Autoimmune disease has become a modern-day epidemic. If you aren’t one of the estimated 50 million Americans who have at least one autoimmune disease,1 you likely know someone who is. Conventional medicine views diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and other debilitating conditions as chronic, and only manageable with strong, immunosuppressive medications that have their own long list of side effects. When I myself was diagnosed with an autoimmune thyroid disease called Graves’ disease while in medical school, I started down the conventional path–which was, in my case, harsh medications and the eventual ablation of my thyroid.
I knew there had to be a safer, more natural way to heal my malfunctioning immune system, and I made it my mission to not let conventional medicine fail anyone the way it had failed me. My search for answers launched me into the world of functional medicine and forever changed my view of autoimmune disease treatment. In my own clinical practice, I began to identify 5 key environmental factors that play a role in the development and treatment of autoimmune disease:
Again and again with my patients, I’ve seen dramatic improvement and even reversal of symptoms with attention to these five factors. I wanted to see if other experts agreed, so I set out to interview 39 doctors, researchers, and scientists about what we can each do now to halt today’s worldwide autoimmune epidemic.
Even if you aren’t able to see a functional medicine doctor, you can take steps today to protect your health and reverse autoimmunity. Here are the biggest tips that I heard over and over from the amazing experts who took part in the first Autoimmune Summit:
1. Clean Up Your Diet
Dr. Robert Rountree pointed out that autoimmune disease “develops in the context of an inflammatory diet.” All of the experts agreed that improving a patient’s diet by eliminating toxic and inflammatory foods was the first step they took, and many pointed to an elimination diet as the most useful tool for identifying foods that could be causing inflammation. During an elimination diet, you remove common inflammatory triggers from your diet for a period of about two weeks, and then add them back in, one at a time, while gauging your symptoms. If you feel better when you avoid one food, but your symptoms return when you add it back in, you continue to avoid that food. Dr. Alejandro Junger suggested you “start by eliminating the big toxic triggers: dairy, gluten, sugar, and alcohol.”
2. Eat A Variety of Organic Whole Foods.
Removing problem foods is only the first step; the next is to give your body the nutrients it needs to heal. “Variety is key,” explained Dr. Deanna Minich, who emphasized the importance of eating a “rainbow” of richly colored organic fruits and vegetables. “Commit to eating one new green thing every day,” suggested Dr. Susan Blum, echoing Brianne Williams when she said that “the body knows how to recover once you give it the right things.”
Another point brought up, again and again, was the importance of eating organic food. In his interview, Jeffrey Smith explained the dangerous potential of consuming GMO foods, and that you can avoid them by buying organic. “Eat organically,” said Nora Gedgaudas, explaining that pesticide residues and GMOs “can have an amplifying effect on virtually any form of autoimmunity.”
3. Take Care of Your Microbiome
Practically every expert agreed that the health of your gut is fundamentally important for the health of the rest of your body. They explained that one huge step you can take to prevent or reverse autoimmune disease is to care for your microbiome (the ecosystem of bacteria and other microorganisms, like yeast and parasites, that live in your gut). “Attention to the gut in general is where I start with anyone with autoimmune disorders,” Dr. Leo Galland explained. In agreement, Dr. David Perlmutter said that “you’ve got to focus on restoration of the gut bacteria — that’s job one, two, and three.” Take a daily probiotic, avoid antibiotics unless medically necessary, limit sugar, and eat fermented foods and other prebiotics that will promote the growth of good bacteria.
4. Reduce Your Stress.
One of the biggest lessons learned during The Autoimmune Summit was the overwhelming importance of stress reduction to combat autoimmunity. Several of the speakers, including Dr. David Haase, Donna Jackson Nakazawa, Dr. Katie Hendricks, and Dr. Sara Gottfried referenced and even demonstrated breathing techniques that have a profound effect on the progression of autoimmune disease.
“If I only had one tool the rest of my life to give all of my patients,” said Dr. Haase, “it would be paced breathing, and I’ve said that for 10 years because I’ve never seen something so simple, safe, effective, and cheap produce such massive results in people’s lives if consistently used.”
Universally, the experts agreed that your other efforts, such as cleaning up your diet and exercising, will be undermined if you have a high level of stress, although it’s rarely discussed in the same way. As Dr. Todd LePine phrased it, “It’s a really simple thing to do. It sounds like it’s not going to do anything, but deep breaths and just being grateful and present have a huge role in calming down the immune system.”
Getting enough sleep, what Robb Wolf called “an underestimated piece of autoimmunity,” was another topic that came up again and again as one of the first steps you can take in healing from autoimmunity. Sleep expert Dan Pardi dedicated his entire talk to this topic, ending with the advice that you “give yourself enough time in bed to get complete sleep and wake up naturally. Maintain smart light rhythms every day, evening, and night.”
6. Exercise (but don’t overdo it!)
Hand in hand with sleep and stress reduction, exercise was also emphasized as one big way to heal your body from autoimmune disease. Dr. Dan Kalish pointed out that exercise “is the hardest one for most people,” because exercise does cause inflammation. Dr. Frank Lipman and Dr. Jeff Bland both explained that some level of inflammation is needed to induce healing.
“There’s a certain level of positiveness about inflammation that induces the repair of tissues,” explained Dr. Bland. “If you completely sit quiet with no inflammation and you’re in casts, you put casts on all your joints, that’s the case where you’ll get the most joint degeneration. You need to keep moving.”
But how do you do that? “Gentle movement,” according to Dr. Lipman, “is very powerful. I think people don’t realize that exercise, especially when it’s hard exercise, is a major stress on the body…You can push, but then you need to pull back and let your body recover, and I think that’s really important.”
7. Clean Up Your Environment.
When it comes to toxins, it isn’t all about your diet. All of the experts agreed that limiting your toxic exposure from every source was vastly important, especially cleaning products, cosmetics, and heavy metal sources like drinking water and dental fillings. Heather White, the executive director of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), provided practical tips and guides for reducing your exposure to toxins.
“Be very honest with yourself and very vigilant about the different possible chemicals that you have in your life,” suggested author Donna Jackson Nakazawa. “You might think it doesn’t matter what kind of cosmetics you wear or what kind of shampoo you use, or whether or not you’re spraying a particular type of toxic cleaner all over because it works really well and makes your furniture beautiful, but the facts are that it all adds up. Every little drop in your barrel adds up. The more you can take out, the better your life is going to be.”
8. Be Your Own Advocate
“I would say, first of all, in this whole arena, you need to be your own health advocate,” explained Dr. David Brady on what became one of the most talked-about themes of the entire summit. “You need to get educated yourself because if you’re waiting for your standard family physician, internist, or something, or rheumatologist to lead you down this path, it’s not going to happen.”
When I designed The Autoimmune Summit, the intention was to equip as many people as possible with the information they need to take their health and recovery into their own hands. Each expert gave examples of how we can all educate ourselves and make changes to end today’s autoimmune epidemic.
One way to do that, Heather White suggested, is to “become a label reader of everything you buy…You have to get in the game and make your voice heard, and it’s amazing what you can do when you speak up.”
As Dr. Datis Kharrazian eloquently summarized, you need to “rise up to the occasion, take control of your life, you can control your autoimmunity, you can control your lifestyle… Educate yourself. You need to be smarter than any doctor you’ll see. This is about your health, this is about your life, and no one knows you better than you.”
I hope you take away at least one piece of information that can help you or a loved one prevent or reverse autoimmune disease!