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Functional Medicine and Autoimmune Disease

Functional medicine is a patient-centered, personalized approach that addresses the underlying causes of diseases by focusing on the whole person. This paradigm shift in healthcare aims to treat individuals holistically, understanding the interconnectedness of various systems in the body. By emphasizing root cause analysis and personalized treatment plans, functional medicine offers a unique approach to managing chronic conditions like autoimmune diseases. In todays article we explore the different autoimmune triggers. 

Hashimoto's Autoimmune Thyroid-Patients with Normal TSH Values- 2

Autoimmune Triggers:

Autoimmune triggers are the factors that can stimulate the immune system to attack healthy tissues in the body, leading to autoimmune diseases. These triggers can vary from environmental factors to genetic predispositions. Functional medicine explores these triggers to provide tailored interventions that address the underlying causes of autoimmune conditions and support immune balance.

Leaky Gut An Autoimmune Trigger

Leaky Gut As An Autoimmune Trigger

Leaky gut can be a common starting point in auotimmuniyt.(*) Leaky gut syndrome, also known as intestinal permeability, occurs when the lining of the intestines becomes compromised, allowing harmful substances to leak into the bloodstream. This breach in the gut barrier can trigger immune responses and inflammation, contributing to autoimmune reactions.(*) Functional medicine approaches leaky gut by focusing on gut health, repairing the intestinal lining, and balancing gut microbiome to alleviate autoimmune symptoms.(*)

The likelihood of developing an autoimmune disease is based on 25% genetic makeup and 75% environmental factors.  Since we can’t alter genetics, my autoimmune disease treatment plans focus on the other 75%: managing the 7 main environmental triggers influencing the patient.

Food Allergies: Sensitivities An Autoimmune Trigger

Food Sensitivities As An Autoimmune Trigger

Food sensitivities refer to adverse reactions the body has to certain foods, triggering an immune response that can exacerbate autoimmune conditions. 

The relationship between food sensitivities and autoimmunity is complex and multifaceted, involving interactions between genetic predisposition, gut health, immune responses, and environmental triggers. While the exact mechanisms by which food influences autoimmunity are not fully mapped out, several key factors contribute to the development and exacerbation of autoimmune conditions.

One of the primary ways in which food can trigger or worsen autoimmunity is through the concept of molecular mimicry.(*) Molecular mimicry occurs when proteins in certain foods bear a structural resemblance to proteins in our own tissues, leading the immune system to mistakenly target both the foreign proteins and the body’s own tissues.(*) This cross-reactivity can trigger inflammation, tissue damage, and autoimmune responses in susceptible individuals.

Another way in which food can impact autoimmunity is through promoting gut dysbiosis and leaky gut syndrome. Certain dietary components, such as gluten, dairy, processed foods, and artificial additives, can disrupt the balance of the gut microbiome and compromise the integrity of the intestinal barrier.(*) This increased intestinal permeability allows for the passage of undigested food particles, toxins, and pathogens into the bloodstream, triggering immune responses, systemic inflammation, and  contributing to the development of autoimmune conditions like celiac disease, Diabetes and Hashimotos.(*)

Functional medicine investigates food sensitivities through food sensitivity testing, food allergy testing.  

Chronic Inflammation An Autoimmune Trigger

Chronic Inflammation as An Autoimmune Trigger

Chronic inflammation plays a significant role in the development, progression, and exacerbation of autoimmune diseases. In autoimmune conditions, the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s own tissues, leading to ongoing inflammation, tissue damage, and dysfunction.

Chronic inflammation is a key driver of autoimmune diseases, contributing to tissue damage and immune dysregulation. Inflammatory markers like CRP and IL-6 are assessed in functional medicine to gauge the inflammatory status of the body.

Chronic inflammation can both contribute to the initiation of autoimmune responses and perpetuate the autoimmune process through various mechanisms. For this reason, calming down inflammation becomes an important strategy in treating patients who have an autoimmune disease. 

