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Conventional Medicine Gets the Autoimmune Wrong

Here’s a common scenario in my practice:  A patient comes in with a prior diagnosis of autoimmune disease. Sometimes it is a new diagnosis, and the patient is worried about how to proceed. Sometimes it is a longstanding illness they have lived with for much of their life. In most cases, they are looking for help where the conventional approach to autoimmunity has failed them.

There are many different types of autoimmune disease. All have in common the curious fact that the person’s immune system has become misdirected. The immune system is meant to provide protection against infection and foreign invaders to the body – like bacteria, viruses and other pathogens. When one has autoimmune activity, it means that the person’s own body is under attack.  

Falling under the umbrella of autoimmune disease is a variety of ailments, which vary widely in prevalence, symptomatology and severity. Some autoimmune diseases are very common, like Hashimoto’s thyroid disease. Others are rare, like Scleroderma. Some attack a single part of the body, like Hashimoto’s, while others, like lupus, can be more systemic, attacking multiple organ systems. Other examples of autoimmune disease are rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Grave’s disease, Type I diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, psoriasis, and alopecia.

The Typical Conventional Response to Autoimmune Disease

Patients routinely describe that their physician — be it primary care or specialist — has diagnosed a condition or worse, a disease. Sometimes the patient is already on prescribed medications as treatment, but other times they are not.

Invariably, what they have been told is that there is nothing to be done:

  • “We will wait and see.”  
  • “You will probably need to be on medication at some point.”
  • “Let’s continue to watch your blood testing yearly and wait and see when symptoms develop.”  

Few, if any of these doctors, offer advice on how to potentially keep the disease from progressing. Or, if already in the throes of symptomatic disease, offer suggestions how to lessen the symptoms with anything but anti-inflammatory medications, replacement hormones or immune-modulating drugs.

This is a very serious problem, and a failing of conventional medicine. It’s exactly why I chose to continue my training with the Institute for Functional Medicine.

A Functional vs Conventional Approach to Autoimmune Disease

Let’s take the case of early autoimmune thyroid disease:

With Hashimoto’s, for instance, the patient will often be told that they have autoantibodies – which means there are immune markers in the bloodstream directed not against invaders, like bacteria or viruses, but actively attacking the body’s own tissues of the thyroid or its receptors. This is the basis of autoimmune thyroiditis, or Hashimoto’s thyroid disease, which often leads to low functioning thyroid and the need to take thyroid hormone medication.  

The conventional doctor will let the patient know that these antibodies are there, and that most likely the thyroid will begin to malfunction, causing too little hormone to be released into the blood and causing the symptoms of hypothyroidism – low energy, weight gain, constipation, dry skin …  When that occurs, treatment with thyroid hormone replacement will begin.  

This leaves many people wondering – what can I do now?  Is there anything I can do to stop this from happening?  Am I going down a road I can’t switch out of?  

How can one reverse the damage – or halt the progression of the autoimmune disease ravaging the body?

The Functional Medicine Approach

I like to think of a Functional Medicine approach to treatment as two-fold:

  • Doing everything we can to improve the immune system’s ability to rebalance while …
  • Lessening the odds of the immune system continuing to rebel — and, quite possibly, beginning another attack on another system in the body — which could then lead to another autoimmune disease.

How do we do this? First, we work to support whatever system or systems in the body are under attack – replacing nutrients or hormones that are lacking due to the autoimmunity. We frequently use B-complex, D3 and multivitamin supplementation; and, of course, hormone replacement, as needed in hypothyroidism.

Then, we work to build resilience and decrease inflammation in the body by using good old detective work to find the root cause, or triggers, of the immune dysfunction, and treat that. We look at food, stress, gut health, toxin exposure and infections.

5 Steps to Decrease Inflammation & Rebalance Your Immune System

  • Practice improving your emotional and physical response to stress. Getting good sleep and exercising is imperative. Mindfulness meditation and other mind/body techniques are helpful for reducing stress hormones.
  • Experiment with your food – discover sensitivities, triggers, and intolerances. We usually recommend an allergy elimination diet – taking out gluten, dairy, soy, corn, and eggs, along with other common allergens depending on your specific medical condition- for a short time and reintroducing to see if symptoms are affected by food.
  • Support your microbiome and heal your leaky gut.  Eat healthy whole foods and lots of vegetables and fiber. Start taking a probiotic. Our go-to is Dr. Blum’s formula, created for our patients. Learn More
  • Decrease your exposure to toxins and improve your body’s ability to manage exposures. Watch out for common toxins in food (herbicides and pesticides), cleaning supplies, and even in personal care products.  We recommend looking at the Environmental Working Group and following their suggestions for cleaning up toxins in the home.

    If you are concerned about the toxin build-up in your body, you might want to consider our 21-Day Simply Detox. It’s the exact program we use with our patients at the Blum Center for Health. Learn More
  • Be assessed with functional testing for nutritional needs and to rule out any chronic or acute infectious disease processes.  We will often request stool testing for microbial balance, in depth blood testing for nutritional needs, and more extensive saliva and urine testing for hormone balance.

If you live near the New York City metro area, come see me, or one of my colleagues. We would be happy to help. People travel from all over the world to work with us. Come join our family!

If traveling to us is not possible, you can work with our Director of Nutrition or Health Coach by phone or Skype. Call 914-652-7800 for more information.

Or, you can also find a functional medicine practitioner through the search feature on the Institute of Functional Medicine’s website

Meet Darcy McConnell, M.D.:  Dr. McConnell brings her broad expertise in prevention, mind-body medicine, and women’s health to Blum Center for Health, in Rye Brook, NY. She is board certified in Family Medicine and Integrative Medicine, with postgraduate training from the Institute for Functional Medicine. Darcy lives with her husband and three sons and enjoys the outdoors, cooking healthy meals for her family and friends and is an enthusiastic yogi.

