Do You Have An Autoimmune Disease? These Are The Symptoms To Look Out For
If it seems like autoimmune diseases are more common than ever, it's because they are! With autoimmune conditions on the rise, you might be wondering if your persistent symptoms have anything to do with autoimmunity.
As a functional medicine expert, it’s my job to empower you to make informed decisions about your health and wellbeing. By understanding more about what autoimmunity is, you can start winning the battle against autoimmune disease and take back control of your health. So without further ado, let’s jump in to everything you need to know about autoimmune disease and its symptoms.
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What are autoimmune diseases?
Autoimmune diseases happen when your body’s immune system attacks healthy cells in a certain area of your body. In my telehealth functional medicine clinic, I typically see autoimmune conditions manifest in 8 different areas of the body:
- The digestive system
- The brain and nervous system
- The detoxification system (liver, kidneys, lymphatic system)
- The endocrine system (hormones)
- The blood sugar and insulin system
- The musculoskeletal system
- The immune system
- Polyinflammation (autoimmunity in two or more of these areas of the body)
But autoimmune conditions are really just the end stage of the larger autoimmune-inflammation spectrum. See, in order to be diagnosed with an autoimmune condition your body already has to have destroyed the majority of tissue - up to 90% in the case of Addison’s disease. However, we know that you don’t come down with a chronic disease overnight. You are always either trending toward health or disease. Ultimately, there are three stages of the autoimmune-inflammation spectrum:
- Silent Autoimmunity: There are positive antibody labs but no noticeable symptoms. Your doctor will likely tell you that you are probably fine, or to come back next year and re-test.
- Autoimmune Reactivity: There are positive antibody labs and symptoms, but still not enough to warrant a formal diagnosis.
- Autoimmune Disease: There’s enough body destruction to be diagnosed.
That’s why you can experience symptoms of autoimmune disease without being diagnosed. In my book, The Inflammation Spectrum, I talk more about how to identify where you are on this autoimmune-inflammation spectrum.
Common types of autoimmune diseases
Currently there are close to 100 recognized autoimmune diseases, and an additional 40 chronic health conditions that research suggests could have an autoimmune component. While that is too many to list here, these are some of the autoimmune conditions that I see most often in my telehealth functional medicine clinic.
1. Hashimoto’s disease
Research estimates (1) that up to 90 percent of all cases of hypothyroidism - where your thyroid doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormones - are autoimmune in nature with Hashimoto’s disease being the most common. When this happens, your thyroid is not the source of the problem, but the victim of a misguided immune system attack, in which your body mistakes your thyroid for a virus.
Lupus is a systemic autoimmune condition because unlike rheumatoid arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease, which affect one specific area of the body, lupus can affect anything from your joints, skin, or kidneys to your blood cells, brain, heart, or lungs.
3. Crohn’s disease
Crohn’s disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disease where the body’s immune system attacks the intestinal lining in your gut leading to localized inflammation. This can cause symptoms like bloating, pain, appetite changes, and nausea.
4. Rheumatoid arthritis
In the case of Rheumatoid arthritis, the body’s immune system attacks joints and the fluid and tissues surrounding them, causing stiffness, pain, and swelling. Symptoms typically manifest in the wrist, ankles, and knees.
5. Graves disease
In Graves’ disease your thyroid becomes hyperactive and leads your thyroid gland to produce an overabundance of hormones. In healthy individuals TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) tells your thyroid what to do. However, in Graves’ disease your immune system produces antibodies that acts as TSH causing an overproduction of thyroid hormones. While hyperthyroidism is common, Graves’ disease is one of the leading causes of this condition.
Symptoms of autoimmune disease
With so many different types of autoimmune conditions, how do you know if you have an autoimmune disease? Ultimately, testing is going to help you determine for sure whether or not you are producing antibodies against a certain area of your body.
But as we mentioned earlier, there has to be significant damage done before you are diagnosed with an autoimmune condition. Until then, your body is going to be giving you signs that you are trending toward an autoimmune disease through various symptoms. Some of the most common symptoms of autoimmune disease include:
- Brain fog
- Abdominal pain
- Digestive distress
- Difficulty gaining weight
- Skin problems (rashes, eczema, etc.)
- Joint pain
- Hair thinning or loss
- Brittle nails
- Weight loss resistance
While you can’t expect to have the same set of symptoms as someone else, you can listen and take note of what your body is trying to tell you. If you are experiencing some of these symptoms - to whatever degree - chances are you could be trending toward an autoimmune condition.
What triggers autoimmune disease?
Currently, researchers don’t know what causes autoimmune disease but they believe it has to do with an underlying genetic weakness being triggered by an immune system response to an outside factor.
The old theory was that your genetics determine your destiny. But what studies have found is that 77% of your health is determined by your lifestyle choices. Meaning, you have more control over whether or not your genetic susceptibility to an autoimmune disease ever gets triggered. These are just a few of the lifestyle triggers which you have control over - to a large degree - that can trigger an autoimmune disease.
