Autoimmune conditions are one of the most common modern-day disorders and are thought to affect 7-9% of the UK’s population, with a disproportionate number of females being affected in adulthood. Symptoms can impact upon every aspect of your life: from your work and leisure pursuits, to your relationships, social life, motivation and mental well-being.
There are more than 80 distinct autoimmune diseases, including among others:
- Hashimotos Thyroiditis
- Graves’ Disease
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Sjogren’s Syndrome
- Coeliac disease
- Ulcerative Colitis
- Crohn’s Disease
- Type 1 Diabetes
Individuals with one autoimmune disease are approximately 3 times more likely to develop another autoimmune condition. Consequently, alongside seeing their GP, clients are commonly being treated by one or more specialist consultants (including Neurologists, Rheumatologists, Gastroenterologists or Endocrinologists) depending upon the organ or systems affected.
How a healthy immune system works
Our immune system is vitally important to ensure that we remain healthy and to prevent us from becoming ill. Most of the time, our immune system is at rest. Temporary ‘inflammation’ is a normal bodily process that occurs when our immune system is required to respond to infection or injury (for example, if we have a cold or cut ourselves).
Immune cells have several vital functions. They can:
- Detect and remove foreign cells (such as bacteria and viruses) and thereby help fight an infection.
- Remove dead, damaged or abnormal cells.
- Repair damaged tissue and help heal wounds.
In some instances, we may have no symptoms when our immune system is at work. In other instances, we may feel unwell, tired, have a temperature or experience swelling. These normal, temporary responses occur to support our immune systems capacity to function effectively.
A healthy immune system has one other essential function: the capacity to recognise and tolerate our own healthy bodily tissue. Tolerance ensures that our immune system is able to perform these essential immune functions, without damaging our own bodily tissue.
To summarise, a healthy immune system is therefore one which is at rest the majority of the time, tolerant of our own bodily tissue, yet is on alert and able to respond to insults or injury if required.
What is an Autoimmune Disease?
Autoimmune diseases are chronic, inflammatory conditions in which your immune system attacks and causes damage to your own bodily tissue. If you have an autoimmune disease, your immune system is no longer ‘tolerant’ of your own healthy bodily tissues and it mistakenly recognises it as ‘foreign’ thereby triggering an immune response against it. It is this immune reaction that causes organ or systemic damage to your body and your resulting symptoms.
The immune response and resulting inflammation, whether low or high-grade, can last for months or even years. During this time, the immune system increases its production of immune cells which react against your bodily tissue. If your immune system is not suppressed, this increased activity can result in more extensive, lasting damage to bodily structures and organs, impairing their capacity to function.
Your particular diagnosis is dependent upon the organ or system that has been damaged by this immune response. For example, you may receive a diagnosis of Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis if your thyroid gland tissue has been impaired affecting its capacity to function. Conversely, you may receive a diagnosis of Rheumatoid Arthritis, if your muscular skeletal system has been attacked, affecting the connective tissue in your joints.
Your symptoms may be mild or extremely debilitating depending upon the level of inflammation and damage caused by your immune system. Some of the symptoms that you may be experiencing will be influenced by the organs and systems that are inflamed, damaged or affected by your immune system. For example, individuals with Rheumatoid Arthritis will frequently experience joint and muscular pain, whereas those with Crohn’s Disease may experience gastrointestinal symptoms. However, it is also common for people with an autoimmune condition to experience additional, seemingly unrelated symptoms. These may include, amongst others:
- Joint and muscular pain;
- Muscle weakness;
- Reduced mobility;
- Hormonal imbalance;
- Impaired cognition and memory ‘fuzzy thinking’;
- Weight loss or weight gain;
- Gastrointestinal / abdominal symptoms (e.g constipation, diarrhoea, pain, blood or mucus in your stool and food intolerances);
- Intolerance to cold;
- Impaired sleep;
- Hair loss;
- Tingling sensations in your extremities;
- Food cravings;
- An increased tendency to infections or weakened immunity.
Why me? Causes of autoimmune conditions
Despite their prevalence, the factors instigating a change from a normal immune function (in which bodily tissue is tolerated) to chronic inflammation and an autoimmune condition (in which tolerance is lost) are poorly understood. This lack of certainty may leave you feeling disempowered, frustrated and despairing: why you are experiencing health problems when others with similar backgrounds and possibly less healthy lifestyles are not.
Current research does, however, suggest that a combination of the following factors, many of which are pro-inflammatory, may be implicated with an increased risk of developing an autoimmune disease:
- Genetic factors. Certain genotypes or mutations in specific genes have been associated with increased genetic susceptibility to certain autoimmune diseases. You may have family members with one or more autoimmune conditions.
