When Your Body Attacks Itself: Truths About Autoimmunity
As a physician and former autoimmune patient, I know all too well how much misinformation there is surrounding autoimmune disease. I’m here to share with you 8 truths about autoimmunity that you should know.
All autoimmune diseases are centered around one key factor: your body attacks itself, more specifically your immune system. The difference is what part of the body is being attacked by your immune system. For example, multiple sclerosis happens when your immune system attacks the coating around the nerves. With type 1 diabetes, your immune system attacks your pancreas. If you have rheumatoid arthritis, your immune system is attacking your joints.
March is Autoimmune Disease Awareness Month so I wanted to arm you with eight important truths about autoimmune disease. Let’s dig in!
8 Truths About Autoimmunity
Conventional medicine would have you believe that if you have an autoimmune disease, you’re destined to a life of painful symptoms and harsh medication. As both a functional medicine physician and an autoimmune patient, I’m here to tell you that is simply not true.
I dealt with a very broken system with my own autoimmune disease – Graves disease. Conventional medicine gave me three options: Take a medication known as propylthiouracil (PTU), which has really awful side effects; use radioactive iodine to ablate (blow up) my thyroid; or have my thyroid surgically removed.
I eventually made the decision to have my thyroid ablated, a decision I regret to this day. I have since made it my mission to empower those with autoimmune disease to take back their health using functional medicine principles.
1. Autoimmune Disorders Can Be Reversed
If you’re like most autoimmune patients, you’re likely been told at your doctor’s office that your autoimmune disease is not reversible. I know it’s what I was told, and has been the experience of most of my patients until they came to my office, too.
This may sound familiar: “I’m so sorry. You have an autoimmune disease. Once the genes that produce this condition have been turned on, they can’t be turned off. We can’t cure the disease. The only thing we can do now is to manage your symptoms, and the only way to do that is with medications.”
Like many aspects of conventional medicine, there is some truth to those remarks. However, they are also very much misguided. Yes, there’s a genetic component to autoimmune disorders.
Yet, as we have learned from the brand new field of epigenetics, genetic expression can be modified. For you to develop an autoimmune disease, something in your environment, diet, or personal circumstances has to turn on the group of your genes that causes autoimmune disorders.
Once those genes are turned on, you can turn them off, or at least turn them down.
Through optimizing your diet, healing your gut, reducing your toxic burden, healing infections, and relieving your stress, you can instruct your problematic genes to turn off again, thereby restoring your immune system to optimal health. I call this The Myers Way®, and I’ll tell you all about it later.
2. You Can Regain Quality Of Life After An Autoimmune Diagnosis
“My doctor said that, over time, I could expect to get weaker and weaker.”
“I’ve had to tell my son not to bring the grandkids over — I can’t take a chance on getting sick.”
“Sometimes the pain gets so bad, I can’t even take a walk with my husband.”
These are the situations that someone with an autoimmune disease can frequently expect, yet they are by no means inevitable. Although conventional medicine would counsel you to expect a poor quality of life as the likely outcome of your condition, I’m here to tell you that it is not at all inevitable.
If you take the steps to remove the environmental causes of your autoimmunity and restore your immune system’s balance, you can expect to be symptom-free, pain-free, and full of vitality.
Getting your autoimmune illness under control takes some people longer than others, and everyone’s journey is different. But ultimately, if you commit to the lifestyle changes that are proven to reverse your condition, you can look forward to an excellent quality of life. I’ve worked with thousands of patients that saw their symptoms reverse.
3. You Can Banish Your Symptoms Without Harsh Medications
It’s sad to say, but most conventional medicine doctors dismiss the importance of nutrition as a major contributor to your health. Most are also unaware of the researched, and documented link between gluten and chronic illness,1 and the powerful effect of removing it from your diet.
Conventional doctors also tend to dismiss the harmful power of the toxins that lurk in your food, air, water, and body products, and the tremendous benefit of reducing this toxic burden in those with autoimmunity. As a result, when it comes to reversing autoimmune conditions, conventional medicine really only has one weapon in its arsenal: medications. And they just treat symptoms.
One especially dangerous class of medications used to treat autoimmunity is known as “immunosuppressants” – medications that suppress your immune system. The reasoning is that if an overactive immune system causes the problem, then suppressing your immune system should fix it.
