will have more clarity for best next steps. If we agree that my 1:1 support is a fit, I will apply the cost of this session towards one of my Functional Medicine Autoimmune Reversal coaching packages. If you’re ready to take control of your health and your life, I’d love to work with you!
Want more help? I wrote Beat Autoimmune, The 6 Keys to Reverse Your Condition and Reclaim Your Health to help people just like you, who are seeking complete healing and optimal health. I am honored that Mark Hyman, MD, Functional Medicine pioneer and thirteen-time New York Times Bestselling author, wrote the foreword.
Take good care!
Image Credit: Niklas Hamann