Stress has one of the biggest influences over your health - particularly your immune system. Research shows (2) that chronic mental stress can be a trigger for autoimmune diseases. Oftentimes, diagnoses can come after a stressful time in your life such as death, divorce, or other stressful season.
Our genetics haven’t changed in thousands of years but the amount of toxins we are exposed to on a daily basis has increased tenfold. This has created a genetic mismatch where our DNA hasn’t yet adjusted to the onslaught of toxins we come across on a daily basis. Studies have shown that toxins play a role in autoimmune cases such as autoimmune thyroiditis.
5. Poor gut health
In functional medicine it’s understood that increased gut lining permeability, or a “leaky gut,” is a precursor to autoimmunity. Not only is close to 80% of your immune system located in your gut, leaky gut can also perpetuate chronic inflammation. Since multiple triggers (poor diet, toxins, stress, etc.) can lead to leaky gut syndrome, a leaky gut can be considered a casual trigger, as well as a symptom, of autoimmunity.
5. Chronic infections
Infections, including viral, bacterial, parasitic, fungal, and yeast, are associated (3) with just about every autoimmune condition. This could be due to the fact that the majority of our immune system is produced from the gut microbiome, so when infections enter the gut, they can alter immune activity. Many times people don’t realize that they have a chronic infection as they can lay dormant for years before being activated by any one of these triggers including poor gut health, inflammation, and poor diet.
6. Poor diet
Similarly to toxin exposure, our genetics haven’t caught up to the change in agricultural practices, poor soil quality, GMOs, crop chemicals, and the onslaught of food additives and preservatives. Researchers believe that this mismatch has contributed to the rise in autoimmune disease. Plus, underlying food sensitivities can also lead to chronic inflammation and leaky gut syndrome which further perpetuate autoimmune problems.
Autoimmune disease FAQs
As a functional medicine expert who has spent years consulting patients through their health problems, these are some of the most common questions I get about autoimmune disease.
Are autoimmune diseases contagious?
A: No, it is not caused directly by a viral or bacterial infection that spreads between individuals.
How do you diagnose autoimmune disease?
A: Your doctor will look at your symptoms and run antibody labs to determine if your body is producing antibodies against an particular area of your body
What doctors treat autoimmune disease?
A: In conventional medicine, the type of doctor you see is determined by what type of autoimmune condition you have. Rheumatologists, endocrinologists, and gastroenterologists all specialize in different areas of your body. A functional medicine practitioner takes a more whole-body approach and can work with any type of autoimmune disease.
Can you prevent autoimmune disease?
A: Although genetics do play a factor in autoimmune disease, we can mitigate the likelihood that our genetic predisposition will ever come to fruition by the lifestyle choices we make on a daily basis including managing our stress levels, eating well, and more.
Can you reverse autoimmune disease?
A: Every single person’s biochemistry is different but it is possible to put autoimmune conditions into remission. Flare ups can happen but many people go on to live relatively symptom-free lives with proper management.
How are autoimmune disorders treated?
There is no cure for autoimmune disease but symptoms of autoimmune disease can be managed or even put into remission. In conventional medicine, autoimmune conditions are usually treated with medications like immunosuppressants, corticosteroids, antidepressants, anti-inflammatory medications, insulin, and more. While this can be helpful in some cases, these medications can also have their own set of side effects.
In functional medicine, we focus on putting your symptoms of autoimmune disease into remission by identifying your triggers and healing any underlying health problems that are perpetuating inflammation and your autoimmune disease. This can include holistic changes like diet, stress management, natural supplements, and detox support, to soothe inflammation, heal your gut, and more.
Seeking help from a functional medicine doctor
If you think that you might have an autoimmune disease, it’s important to seek out care from your doctor right away. In my telehealth functional medicine clinic, we work with you to help determine the root cause of what is triggering your autoimmune symptoms and help you come up with an action plan to address them according to your unique biochemistry.
If you are interested in learning more about how we can help you address your autoimmune condition, check out our telehealth functional medicine consultation.
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- Nobuyuki Amino, 4 Autoimmunity and hypothyroidism, Baillière's Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, Volume 2, Issue 3, 1988, Pages 591-617, ISSN 0950-351X, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0950-351X(88)80055-7.
- Ljudmila Stojanovich, Dragomir Marisavljevich, Stress as a trigger of autoimmune disease, Autoimmunity Reviews, Volume 7, Issue 3, 2008, Pages 209-213, ISSN 1568-9972, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.autrev.2007.11.007.
- Tomer, Yaron, and Amanda Huber. “The etiology of autoimmune thyroid disease: a story of genes and environment.” Journal of autoimmunity vol. 32,3-4 (2009): 231-9. doi:10.1016/j.jaut.2009.02.007
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, DNM, IFMCP, DC is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum and the brand new book Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel.
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