However, you need your immune system functioning to fight the bacteria, viruses, toxins, and other foreign invaders that you encounter every day. And, you can’t disable a major system in the body without expecting significant repercussions. As a result, this type of treatment has a lot of unwanted side effects including suppressing your immune system too much, leaving you open to infections, inhibiting your normal daily life, and even possibly leading to some types of cancers.
Yet, day after day, those of us with autoimmunity are being told by our doctors that these medications, along with their harsh side effects, are our only hope of keeping our disease under control and possibly having a normal life again. However, I am here to tell you that is absolutely not true!
4. You Should Be Concerned About The Side Effects Of Harsh Medications
I wish this wasn’t true – yet it is. Conventional medicine doctors who are trying to bring aid and comfort to their patients are likely to reassure you that your medications won’t cause side effects and that the side effects they do cause are minor. As a former conventional medicine patient and doctor, I know this all too well.
In fact, the side effects of these medications are common, frequent, and disruptive across all of the drug types most often used to treat autoimmune disorders, including immunosuppressants, NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), DMARDs (disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs), and biologics.
There are some exceptions, such as Hashimoto’s and Type I Diabetes. These patients are prescribed supplemental, life-saving hormones such as thyroid hormone and insulin, respectively.
Side Effects of Autoimmune Medications
Here’s a list of just some of the side effects commonly seen with the standard prescribed medications:
Steroids/ Immunosuppressants (Prednisone)
- Nausea or vomiting
- Sleep problems
- Irregular heartbeat
- Muscle pain or cramps
- Weight gain
- Depression, mood swings, agitation
NSAIDS (Advil, ibuprofen, Motrin®)
- Stomach pain
- Gas, heartburn
- Nausea or vomiting
DMARDS (Cellcept®, Enbrel®, Imuran®, Trexall®, Plaquenil®)
- Easy bruising or bleeding
- Night sweats
- Anxiety or depression
- Abdominal pain
- Skim cancer
Biologics (Humira®, Kineret®)
- Hepatitis B
- Heart failure
- Vision problems
- Upper respiratory infections
- Joint pain
The great news is that you can eliminate autoimmune symptoms and reverse your condition without these harsh medications! By addressing the root causes of their autoimmune disease, most patients I’ve worked with are able to reduce or come off of their harsh medications.
5. Improving Gut Health Has A Huge Effect On The Progression Of Autoimmune Disorders
I heard it from my doctors when I was an autoimmune patient, and I hear it from my colleagues as a physician: “the immune system and the digestive system are two different systems in the body, and never the two shall meet.”
As I think about that now, it sounds kinda crazy that this is what I was taught in medical school. More than 80% of your immune system is located in our gut. In fact, you cannot have a healthy immune system without a healthy gut.
Your gut health and immune system are allies in the fight against foreign invaders. When working correctly, it can distinguish between different types of bacteria, keeping the good and warding off the bad.2
Sometimes your immune system goes rogue and begins attacking your own tissues. It could be your thyroid under attack, your intestines, your skin, your brain, your pancreas, or another organ. No matter what part of your body is under siege, the underlying problem is within your immune system.
This means in order to treat, prevent, and reverse your autoimmune disease you’ll need to get your immune system back under control. In order to do that, you must address your gut health.
In fact, thanks to the work of Harvard researcher and functional medicine pioneer Dr. Alessio Fasano,3 we know that a leaky gut is one of the preconditions to developing an autoimmune condition in the first place. It is by healing the gut, and therefore supporting your immune system and lowering your inflammation, that you can begin to reverse your condition.
Your gut is the foundation of your whole body’s health. Without a healthy gut, you can’t have a healthy immune system. Without a healthy immune system, you’re open to infections, inflammation, and autoimmune disease.
6. Going Gluten-Free Will Make A Difference In Your Autoimmune Disorder
“Gluten-free? That’s just some crazy fad people are trying to cash in on. We’ve been eating wheat for thousands of years, so why all of a sudden would it turn out not to be healthy?”
That’s what many people believe about the role of gluten in our health, and most conventional doctors are no different. Tell your doctor that you are concerned about gluten, and he or she will most likely say two things: “We can run a blood test and see if you have celiac disease” or “Do you have any digestive issues? No? Then you don’t have to worry about gluten.”
This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Gluten sensitivity, or non-celiac gluten sensitivity (the more technical term), can cause a whole host of symptoms beyond digestive issues, including fatigue, brain fog, hormonal imbalances, skin issues, inflammation, depression, anxiety, and more. While celiac disease is in fact rare, gluten sensitivity is quite common, although most people don’t know they have it. An estimated 99% of people with celiac or gluten sensitivity are undiagnosed.
