In a nutshell, the job of your immune system is to defend you against foreign microbes, toxins, abnormal cells (like cancer), or foreign food proteins (allergens). To put it another way, your immune system is like a soldier who must be able to distinguish friend from foe.
Autoimmunity occurs when your immune system becomes confused and your own tissues get caught in the crossfire. Your body is designed to be able fight off harmful things like infections, toxins, and allergens – however, sometimes the immune system directs its hostile attacks on your joints, skin, brain, and occasionally your whole body.
Conventional medicine accepts this problem, but does not look for what might be causing the body to attack itself. Instead, conventional medicine invents powerful anti-inflammatory drugs that often have serious side effects. It fails to answer one simple question: Why is the body out of balance to begin with, and how do we rectify this to regain a proper balance?
Dr. Mark Hyman, a practitioner of functional medicine (an approach which rethinks disease by looking at the cause, the why, not only the what), has come up with 10 steps to help reverse autoimmune diseases.
Dr. Hyman uses the story of Isabel to prove just how effective functional medicine can be when it comes down to reversing the effects of autoimmune diseases.
Isabel, a 10-year-old girl from Texas, walked into Dr. Hyman’s office several years ago with one of the most severe cases of autoimmune disease that he had ever seen. Her face and joints were swollen and her immune system was attacking her muscles, skin, joints, blood vessels, liver and, red and white blood cells.
Isabel wasn’t able to squeeze her hand or make a fist, and the tips of her fingers and toes were always cold from Raynaud’s disease. Furthermore, she had been suffering from rashes that burned and irritated her skin for many years. She was always tired and miserable and was losing her hair.
Isabel was on large doses of intravenous steroids every three weeks just to keep her alive, and she was taking aspirin, prednisone, acid blockers, and methotrexate (a chemotherapy drug used to shut down the immune system daily). Despite these large doses of medication, she wasn’t getting any better, and her lab tests were abnormal still.
Her doctors wanted to add yet another powerful immune suppressing drug (a TNF alpha blocker) to the cocktail of medication she was already taking. This drug increases the risk of cancer and death from overwhelming infection, as it prevents the immune system from fighting infections normally. The inflammation slows down, thus the effects of the autoimmune disease will be reduced, but it comes at a severe price: increased chance of cancer and infection.
Isabel’s parents were understandably disturbed by these possibilities and were disgusted with conventional approaches that weren’t working, so they took her to see Dr. Hyman. Two months after he first saw and treated the underlying causes of Isabel’s inflammation, she was symptom free. In less than a year she was completely healthy, her blood tests were all normal, and she was no longer on any medication.
Dr. Hyman simply told her to stop eating gluten, dairy and sugar and to take some supplements.
This story is a perfect example of how powerful Functional Medicine is. This type of medicine asks why that inflammation exists, and when we find the underlying causes, we can start to heal the body. Those causes include hidden infections, stress, food allergies, toxic exposure, genetic predisposition, nutrient deficiencies, and a leaky gut.
In fact, there are only 5 root causes of all diseases:
• Poor diet
• Microbes or the imbalance of the bugs in your gut
All of the above can trigger symptoms and create thousands of diseases, including autoimmune diseases. If you want to decrease inflammation in the body, you must first find the cause. Physicians are often trained to diagnose by symptoms, NOT by their underlying causes.
Functional Medicine approaches diagnosing and treating diseases differently. It teaches practitioners to understand the body as a system, to seek the root of the illness, to understand the body’s basic systems, where they go awry, and how to restore balance; to understand the interconnections between organs and symptoms rather than separating diseases into specialties.
This approach provides a different way of solving medical problems, one that allows us to find the origins of an illness and identify the disturbances in the body which lead to the symptoms – and this leads us back to Isabel.
From Conventional Illness to Functional Health
In Isabel’s case, the only response her physicians had to her debilitating and life-threatening illness was to shut down her immune system completely, leaving her at risk of cancer, infection, osteoporosis, muscle wastage and mental illness. But Dr. Hyman found another way.
Dr. Hyman simply asked “WHY?” He didn’t focus on the name of the disease, he focused on WHY she was inflamed, WHERE this inflammation was coming from, and HOW he could locate the cause and restore balance to her body to prevent her from further attacks from her overactive immune system.
The immune system responds to some insult such as an allergen, a microbe, or a toxin, and then loses control. Finding and removing the trigger is essential!
When Dr. Hyman first met Isabel, he discovered many potential triggers for her autoimmune disease. She was being exposed to the toxic mold, Stachbotrys, in her house. Her mother was working in a limestone pit exposing her to excessive amounts of fluoride while pregnant. Furthermore, Isabel had all of her vaccinations before 1999 (the year thimerosal was eventually removed from vaccines).
Thimerosal contains mercury, a known immune toxin. This problem was compounded by her diet, as she loved to eat a lot of fish (which exposed her to even more mercury), dairy and sugar. The year before she became ill, she also had a lot of antibiotics. Mercury, mold, sugar, antibiotics, gluten and dairy products are all potential immune irritants.
Isabel’s lab tests were shocking – her muscle enzymes and liver function tests showed severe damage, her white and red blood cell count were extremely low, she was severely lacking in vitamin D, she had an increased level of gluten and autoimmune antibodies, and the mercury level in her urine was extremely high (the normal figure is less than 3, hers was 33).
To start off with, Dr. Hyman put Isabel on an anti-inflammatory elimination diet to remove any possible food allergy triggers – she stopped eating sugar, dairy and gluten. She was given vitamin D, B12 and B9, and fish oil and primrose oil as they are both anti-inflammatory. He told her parents to take Isabel off the acid blocker, the calcium channel block (she was using for her Raynaud’s), and the intravenous steroids she was taking.
Two months later, during her second visit, Isabel’s rash was gone, she had no joint pain, her hair was growing back and her muscle enzymes, liver function, and level of inflammation were all back to normal. Dr. Hymen added probiotics to her treatment to support healthy digestion and reduce gut inflammation. He also started her on DMSA (a chelating agent) which binds the mercury from her tissues and helps her excrete it.
Seven months later, all her tests were normal. 11 months later she was off all medication and was a happy and normal little girl again.
10 Steps to Reverse Autoimmune Disease