- Infectious agents. Viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasitic infections are also currently implicated in the development of autoimmune diseases.
- Nutrient deficiencies. Nutrients are vital to ensure that your immune system can function properly. Nutrient deficiencies are frequently linked with the development of autoimmune conditions.
- Digestive difficulties. Impaired gut function is frequently associated with an increased risk of developing an autoimmune condition. Indeed, supporting gut function is often key to supporting immune function restoration.
- Hormonal factors. Autoimmune conditions in women are frequently triggered after pregnancy, miscarriage or the menopause. There is some thought that the physical trauma and change in hormones may influence the development of autoimmunity.
- Lifestyle factors. Research also suggests an increased risk of developing an autoimmune condition is associated with, amongst others:
- Lack of or high levels of exercise
- High calorie intake and obesity
- Lack of sleep and rest
- Psychological stress and anxiety
- Occupational exposure. For example, individuals working in certain industries such as chemical industry, farming or shoe and leather workers where chemical exposure is higher
- Toxin exposure (such as exposure to mercury- amalgam fillings, aluminium, mould, medications or other toxins).
How autoimmune disorders are managed medically
If you have an autoimmune disease, it is likely that you have had numerous appointments with your GP for a host of symptoms, before being referred to a relevant medical specialist consultant/s for confirmation of your diagnosis. Once you have navigated this maze, you will have been prescribed various medications in order to try and control the pathology of your autoimmune condition and to treat your symptoms.
Specific treatments will depend upon both the type and severity of your diagnosis. However, in general the following pattern of medication frequently occurs:
- Initially, you may be prescribed over-the-counter painkilling and anti-inflammatory medication. Non-steroid anti-inflammatory medication (ibuprofen, Naproxen and Aspirin) may ease your pain by suppressing your inflammation.
- At a later stage, you may be prescribed corticosteroid anti-inflammatory medication (e.g. Cortisone, Prednisone and Hydrocortisone). Corticosteroids work by binding to cortisol receptors in your body and suppressing your overly active immune system and therefore your symptoms. You may initially be given a high dose of corticosteroids, with the goal being to reduce this to a lower level which effectively meets your needs, at a later time.
- You may also be offered immunosuppressive medications. Immunosuppressant medications work by preventing your immune system from reacting or by reducing its ability to react and produce inflammatory chemicals. As a result your inflammation and hence symptoms are less pronounced.
- As your condition progresses, you may be offered disease-modifying medication, such as Methotrexate. Disease modifying medication is used to try and improve your symptoms by slowing down the progression of your disease. It works at a cellular level, by interfering with cell and DNA division and hence replication.
- You may also be offered surgery, which may be used to overcome the impact of the destruction of bodily tissue.
- In addition, you may also be prescribed anti-depressant medication and offered additional interventions, such as Physical and/ or Occupational Therapy.
Your medication may be regularly reviewed, altered or increased over time to ensure that it can meet your changing needs.
It is important to note that you may be required to take your medication for the long-term, foreseeable future. Every individual responds differently to the medication they are prescribed and the clinical efficacy of the different medications vary greatly. Although your medication may alleviate your symptoms, it cannot reverse your condition, may be associated with a host of adverse side-effects, and does not address the root cause of your inflammation.
Personal experience has taught me that having an autoimmune condition can be both devastating and overwhelming. Your symptoms and condition can affect your ability to work, your home life, leisure pursuits, holidays, social life, relationships, motivation and mental well-being. There is, however, a lot that you can do to support your immune system and improve your body’s ability to repair.
Imagine you are standing on a tack. How would you treat the pain and inflammation? The obvious answer is that you would take the tack out of your foot. You wouldn’t just take aspirin or painkillers until it felt better, you would address the root cause of the problem. The question should always be: ‘Why do I have these symptoms and this diagnosis’?
The root cause of your diagnosis or symptoms may be due to a variety of factors, such as a vitamin deficiency, a thyroid disorder, toxin exposure or food intolerance. You can take pain killers or medication to suppress your immune system, however, if your sluggish thyroid or vitamin deficiency and so on, are not restored to optimal levels, you will not return to full health.
All autoimmune diseases stem from an immune system imbalance: an over production of inflammatory chemicals. Therefore, even if your medication suppresses your immune system and relieves your symptoms, your immune system continues to be out of balance and inflamed.
Unlike conventional medicine which carves your body into separate specialities (such as your digestive or nervous systems) I use a functional medicine approach. Functional medicine views your body as one whole, fully functioning, integrated system, rather than a host of isolated symptoms and takes into account your personal story. I aim to determine the root cause of your immune systems dysfunction. I then work with you to address the underlying imbalances and causes of illness and thereby calm your inflammation and its resulting tissue damage. In addition, I also look to support and help rebuild the specific organ/s and tissues that have been damaged as a consequence of your autoimmune condition. Reducing inflammation is central to controlling autoimmune progression and flare-ups whilst re-establishing healthy organ function.