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3 Hidden Triggers that Create Chronic Stress

Chronic Stress Triggers And Sleep

We all know the stress of a busy, adult lifestyle – a delicate balancing act of work pressures, financial obligations, significant others, friends and family. Just the day-to-day running of your life can feel like a pressure cooker – managing a home, caring for kids or parents (or both), meeting obligations and running errands are all identifiable forms of stress.

You may have taken steps to mitigate these stressors through meditation, exercise, eating well, setting boundaries or scheduling self-care. Awesome!But, did you know that you might be undermining your efforts, and causing stress in your body, without realizing it?

Stress vs. Chronic Stress

Stress elevates cortisol and adrenaline, hormones responsible for “fight or flight” in what your body perceives as an emergency — something as serious as jumping out the way of a careening car, or something as nerve-wracking as public speaking. Once the event is over, our cortisol and adrenaline levels return to normal. This is a healthy stress response.

Chronic stress, however, creates havoc in the body. Cortisol levels, which spike during a stress-inducing event, remain elevated. As Susan Blum, MD, discusses in her book, The Immune System Recovery Plan, this increased baseline can damage the immune system and prevent it from healing. Ultimately, chronic stress can have a negative effect on the levels of good bacteria in the gut, reducing the ability of the immune system to fight infection and puts us at risk for autoimmune disease.

3 Hidden Triggers that Create Chronic Stress

  1. Over-exercising – While exercise, in general, is a great way to relieve stress, overdoing it can cause a host of problems that we don’t necessarily attribute to exercise. Intense exercise increases cortisol, the hormone that is released when your body is under stress. So if you participate in daily high-intensity workouts you may be getting too much of a good thing. Chronically elevated cortisol is related digestive issues, weight gain, and even depression. Further, over-exercising can have a detrimental effect on the immune system, making you more vulnerable to illness, and triggering flare-ups of underlying autoimmune disease.

What you can do:

  • ** Work with a trainer to create an exercise plan that includes a balance of interval training, strength training, core work and stretching.
  • **Add a “slower” more reflective activity to your weekly routine, such as restorative yoga, tai chi or Qi Gong.
  • **Find other ways to get your exercise high without stressing your body on a daily basis, such as a salsa dance class or learning a new sport.
  1. Skipping Meals – You consider yourself a healthy eater. You eat lots of seasonal, organic vegetables and fruits. You enjoy deliciously healthy fats, like avocado and nuts, and make a point of having some protein every time you eat. But, because of your busy lifestyle or, perhaps, because you’re trying to drop a few pounds, you skip meals, undermining your nutritious food choices. Skipping meals increases cortisol because your body thinks its starving. It also causes your blood-sugar levels to take a dive. You might have noticed that when you skip meals your thinking becomes foggy and suddenly you have a short fuse. Ultimately, skipping meals can slow your metabolism, putting you at risk for weight gain, and making weight more difficult to lose.

What you can do:

  • ** Plan meals ahead of time.
  • ** Set reminders on your phone to eat.
  • ** Carry nutrient-dense, whole-food snacks in the event you find yourself on-the-go.
  • ** Make eating a priority — it is your body’s fuel!
  1. Not Getting Enough Sleep – Research demonstrates that even slight sleep loss boosts cortisol levels and can accelerate the development of insulin resistance. In fact, one study found that getting just 30 fewer minutes sleep than you should per weekday can increase your risk of obesity and diabetes. Not getting enough sleep is related to a host of other issues including heart disease, high blood pressure, accidents, mood disorders, depression and decreased productivity.

What you can do:

  • ** Focus on what time you go to bed rather than focusing on what time you wake up.
    ** The earlier you eat dinner, the better — less digesting ensures a better night’s sleep.
    ** Ban screens from your bedroom – the light signals the body that it’s time to be awake.
    ** Create a sleep environment – make your bedroom cozy, clutter-free and a cool temperature to induce sleep.

Resources:

Blum, S. (2013). The Immune System Recovery Plan. New York, NY: Scribner

Endocrine Society. (2015, March 6). Losing 30 minutes of sleep per day may promote weight gain and adversely affect blood sugar control. ScienceDailyhttps://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150306082541.htm

Leproult R., Copinschi G., Buxton O., Van Cauter, E. (1997)  Sleep loss results in an elevation of cortisol levels the next evening. Sleep. 20(10), 865-70.

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Turn Off the Effects of Stress on Your Immune System

Stress is really about the degree of change you experience and how much it throws you out of balance.  Studies show that when stress pulls you too far off center, it affects your immune system in a negative way.  The body has a built in stress response for emergencies, which is often called “fight-or-flight.” In general, this is a good thing because it supports you when you need an adrenaline rush and cortisol boost from your adrenal glands to help you run, fight, or face an intense stressor, be it emotional or physical.

But when you think too much, you can get stuck in your thoughts, worrying about the future and replaying the past. At the same time, your adrenal stress hormones get stuck in the “on” position, producing those stress chemicals that have a negative impact on your immune system. It is this chronic stress that is the problem and the type of stress that makes you sick.

When you practice mind-body skills such as meditation, walking in nature, turning off the nightly news, knitting, or singing, to name just a few, you will learn to “turn the switch off” and your system will find balance again. Then you can easily move in and out of stress mode, benefiting from the adrenal boost when you need it and letting your system relax when you don’t.  But remember, learning to relax takes practice!