Lifestyle modifications, anti-inflammatory diets, stress management and nutrional supplementation is utilized to reduce inflammation and support immune balance in people with autoimmune conditions.

High Viral Load An Autoimmune Trigger

Viral Load as An Autoimmune Trigger

Viral infections, such as Epstein-Barr virus and cytomegalovirus, have been implicated as triggers for autoimmune diseases by disrupting immune function and promoting inflammation.(*),(*),(*) Functional medicine recognizes the impact of viral load on immune dysregulation and in my office we employ testing methods to assess viral presence and activity in the body. Targeted antiviral treatments, immune modulation, and supportive therapies are used to address viral infections and restore immune balance in autoimmune disorders.

Heavy Metals, Plastics, BPA Autoimmune Triggers

Heavy Metals and Enviromental Toxins As An Autoimmune Trigger

Heavy metals and toxins have garnered increasing attention in the realm of autoimmune diseases as potential triggers that can disrupt immune function and contribute to the development of chronic conditions. Bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates(*), and other environmental toxins have been linked to immune dysregulation, inflammation, and autoimmunity.(*)

BPA, a chemical compound commonly found in plastics, food containers, and receipts, has been identified as a potent endocrine disruptor with the ability to interfere with hormone signaling and immune function. 

BPA has been shown to be an endocrine disruptor that binds to estrogen receptors and can influence bodily functions. Recent studies highlighted the influence of BPA exposure to the development and progression of certain autoimmune diseases including MS, T1DM, and thyroid autoimmunity.(*),(*),(*)

Research suggests that BPA exposure may contribute to the development of autoimmune diseases by promoting inflammation, altering gut microbiota, and disrupting immune tolerance.

Functional medicine approaches the impact of BPA on autoimmune conditions by advocating for the reduction of plastic use, opting for BPA-free products, and supporting detoxification pathways to minimize exposure.

Phthalates, a group of chemicals used in plastics, personal care products, and household items, have also been implicated as autoimmune triggers due to their potential to disrupt hormonal balance and immune function.(*)

Phthalates are known to affect the endocrine system, leading to hormone imbalances that can trigger inflammatory responses and immune activation.(*)

Studies have linked Pthalates to Rheumatoid arthritis(*)

Functional medicine addresses phthalate exposure by encouraging the use of natural, toxin-free products, promoting detoxification through diet and supplementation, and supporting liver health to enhance toxin clearance from the body.

Environmental toxins, including heavy metals like lead, mercury, and cadmium, pose significant health risks and have been associated with immune dysregulation and autoimmune diseases.(*)

Chronic exposure to heavy metals can impair immune function, promote oxidative stress(*), and trigger inflammatory responses that contribute to autoimmunity.(*) Functional medicine emphasizes the importance of toxin testing in some individuals where toxins are expected. If toxins are identifed, We focus in on detoxification protocols, and lifestyle modifications to reduce environmental toxin burden and support immune health.

Bacterial Infections Lyme Disease An Autoimmune Trigger

Bacterial Infections, Lyme Disease, Mold an Autoimmune Triggers

Bacterial infections have been identified as potential triggers for autoimmune diseases, as they can provoke immune responses that lead to chronic inflammation and immune dysregulation.(*)

Parasites, Lyme disease, and various bacterial pathogens have been linked to the development and exacerbation of autoimmune conditions. (*)

In this section, we explore how bacterial infections can act as triggers in autoimmune diseases and discuss the implications for immune health and autoimmune management.

Parasitic infections have been recognized as potential triggers for autoimmune diseases by stimulating immune responses that can disrupt immune tolerance and promote autoimmune reactions.

Parasites such as helminths and protozoa can modulate the immune system, leading to imbalances that contribute to autoimmune conditions.

Functional medicine approaches parasitic infections in autoimmune diseases by addressing gut health, supporting immune modulation, and promoting parasite clearance through targeted interventions.