So how does that impact autoimmunity? Remember that leaky gut phenomenon I just talked about? Gluten is the most common cause of leaky gut. It also increases your overall inflammation in those with gluten sensitivity, causing your immune system to go haywire. This occurs when your immune system confuses your body’s tissues with gluten in a case of mistaken identity because of how similar their protein structures are.
The truth is – if you have an autoimmune disease, you can see huge improvements in your symptoms and inflammatory markers simply by ditching gluten. I can show you thousands of patients who have seen immune system results almost immediately – just by healing their digestive system and removing gluten from their diet.
7. Your Genetics Do Not Determine Your Destiny
Twin studies have shown that genetics only accounts for about 25% of the chance that you will develop an autoimmune disorder.4 That means the remaining 75% of the picture is environmental — and therefore in your control! I find that an incredibly empowering statistic.
What I find the most incredible as a physician is that by addressing these environmental factors you can not only prevent an autoimmune condition, you can also reverse it after it develops. The question then becomes: What are these environmental factors and how can you overcome them using dietary and lifestyle changes?
Through my experience as a functional medicine physician and working with thousands of autoimmune patients, I have identified five environmental factors that play a key role in the creation of autoimmune diseases. I call this the root cause pie chart.
It is important to note that the elements of the pie chart are the same for everyone; however, the size of each piece is unique to your health history and unique biochemical makeup. For some, diet is the biggest piece of the pie, for others it is toxins or stress.
That’s why functional medicine takes a personal approach to healing – identifying what your unique triggers are and the best treatments for your needs.
8. You Can Make Lifestyle Changes To Support Your Immune System And Reverse Your Autoimmunity
This truth gets to the heart of the difference between conventional medicine’s approach to autoimmunity and the functional medicine approach I have used to help tens of thousands of people take back their health.
Conventional practitioners treat autoimmune conditions by medicating the symptoms and suppressing the immune system. My approach treats autoimmune conditions by supporting the immune system and looking at the body as a whole.
This medication-first approach results in more side effects, which require more medications, which in turn produce more side effects – a vicious circle that often seems to get worse and worse.
In contrast, my approach creates a “virtuous cycle”. By supporting your immune system using dietary and lifestyle changes, you increase vitality and achieve optimal health. As I mentioned, it’s called The Myers Way®. Let me tell you about it!
The Myers Way® Approach to Autoimmunity
The Myers Way® is a proven approach based in functional medicine, a medical approach that looks at how all the body’s systems interact and seeks to get them functioning optimally.
The Myers Way® relieves and reverses your symptoms, helps you get off your harsh medication, and enables you to live a healthy, energetic, and pain-free life. This approach rests on four pillars, each of which has been tested through extensive research and has seen amazing results with thousands of patients over my own years of practice as a physician and while empowering the world to achieve optimal health through Amy Myers MD®.
Pillar I: Heal Your Gut
The 4R approach is a proven method to heal your gut. I’ve highlighted the steps below, but they are outlined in much greater detail in my book, “The Autoimmune Solution.”
- Remove the bad – Get rid of things that negatively affect the environment of the GI tract, such as inflammatory and toxic foods, and intestinal infections such as yeast overgrowth and SIBO.
- Restore what’s missing — Adding digestive enzymes and HCL to your daily regimen will help support optimal digestion and nutrient absorption, as well as assist your body’s intestinal repair and inflammation responses.
- Reinoculate with healthy bacteria — Restore beneficial bacteria with probiotics to re-establish a healthy balance of good bacteria to heal your gut.
- Repair the gut — Provide nutrients necessary to help the gut repair itself. L-glutamine is an amino acid that will support gut lining. Drinking bone broth or collagen will also help to heal your gut, as will supplementing with omega-3s, zinc, and herbs such as slippery elm and aloe vera.
Pillar II: Get Rid of Gluten, Grains, and Legumes
A leaky gut puts you on the autoimmune spectrum, which is why healing your gut is the first pillar of The Myers Way®. Once you’ve healed your gut, it’s time to make lifestyle and diet changes to put you on the path toward optimal health. One of the best ways to do that is through diet and eliminating foods that are causing inflammation and damage to your intestinal tract: Gluten, grains, and legumes!