Current, evidence-based, scientific studies suggest that dietary and lifestyle changes can support your immune systems response and therefore influence both the development and onset and progression of an autoimmune disease. I am trained to consider your individual biochemical needs and to use foods, and where relevant nutritional supplements and lifestyle changes, to address these needs. I will work with you to demystify the plethora or nutritional advice currently found in the media and introduce simple, achievable, appropriate and timely dietary and lifestyle changes which support your immune systems ability to function correctly.
Once your immune system no longer attacks your bodily tissue, it can begin to repair and you can start to notice profound changes in your health and vitality: how you look, feel and think.
Rather than just addressing your diagnosis and related symptoms (such as joint inflammation associated with Rheumatoid Arthritis) I work with you to determine possible contributory risk factors that may be affecting your biochemistry and triggering the change in your immune system function.
An initial holistic assessment of your health, diet, lifestyle, symptoms, family history and medical needs will be conducted to identify any nutritional imbalances or factors which may be contributing to your health concerns and symptoms.
If potential causes remain unclear, I may advise GP or private functional laboratory testing (such as an evaluation of your gut function, nutritional deficiencies or bacterial overgrowth) to clarify any contributing underlying biochemical imbalances. Please see information on relevant diagnostic tests.
Once assessed, I will then help you understand the potential origins of your condition. Written handouts may be provided for you to read at your leisure after your consultation.
Personalised Health Optimisation Plan
I will then work with you to design a bespoke nutritional and lifestyle programme using a wide variety of delicious food choices, to meet your health needs and help change your body’s biochemical environment. Changes introduced will address the root cause of your symptoms, reduce inflammation and help support healthy immune system responses, thereby enabling you to manage your symptoms and condition more effectively whilst empowering you to regain control over your own health and reach your health goals.
Every individual seen is unique and any advice provided is tailor-made to address your health concerns, dietary and lifestyle preferences, budget, medication, symptoms and needs at a pace that suits you. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach and no two programmes are the same. Changes are introduced gently and over time to ensure that they are achievable and that you do not feel overwhelmed. Your programme is reviewed and adjusted during follow-up consultations to support you on your journey to optimal health. Click here to read more about the consultation programmes I offer.
The 6 R’s
There are a wide range of approaches that may be of benefit to you. These can be explored to ensure that the right one is chosen to meet your specific needs. However, in general, I use the 6 R’s approach outlined below. The staging and timing of the protocol are essential to the success of the programme and although written as 6 steps, one or more of these may be undertaken simultaneously as required:
- Remove: I will work with you to remove factors that may be triggering an inflammatory response (such as foods, toxins, hidden or latent infections and stress).
- Replace: We will replace any foods and nutrients that your body may be lacking, to promote and support its ability to repair, metabolise, digest, detoxify, signal effectively and ensure our genes can express themselves appropriately. In some instances, nutritional supplements are recommended.
- Repair: We will help support bodily tissue that has been damaged by the immune systems response by ensuring that the correct nutrients are in place to help it heal.
- Re-inoculate: Beneficial bacteria are vital to support not only our gut function but our overall health. At the correct time in your programme, we will ensure that these are introduced, using either probiotic food sources and / or supplementation if required.
- Re-balance: This stage addresses you as a whole to ensure that all relevant additional factors have been addressed to promote your health and well-being. This may include: your diet, lifestyle, family, hydration, sleep, stress levels and genes.
- Retest: Nutritional Therapy is a science and retesting is therefore a vital aspect of any nutritional programme. Retesting relevant components of your health helps determine the biochemical effectiveness of any intervention and also highlights any additional areas which may need to be addressed.
I hope that what I have written helps give you a brief overview of how making changes to your own diet and lifestyle can influence how well your body can work both physically and mentally and thereby can influence your overall health status.
If you would like more information or professional help to start improving your health, please contact me today.
Please note: Nutritional Therapy is a complementary therapy that can work well alongside other medical or complementary therapies. It does not replace any medical advice. Clients are always encouraged to consult with their GP regarding any health concerns or for advice, diagnosis and treatment. To get the most out of dietary and lifestyle interventions, please seek professional advice, as there is a plethora of misleading information currently available which may not be beneficial or specifically intended to meet your own identified needs. I am happy to work alongside other healthcare professionals or complementary therapists involved in your care to explain your Nutritional Therapy programme and to ensure it is safely and effectively implemented.