A Functional Medicine Approach to Autoimmune Diseases

Autoimmune diseases are highly prevalent in today’s world, affecting about 4.5 percent of the global population and causing a myriad of symptoms ranging from pain and fatigue to brain fog and hair loss. Some of the most common autoimmune conditions worldwide include Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, celiac disease, psoriasis, Graves’ disease, and rheumatoid arthritis, though more than 100 autoimmune disorders have been identified to date. Many autoimmune conditions share symptoms with one another, while others may differ depending on the specific tissue or organ affected. 

In autoimmune diseases such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, for instance, the immune system mistakenly attacks the thyroid gland. As a result, it’s common to experience symptoms associated with an underactive thyroid (e.g. cold intolerance, depression, memory problems, and hair loss). In rheumatoid arthritis, the joints are affected — causing symptoms like joint pain, swelling, and stiffness. However, the most commonly reported symptom among those with autoimmune conditions is debilitating fatigue. I’m sure you can relate to this feeling if you’re battling an autoimmune disease! 

But what causes autoimmune problems to develop in the first place? Does it have to do with our genetics, diet, lifestyle, and gut health? Is it the environment? The toxins we’re exposed to each day? In naturopathic functional medicine, we believe all of these things come into play. There isn’t one exact cause of autoimmunity, but instead a combination of factors that can signal our bodies to mistakenly attack healthy cells. 

Let’s take a closer look at some potential root causes of autoimmune diseases and explore some of the different autoimmune conditions that have been identified so far.

Autoimmune Diseases: A Brief Overview

As I mentioned above, more than 100 autoimmune disorders have been identified to date. And while naturopathic and functional medicine physicians like me look at the immune system as a whole when diagnosing and treating autoimmune diseases, these conditions are typically categorized as diseases of the following:

  • Endocrine system: Hashimoto’s thyroiditis; Graves’; Addison’s; type 1 diabetes mellitus; autoimmune polyglandular syndrome 1, 2, and 3*; autoimmune orchitis*; IPEX syndrome*; autoimmune hypophysitis*; and autoimmune oophoritis*. 
  • Nervous system: Multiple sclerosis, Guillain-Barre syndrome, chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, narcolepsy, myasthenia gravis, Hashimoto’s encephalopathy, acute disseminated encephalomyelitis*, PANDAS, Miller Fisher syndrome*, autoimmune inner ear disease*, Morvan’s syndrome*, Vogt-Koyanagi syndrome*, Rasmussen’s encephalitis*, Isaac’s syndrome*, and stiff-person syndrome*. 
  • Skin: Psoriasis, dermatomyositis, vitiligo, alopecia areata, dermatitis herpetiformis, discoid lupus erythematosus, bullous pemphigoid, linear morphea*, pemphigus vulgaris, cicatricial pemphigoid, pemphigus foliaceus, and epidermolysis bullosa acquisita*.
  • Digestive system: Ulcerative colitis, celiac disease, and Crohn’s disease. 
  • Biliary system: Primary biliary cholangitis, primary sclerosing cholangitis, autoimmune pancreatitis, and type 1 and 2 autoimmune hepatitis.
  • Joints and muscles: Rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, Sjögren’s syndrome, systemic lupus erythematosus, polymyositis, Still’s disease*, and relapsing polychondritis*. 

Other diseases can cause autoimmune problems in multiple parts of the body. Some examples of these autoimmune diseases include pernicious anemia, vasculitis, myasthenia gravis, scleroderma, CREST syndrome, mixed connective tissue disease, eosinophilic granulomatosis with polyangiitis*, and Cogan’s syndrome*. There are also autoimmune diseases that primarily affect the eyes, kidneys, lungs, heart, blood vessels, blood, and bone marrow. 

If this isn’t enough – there are a plethora of “autoimmune-associated” conditions, i.e. conditions that have been associated with imbalances in the immune response, including Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS), Fibromyalgia and Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS).

*considered rare and not often seen in clinical naturopathic + functional practice

Potential Root Causes of Autoimmune Diseases

My goal as a naturopathic functional medicine physician is to help you identify and address the root cause(s) and “outside-the-box” causes of your autoimmune condition and come up with a comprehensive plan to restore balance within your unique body. In fact, autoimmune diseases are one of my special interests (along with hormone disorders and digestive health)! 

Let’s take a closer look at the three primary triggers for autoimmune diseases. 

Triggers for Autoimmunity: 1-2-3

It’s true that women tend to experience more autoimmune problems than men — especially conditions like Hashimoto’s and Graves’ disease, rheumatoid arthritis, pernicious anemia, systemic lupus erythematosus, and multiple sclerosis. This could be due to sex hormones, the X chromosome, exposure to chemicals in cosmetics and personal care products, and gender differences in antibodies (females, for instance, seem to have more antibodies and autoantibodies than males). 

That said, gender and genetics aren’t the only factors that come into play! Those of us in functional medicine believe there are three main triggers for autoimmunity — and that all three must be present in order for autoimmune diseases to develop. These triggers include: 

  1. Genetics. For instance, being female and/or having one or more genes associated with autoimmunity. Examples include variations in the HLA, TYK2, TNFAIP3, IL2RA, and IL23R genes. 
  2. Exposure to environmental triggers. Exposure to food allergens (like gluten, soy, and dairy); environmental toxins (such as mold, smoke, heavy metals, and agricultural chemicals); and viruses/infections (such as Lyme disease, COVID-19, and mononucleosis) can all trigger autoimmunity. 
  3. Increased intestinal permeability/leaky gut. Research shows that elevated levels of zonulin — an indication of leaky gut/increased intestinal permeability — often precede autoimmunity. If you have an autoimmune disease, chances are you have a leaky gut! 

The positive news is that many autoimmune conditions (and the symptoms associated with them) can be improved by addressing these three factors and getting to the root of the problem! And while you can’t change your genes, you can improve your gut health and avoid the environmental triggers that could be making you sick. The first step is figuring out what your unique triggers are!

Functional Medicine Approaches to Managing Autoimmunity

As a naturopathic functional medicine doctor, I frequently see patients with autoimmune problems, including those with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, psoriasis, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, lichen sclerosus, and mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS). And while MCAS isn’t technically considered an autoimmune disease, our mast cells (allergy cells) play a crucial role in regulating autoimmunity and inflammation. Therefore, stabilizing the mast cells can be hugely beneficial for those with autoimmune diseases. 

Other potential therapies for autoimmune conditions include dietary and lifestyle changes; physical activity; stress management; herbs, botanicals, and supplements; acupuncture; and prescription medications such as low-dose naltrexone (LDN). Specialized testing is the first step, as this helps us get to the root of your autoimmune condition rather than simply masking your symptoms. 

In my naturopathic functional medicine practice, I conduct comprehensive patient intakes and use specialized tests to address the underlying root cause(s) of autoimmunity. Connect with me and let’s work together to restore balance within your unique body

Ready to seek the root cause of your autoimmune disease?

Connect with me to learn how naturopathic functional medicine can help to improve your autoimmune condition and regain your health!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *