by Dr. Will Cole
Recently, I spoke with a new patient who was struggling with debilitating anxiety, depression, brain fog, and fatigue. She’s in her mid-30s and can’t even get out of bed some days because her life is so wrecked by health problems which all seem to be brain-related.
Over the past few years, she’s seen dozens of doctors and specialists. All of her labs and tests came back “normal,” so she was given antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications. yet, she knew instinctively that something was wrong that wasn’t being addressed. This brought her to a webcam consultation with me, from across the country.
Why am I telling you this? Because this is no isolated incident. This patient is just one of many I’ve seen over the years experiencing similar unexplained symptoms, who have not found answers from conventional medicine.
Brain issues are an epidemic. Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, and anxiety disorders affect more than 40 million Americans. Many people spend years not knowing why they’re suffering. As a functional medicine practitioner, I have to ask, why? Why this catastrophic rise in brain problems? At last, science may have uncovered an answer that could explain the one common factor among many of these otherwise highly differentiated cases: an inflammatory-immune response in the brain.
The Rise of Autoimmune Brain Problems
Autoimmune conditions themselves have also grown to epidemic proportions in our lifetime, affecting an estimated 50 million Americans. Today there are close to 100 recognized autoimmune diseases, with 40 more disease processes likely having an autoimmune component, and I predict that we will uncover more still.
Autoimmune disease attacks the body’s own tissues in an overzealous attempt to slay invaders like viruses or bacteria, and frequently attack specific areas of the body – the brain included.
Millions of people’s immune systems are attacking their brain and nervous tissue, and this particular problem is drastically under-diagnosed. Autoimmune brain diseases like multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and autism are affecting people now more than ever before in human history. Even Celiac disease, so often considered a GI disease, can be strictly neurological in its symptoms, leading to severe anxiety disorders and other brain problems.
So what gives? As I mentioned in my previous article, fascinating new research is looking at how inflammation can damage the brain’s protective blood-brain barrier (BBB) and possibly lead to brain problems such as what is now often referred to as neurological autoimmunity.
This inflammation activates the brain’s immune microglia cells, which can trigger an inflammatory-autoimmune response. In other words, people’s immune systems might be attacking their brain and nervous tissue in response to inflammation that could have started somewhere else entirely, such as in the gut.
The Anxiety/Depression and Autoimmune Connection
In order to be diagnosed with most autoimmune diseases, there must first be evidence that the immune system has destroyed a significant amount of tissue – in this case, the brain or nervous system tissue. Yet, autoimmune disease starts long before conditions are sufficient for an official diagnoses. Typically it progresses along an autoimmune spectrum in this order:
- Silent Autoimmunity: Labs show up with positive antibodies, but there are no noticeable symptoms.
- Autoimmune Reactivity: There are positive antibody labs and some symptoms, but no radical tissue destruction.
- Autoimmune Disease: There is enough body destruction to warrant an official diagnosis.
The patient I mentioned earlier is like the countless other people on the autoimmune spectrum: Not sick enough to be labeled with an autoimmune disease, but demonstrating symptoms that interfere with her life and function.
Why aren’t we catching these diseases sooner? Brain destruction should never be taken lightly. Research has shown that depression and anxiety are more common in patients with autoimmune diseases than chronic degenerative conditions, likely due to the direct effect of inflammatory cytokines on the central nervous system. Further, someone with one autoimmune disease has a higher chance of suffering an immune system attack on another system, such as the brain. This is called polyautoimmunity. For example, one study looking at lupus found higher rates of anxiety due to inflammation in the brain.
Keep in mind these studies are using people already diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. Just think about all of those undiagnosed in stage 2 of autoimmune reactivity, and what is likely going on inside their bodies and brains!
Functional medicine practitioners don’t believe in waiting until someone’s health declines enough to be labeled with a disease and matched with a corresponding drug. Instead, autoimmune reactivity should be ruled out first, or caught as early as possible. I suggest thinking about this now. For example, you may want to consider autoimmune reactivity as the culprit in your health symptoms if:
- You have a family history of autoimmune conditions
- You have a family history of mental health problems
- You’ve been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease
- You’re not improving with medications or behavioral therapy
If you suspect autoimmune reactivity might be leading to depression or anxiety issues now or in your future, here are a few interventions you can take right now:
1. Ask your doctor about having these five tests done:
- Autoimmune Reactivity Brain Labs: These blood labs can look for raised antibodies, including GAD antibodies, which attack the enzyme used to make the calming neurotransmitter GABA.
- Microbiome Labs: Your gut is your “second brain,” where 95% of your “happy” neurotransmitter called serotonin is made. Leaky gut syndrome and SIBO, or small intestinal bacteria overgrowth, are both associated with many autoimmune brain conditions because they can lead to leaky brain.
- Wheat and Gluten Testing: A comprehensive look at gluten intolerance includes looking at antibodies to transglutaminase 6 (TG6). These are rarely tested in a mainstream medical setting, and yet some studies show they can damage neurological tissue. A functional medicine doctor can order these tests for you.
- Food-Immune Reactivity Labs: Sugar and dairy are common food triggers for autoimmunity, but I’ve also seen the healthiest plant foods be immunoreactive in some patients. The diet that works for one person may not be right for you – and labs can help cut through the autoimmune food confusion.
- Predictive Autoimmunity Labs: Elevated antibodies against the adrenal glands are another contributing factor to depression and anxiety. This lab looks for this particular issue, and can also discover undiagnosed autoimmune thyroid problems like, Hashimoto’s or Graves’ which can also trigger depression or anxiety issues. Knowing your antibodies can give you insight into why you feel the way you do.
2. Look into natural autoimmune medicines.
Studies suggest that optimizing vitamin D and intracellular glutathione levels with supplementation can help support Regulatory T Cells to balance the immune system, and TH-3 activity, which suppresses autoimmunity. Other natural options include supplementing with curcumin and resveratrol, two powerful natural anti-inflammatories, and TH-17 cells in autoimmune cases. For more tips, check out my previous article.
3. Consider functional medicine.
Everyone is different and functional medicine acknowledges that and is based on this concept. There are no quick fixes or magic pills when it comes to autoimmune brain problems, but a functional medicine practitioner will consider your individual situation while helping you discover the root of your dysfunction. Consider taking advantage of a free evaluation to see if functional medicine is right for you.
The information on this website has not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration or any other medical body. We do not aim to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any illness or disease. Information is shared for educational purposes only. You must consult your doctor before acting on any content on this website, especially if you are pregnant, nursing, taking medication, or have a medical condition.
Our articles may include products that have been independently chosen and recommended by Dr. Will Cole and our editors. If you purchase something mentioned in this article, we may earn a small commission.