by Dr. Will Cole
Some people may call our current time the digital age, but I call it the autoimmune age because ,unfortunately, autoimmune conditions are growing by leaps and bounds with no apparent signs of a slow-down. Autoimmunity is a condition in which the immune system mistakenly over-reacts to the body’s own tissues, attempting to destroy them with inflammatory cells. The immune system is, of course, meant to protect against viruses and bacteria, so why would it suddenly mistake the body for an enemy?
Actually, there is nothing sudden about it. Many people are experiencing low-grade autoimmune reactivity years before they have suffered enough tissue damage to warrant a formal diagnoses by a conventional medicine practitioner. And it’s a major problem.
Research from the medical journal Nature estimates that about 25 percent of us have some sort of dysfunction of the immune system, including autoimmune reactivity, and according to the American Autoimmune-Related Diseases Association, 50 million Americans have a diagnosable autoimmune disease. Meanwhile, millions more have autoimmune spectrum problems with no explanation for their symptoms. They aren’t diagnosed yet, but unless they change something about the way their body is functioning, that will be the end result.
What is causing the rise of autoimmune conditions?
So far, there are close to 100 recognized autoimmune diseases, and an additional 40 chronic health conditions that research suggests could have an autoimmune component.
Researchers aren’t sure yet what causes autoimmune conditions, but the primary theories include a genetic weakness being triggered by an immune system response to toxins; food proteins like gluten and casein leaking into the bloodstream through a compromised gut lining; or chronic viral, bacterial, yeast, or parasite infections. All of these involve out-of-control inflammation which is an immune system trigger. This inflammatory-immune response can both cause and increase intestinal permeability or leaky gut syndrome, further perpetuating the inflammatory-immune cycle.
Stanford research estimates that about 77 percent of the immune system is determined by things we can actually control (lifestyle factors like diet, exercise, and stress), with the remainder due to genetics. You can read more in my previous article here.
Are you on the autoimmune spectrum?
To be diagnosed with most autoimmune diseases, the immune system has to destroy a significant amount of tissue (such as in the brain, gut, or thyroid) to be officially diagnosed. For example, there has to be 90 percent destruction of the adrenal glands to be diagnosed with Addison’s disease (a disorder in which the adrenal glands don’t produce enough hormones). There also has to be severe destruction of the neurological and digestive systems to be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) and celiac disease, respectively.
But let’s think about this for a minute – these diseases do not happen overnight! What happens when your adrenal glands are 80% destroyed – you are considered healthy? Or what about when your gut lining is just somewhat compromised? The truth is that diagnosis happens at the end stage of these conditions. I don’t know about you, but I would rather stop the destruction in its earliest stages, rather than waiting for that degree of dysfunction to do anything about the problem.
This is why I look at autoimmunity as a spectrum. You can be on the low end, with some reactivity, or in the middle, with significant symptoms but are still not conventionally diagnosable, or you can be at the end stage, when a doctor finally says, “Yep, you have (insert disease here.)”
There are three main stages on the autoimmune 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.
Among my patients, I find that quite a few of them are at Stage 2, about halfway along the autoimmune spectrum. They aren’t sick enough to be labeled with an autoimmune disease, but their health and bodies are, in my opinion, significantly damaged by the effects of autoimmune reactivity.
Some early symptoms of autoimmune reactivity include achy muscles and joints and fatigue. I’ve also written in the past about how some cases of unexplained depression could be due to autoimmune reactivity of the brain. I say, let’s stop autoimmune disease in its tracks.
What should you do now?
Early detection of an autoimmune spectrum disorder, before extensive damage, could give you a sort of grace period in which to address the issue, stop the progression, and, in some cases, reverse the autoimmune spectrum symptoms. Start the process with a complete set of functional medicine labs to detect early signs of autoimmunity. Some research suggests that antibodies can show up on labs several years before the diagnosis of many autoimmune diseases.
One lab I typically run on patients is what’s referred to as predictive autoimmunity. This lab allows us to see whether there is any abnormal immune response against many parts of the body. Some of the more common antibodies we find are:
- Stomach: Parietal cell antigens, which are associated with gastric autoimmunity
- Thyroid: Thyroid peroxidase antigens, which are associated with Hashimoto’s disease
- Brain: Synapsin antigens, which are associated with inhibited neurotransmitter release
- Adrenals: 21 hydroxylase (adrenal cortex) antigens, which are associated with autoimmune endocrine disorders
- Gut: Tropomyosin antigens, which are associated with inflammatory bowel disease
- Joints: Arthritic peptide antigens, which are associated with rheumatoid arthritis.
This simple blood test may be beneficial for someone who:
- Has unexplained symptoms but “normal” labs
- Has been diagnosed with gluten intolerance
- Has leaky gut syndrome
- Has already been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease
To be clear, functional labs like this are not used to diagnose autoimmune diseases, which is still done in the mainstream medical setting. We use labs like this to investigate underlying factors and tailor a health program to improve these issues, based on where the antibodies are.
If you want to learn more about your own health case please check out our free health evaluation. We offer in person as well as phone and webcam consultations for people across the country and around the world.
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