We’re all pretty aware that chronic illness is on the rise in America. Cancer has affected us or someone we know, heart disease is the leading cause of death, all the while diabetes and Crohn’s disease steadily increases each year. Unfortunately adults are not the only ones experiencing sickness; we are seeing increased illnesses in children as well ranging from allergies and food sensitivities to emotional, behavioral, and learning disorders.
Integrative pediatrician Paul Thomas shares his perspective on the rise of the particularly concerning childhood disease, autism:
“The rise in autism was impossible to ignore. It simply was not there when I was in medical school at Dartmouth in 1981-85. I only saw a couple of mild cases of autism in children in residency in 1985-88. But by the time I was working as a pediatrician at Westside Pediatrics, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was sending one child almost every month to a specialist for suspected neurological disorders.”
So what’s the connection between the many illnesses plaguing Americans?
The connection? The common origin is the immune system, accounting for dysfunction in over 100 diseases. I know, that’s a pretty bold statement. I too was shocked when I found out that these include common diseases such as Alzheimer’s, ALS, Type 1 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Epilepsy, and Fibromyalgia just to name a few. In addition, the immune origin is responsible for symptoms ranging from migraines, digestive issues, emotional problems, allergies, skin rashes and disorders, to fertility issues, muscle and joint pain, sleep disturbances, infection susceptibility, and obesity. Many people are never told that their condition is immune related. I wasn’t!
One of the most helpful resources I have found on immune related diseases is The Paleo Approach: Reverse Autoimmune Disease and Heal Your Body by Sarah Ballantyne, PhD. Dr. Ballantyne gives a detailed account of immune system function and discusses the relation between disease and immune origin. In The Paleo Approach, Sarah shares the following key findings:
“There are more than one hundred autoimmune diseases and many more diseases that are suspected of having autoimmune origins. Symptoms vary considerably, from the debilitating back pain of anky-losing spondylitis to the loss of control over the body in multiple sclerosis to the itchy, red, flaky skin of psoriasis. However, the root cause of all autoimmune diseases is the same: our immune system, which is supposed to protect us from invading microorganisms, turns against us and attacks our cells instead. Which cells or proteins are attacked determines the autoimmune disease and its symptoms.”
Autoimmune diseases often present with a host of symptoms, with the same disease affecting each person a bit differently. This leads to difficulty receiving a proper diagnosis. A combination of blood tests are often necessary to diagnose an autoimmune disorder. The American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA) estimates that 50 million Americans suffer from at least one autoimmune disease. For a complete list of autoimmune diseases, visit AARDA.
So why is life expectancy lagging and autoimmune disease on the rise in one of the most developed countries of the world?
Although still unknown exactly why or how people develop autoimmune disease, we do know the three contributing key factors:
- Genetic susceptibility
- Infection and environmental triggers
- Diet and lifestyle
Genetics determine the likelihood of the body producing antibodies to healthy cells, but exposure to environmental triggers, diet, and lifestyle practices increases susceptibility to autoimmunity. In future posts, I will dive more into the causes and be discussing environmental, diet, and lifestyle triggers to be aware of. But for now, I’ll share the most helpful intervention and why: nutrition. A nutrient rich diet, specifically the (autoimmune protocol) paleo diet, is the most helpful intervention because of the diet’s elimination of known inflammatory foods that attribute to intestinal permeability, or “leaky gut“. What does the paleo diet have to do with autoimmunity? Following a strict paleo diet can lead to the healing of intestinal permeability, resulting to a reduction in or elimination of symptoms. While genetic susceptibility increases risk of autoimmune disease, leaky gut is essential for autoimmunity to develop. Intestinal permeability is a necessary precursor to all autoimmune diseases and the only way to optimize intestinal function again is through diet.
“In order to develop autoimmune disease, you must first have a genetic predisposition to it, you must then be exposed to a trigger, and you must have a leaky gut.” – Sarah Ballantyne, PhD
Essentially the Western diet, also called the Standard American Diet, is a leading culprit for leaky gut and the increasing wide spectrum of autoimmune diseases. The good news? When diet and lifestyle modifications are made, the gut can be healed and function optimally again, allowing autoimmune disease to be reversed and symptoms eliminated.
Western medicine offers no cure for autoimmune diseases and generally treats these diseases in separate categories, rather than treating the body as a whole. Conventional medicine is certainly crucial to the management of many autoimmune diseases, such as the use of hormone replacement for diseases such as type 1 diabetes and hypothyroidism. However, an integrated approach that treats the whole body rather than specific symptoms can be highly beneficial in the management of autoimmune disease. This approach has been proven in the reversal of many autoimmune diseases. In my experience, a combination approach focused on nutrition, naturopathic medicine, and balance in other areas of my life has proven successful in eliminating several of my autoimmune disease symptoms.
If you have an autoimmune disease or believe you may be in the early stages of an autoimmune disease, stay tuned! I’ll be sharing yummy autoimmune protocol recipes as well as discuss alternatives to known environmental, diet & lifestyle triggers in following posts!
Ballantyne, Sarah. The Paleo Approach: Reverse Autoimmune Disease and Heal Your Body. Las Vegas: Victory Belt Publishing Inc., 2013.
Thomas, Paul., and Jennifer Margulis. The Vaccine-friendly Plan: Dr. Paul’s Safe and Effective Approach to Immunity and Health-from Pregnancy Through Your Child’s Teen Years. New York: Ballantine Books, 2016.