Updated: Nov 12, 2020
It's a question that comes up a lot... Do I have autoimmune disease?
The medical world tends to look at autoimmunity as you are either healthy or you have an autoimmune disease. In fact autoimmunity is a spectrum, there are stages, it's not as black and white as you may believe.
Autoimmune diseases are seen in roughly three quarters more women than men and cover over 80 recognised conditions, although it is thought to be closer to 150 (autoimmunity is being found as a component in more and more diseases, but tests and trials need to be carried out to confirm scientific beliefs, these trials are ongoing). Autoimmune disease is where the body's immune system mistakenly attacks its own cells, tissues or organs.
In functional medicine when we look at autoimmunity we generally take a wider look at the whole body of the person, as well as their own history and their family history. The focus is less on the label of the disease itself.
My Autoimmune Spectrum
My spectrum of autoimmunity contains 4 main stages and the 5th is a trigger (the trigger is stage 2 on the spectrum diagram).
Autoimmune disease lies hand in hand with inflammation in the body and this is something that is focused on in the spectrum as well as whether a person is symptomatic and whether there is any degeneration. Yes you heard me right...read that again...whether a person is symptomatic or not. By the time you get to an autoimmune disease there is usually already some kind of degeneration or destruction in the body, but autoimmunity starts a long time before this, 3 of the 5 stages on my autoimmune spectrum show no symptoms. In fact you can go 10 years or more with autoimmunity before you show symptoms.
It's also important to remember that a person often suffers with other autoimmune issues once they have autoimmune antibodies. So once you have one condition it's likely if you carry on heading down the spectrum you will develop more. In fact it's not unusual to see people with 4 or 5 autoimmune conditions.
It is seen as inherently bad, but actually inflammation is a good thing, we wouldn't be alive without it, it is a vital part of our immune system that protects us. The issues arise when inflammation gets out of control, as with most things in the body, it isn't about inflammation being good or bad, it is about it being in balance, this is generally my ethos with most things.
This is why on my spectrum healthy people still show minor inflammation, because we all have it and in balance we can still be healthy with inflammation, like I said we actually need it to keep us healthy.
How do I know if I'm on the spectrum if I'm not diagnosed with a disease?
There are common symptoms that we see in autoimmunity such as:
lack of energy / fatigue
chronic pain / joint pain / muscle aches
gut disturbance / digestive issues
brain fog / cognitive issues
However having these symptoms doesn't necessarily mean you have autoimmunity, nothing in medicine is that black and white, they are just things we look at as an indication that we need to check for autoimmune disease. If you don't have symptoms (or if you do) we look at family history to assess your risk, we can run labs to check your inflammation levels and gut health these are functional tests that we run regularly and are not invasive. We then work to reduce your inflammation and optimise your gut health (where 80% of the immune system resides), we can also look at an individuals SNPs which are genetic variations and methylation testing to look for gene mutations. These things allow us to really tailor a programme to an individuals genetics.
Why do so many people have autoimmune disease now?
This is the golden question isn't it. If we figure this out we can avoid autoimmune conditions. Functional medicine always likes to ask WHY. Why is this person having these symptoms. Why is this happening.
I believe that the way we live now has a massive impact on the volume of autoimmune disease. From the food we eat, the fast paced stressful lives we lead, the quality of the earth's soil, the pollution in the ground and air, the toxins we are surrounded by, the water we drink. The earth has changed rapidly in recent years, humans on the other hand haven't. We haven't evolved or adapted, our genes and DNA is the same, it has been for tens of thousands of years. The earth and environment we live in is not.
Is there any good news?
Yes of course there is. In fact many people on the autoimmune spectrum will never reach the point of disease. For example many people have food sensitivities but will never be diagnosed as a coeliac for example. Working on the gut and things like dysbiosis and SIBO can have massive impacts for people.
Also it is thought only 25% of autoimmune disease comes down to your genetics, that means 75% is down to your diet, lifestyle and environment. They are all things we can work on.
Also did you notice the direction of the arrows on the side of the spectrum? Have another look which way do they go? Yes you got it ... both ways. As much as you can travel down the spectrum with the right interventions you can also travel back up it.
So at what point can a functional medicine practitioner or nutritional therapist like myself help? ... easy ... at any of the 5 stages.
Did you know that functional medicine also works as preventative medicine, we help people who may know they have autoimmune disease in the family and they want to reduce their own chances of developing one, these are our healthy people on the spectrum. The aim is to jump in with support before the autoimmune activation.
After autoimmune activation we can help at the silent stage to try to prevent lifelong symptoms appearing. At the symptomatic stage we work to try and reduce inflammation and therefore the severity, or regularity, of the symptoms, as well as preventing further ones and preventing degeneration occurring. We also work to reduce the chances of you developing further autoimmunity.
So can we still help at the autoimmune disease stage ... YES. Autoimmune diseases have no cure so of course if we can jump in before this stage it is beneficial, but it is never too late to work on your health. At this point we can still work to lessen severity or regularity of symptoms, we can work to lessen the risk of future 'attacks' which may cause further degeneration and reduce the risk of you developing other autoimmune issues. We work to get you to your optimal health so that you can lead the best life you can.
What do we look at with functional medicine?
We look at a broad range of areas from diet, your lifestyle, your history, your family history, toxins and heavy metals, infections, hormones, the microbiome, genetics, methylation, stress, mental health and sleep. Where we start and what aspects we focus on is very personalised to the individual and will depend on their specific case.
If you want help you can work with me 1:1, you can read more about my services here.
Or why not book a free 15 minute discovery call with me and we can have a chat about your issues and you can learn more about functional medicine.
Or you can do one of my online programmes a Health MOT
or a Nutrition Fix.