I also recommend that those with autoimmune diseases avoid vegetables in the nightshade family, which includes tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes. These plants are very high in lectins that damage the gut lining, easily enter the bloodstream, and do not break down in cooking.5
If you are following an elimination diet, there will be many foods you will avoid temporarily and then reintroduce. Grains, pseudograins, legumes, and a few other foods will probably need to stay out of your diet for good. Gluten is an absolute “no-no,” I don’t recommend that anyone add gluten back into their diet.
Pillar III: Tame the Toxins
You might be thinking you aren’t exposed to many toxins because you live a very “clean” lifestyle. In reality, you are exposed to thousands of toxins every day, even if you don’t live in a polluted area or work in an industrial job. They’re found in the air you breathe, the water you drink, the food you eat, and in the cosmetics, cleaning products, and cookware you use every day.
The solution is to reduce your body’s toxic burden and detox it. First you address the toxins in your home by:
- Cleaning your air by getting a HEPA filter for your home. I use AIRDoctor® air filters in my home and office.
- Clean your water by installing water filters on your sinks and shower taps. I, myself, have a full filtration system from Aquasana.
- Buy clean food and eat organic whenever possible. It can be expensive, so if anything, buy grass-fed beef, free-range chicken, and wild-caught seafood.
- Buy clean body products.
Your body creates its own master detoxifier called glutathione. I recommend supplementing with extra glutathione while your body is trying to excrete toxins, especially if you are anywhere on the autoimmune spectrum.
Pillar IV: Heal Your Infections and Relieve Your Stress
Addressing your infections and relieving your stress are necessary steps to get your immune system back to proper functioning:
Adopt daily stress-relieving strategies. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Breathing: When you find yourself overwhelmed with stress, take a moment to connect with your breath. Concentrate on breathing in and out until your anxiety has calmed.
- Dance: Just moving your body can help you literally “shake off” your stress.
- Music: Amazingly, a half hour of listening to music can reduce your cortisol levels.
- Gentle exercise: Try yoga, or a long walk in a natural setting–changing your environment can also help you get away from your stress.
For total support, The Myers Way® Autoimmune Kit is a combination of four of the most important nutritional supplements for anyone concerned with autoimmunity. Your immune system is a complex puzzle influenced by many aspects of health. The integrity of your gut barrier, oxidative damage done by free radicals, toxic load and detoxification, inflammation, and much more all play a role in how your immune system functions.
My essentials kit is a carefully selected combination of four supplements I recommend to anyone concerned about maintaining a healthy and balanced immune response in the face of an increasingly stressful and toxic environment.
The great news about The Myers Way®: Once you start following this way of life, you’ll notice that it isn’t willpower keeping you on The Myers Way®! I know following The Myers Way® can empower you to reverse your symptoms naturally – restoring your energy, vitality, and health. I know this because I’ve seen it work in thousands of patients.
FAQs About Autoimmunity
Can my autoimmune disease be reversed?
Can my autoimmune disease be reversed?
The truth about autoimmunity is that it can be reversed through optimizing your diet, healing your gut, reducing your toxic burden, healing infections, and relieving your stress, you can instruct your problematic genes to turn off again, thereby restoring your immune system to optimal health.
Is autoimmune disease genetic?
Is autoimmune disease genetic?
Twin studies have shown that genetics only accounts for about 25% of the chance that you will develop an autoimmune disorder. That means the remaining 75% of the picture is environmental — and therefore in your control!
Is autoimmune disease sexually transmitted?
Is autoimmune disease sexually transmitted?
Yes and no. An autoimmune disease occurs when your body attacks itself. You cannot directly transmit an autoimmune disease by having sex. However, a sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia, Hepatitis B, herpes, and HIV (AIDS) can trigger autoimmune disease. In fact, almost all autoimmune disease have been associated with infections.
- Celiac Sprue. Richard J. Farrell, M.D., and Ciarán P. Kelly, M.D.. The New England Journal of Medicine. 2002.
- The Gut: Where Bacteria and Immune System Meet. Helen Fields. Johns Hopkins Medicine. 2015.
- All disease begins in the (leaky) gut: role of zonulin-mediated gut permeability in the pathogenesis of some chronic inflammatory diseases. Alessio Fasano. F1000 Research, vol 9. 2020.
- How do autoimmune diseases unfold?. . Johns Hopkins Medicine. 2020.
- Effects of lectin ingestion on animal growth and internal organs. A Pusztai. Methods Mol Med.. 1998.
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