Immune System: A Functional Approach to Autoimmune Diseases
Autoimmune diseases are increasing at an alarming rate. Today, 1 in 10 people are diagnosed with autoimmune diseases world wide, and 1 in 5 people within the United States.  These diseases, in which the immune system becomes overactive, and results in a chronic inflammatory condition, are devastating individuals. Conventional medicine does not offer an answer to the root cause of autoimmune diseases. Instead, the symptoms are treated while the root grows deeper. What if we could address the root AND, therefore, eliminate the symptoms? A functional medicine approach seeks to do precisely that. My job is to ask the questions, “What is the function of the immune system? What went wrong? and, How do we work to correct it?” While there are a lot of unknown areas still being researched today, we also have many answers! As we wrap up our series, “The Immune System,” we are going to look at the root cause of autoimmune diseases and how to utilize nutritional therapy to counteract it. There are three components to an autoimmune disease. Dr. Alessio Fasano, a world-renowned gastroenterologist, an expert in autoimmune disease, and a pioneer in understanding celiac disease, describes these components as a three-legged stool-- meaning they must be present in order for someone to develop an autoimmune disease: genetic predisposition, a trigger, and intestinal permeability The Three Components of an Autoimmune Disease Defined:. “Genetic predisposition: certain genes make individuals more susceptible to certain diseases. A trigger: specific antigen, or protein, the immune system recognizes as a threat (real or not), that sets off the cascade of over-activation. In the case of celiac disease, the trigger is gluten. However, in the vast majority of autoimmune diseases the trigger remains unknown. Intestinal permeability (also referred to as “leaky gut”): this increased permeability means that the normally tightly knit cells of the intestines are weakened and “leaky”. This allows large compounds, such as proteins from food or bacteria, entry into our bloodstream. Leaky gut can occur due to any number of reasons such as food sensitivities, gut infections, or chronic stress.”  While we are at the mercy of our genes, the good news is that we can take a level of action to heal and protect our immune systems from the other two components: a trigger and intestinal permeability. First, action can be taken to remove stressors to our immune system, which are the triggers. Identified and possible food sensitivities and allergies must be eliminated from the diet. Other stressors may include emotional stress, medications, antibiotics and processed foods which cause the second component--intestinal permeability. (In my series, “Supporting the Foundations”, I discussed how the digestive system is easily compromised, by the above stressors, which lead to leaky gut. ) This devastating condition causes so many diseases, but can be reversed by “repairing the leak” or rebuilding the walls of the small intestines.Then, the environment of the small intestine--the balance of bacteria which we call the microbiome-- needs to be restored. It is essential to rebuild the gut through nutritional therapy. This reversal process can be as simple as a low-inflammatory diet, such as what my RESTART class provides, or a more in depth journey to eliminate food allergens, manage stress, introduce probiotics, boost specific nutrients, etc. While this process can be tedious, the exciting news is that it works! When a trigger and leaky gut are addressed, we manipulate the epigenome which controls how our genes turn on and off. Our bodies are incredibly designed machines. When given the proper fuel, they have great potential to repair themselves. Whether you are in a maintenance or healing season, I encourage you to be proactive to support your immune system through the variety of steps we discussed within this article and entire “Immune System” series. It is time to reverse the statistics of autoimmune diseases and give our immune systems the resources to fight for us and not against us.