Lyme disease, caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi transmitted through tick bites, has been associated with autoimmune responses that may contribute to chronic symptoms and autoimmune conditions such as Lyme arthritis and neuroborreliosis.

The complex interactions between Lyme disease and the immune system can lead to persistent inflammation, molecular mimicry, and immune activation that drive autoimmune pathogenesis.

Functional medicine strategies for Lyme disease focus on early diagnosis, antimicrobial/antiparasitic treatment, immune support, and addressing underlying factors that perpetuate immune dysregulation.

Bacterial triggers, encompassing a diverse range of pathogens such as Mycoplasma, Chlamydia, and Streptococcus, have been implicated in autoimmune diseases due to their ability to induce immune responses that target host tissues and promote autoimmune reactions.

These bacterial infections can trigger molecular mimicry, where immune responses against bacterial antigens cross-react with self-antigens, leading to tissue damage and autoimmunity. (*)

Functional medicine interventions for bacterial triggers in autoimmune diseases include targeted antibiotic/antimicrobial/antiparasitic therapies, immune modulation, and supportive treatments to restore immune balance and limit autoimmune responses.

What’s Your Autoimmune Trigger?

Learn more About the  Autoimmune Triggers include: 

Trigger I: Identify Leaky Gut and Compromised GI Function

Trigger II: Eliminate Food Senstivities 

Trigger III: Toxins, Heavy Metals, BPA

Trigger IV: Infections, Parasites, and Lyme Disease

Trigger V: Balance and Optimize Hormones

Trigger VI: Dampen the Inflammatory Response

Trigger VII: Identify Individual Nutritional Deficiencies 

I hope you’ll use the links above to explore and better understand each individual autoimmune disease trigger.  By identifying your unique trigger, you can take back control over your autoimmune condition and improve your overall well being.

Functional Medicine and Autoimmunity- A New Approach To Managing Autoimmune Conditions

Functional medicine offers a unique and comprehensive approach to understanding and managing autoimmune diseases, focusing on the underlying root causes, individualized treatment strategies, and promotion of overall health and well-being. In the context of autoimmunity, which occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s own tissues, functional medicine seeks to address the interconnected factors that contribute to immune dysregulation and inflammatory responses.

One of the key principles of functional medicine in the context of autoimmunity is the recognition of the intricate interplay between genetic predisposition, environmental triggers, gut health, lifestyle factors, and immune function. By taking a personalized and patient-centered approach, functional medicine practitioners aim to identify and address the specific factors driving each individual’s autoimmune condition, rather than simply treating the symptoms.

Functional medicine emphasizes the importance of assessing and optimizing gut health in the management of autoimmune diseases, as the gut plays a critical role in immune function, inflammation, and autoimmunity. Leaky gut syndrome, or increased intestinal permeability, is commonly associated with autoimmune conditions, as it allows for the passage of undigested food particles, toxins, and pathogens into the bloodstream, triggering immune responses and systemic inflammation.

Through targeted interventions such as dietary modifications, gut-healing protocols, probiotics, and other supportive treatments, functional medicine aims to restore gut integrity, balance the gut microbiome, and reduce the burden of environmental triggers on the immune system. By addressing gut health, functional medicine practitioners can help modulate immune responses, reduce inflammation, and support overall immune balance in individuals with autoimmune diseases.

Additionally, functional medicine emphasizes the role of lifestyle factors such as nutrition, stress management, sleep, exercise, and environmental exposures in the development and progression of autoimmune conditions. By promoting a holistic approach to health that encompasses all aspects of an individual’s lifestyle and environment, functional medicine aims to create an optimal healing environment that supports immune function, reduces inflammation, and enhances overall well-being.

In the management of autoimmune diseases, functional medicine practitioners also employ a range of integrative and complementary therapies, including herbal medicine, acupuncture, nutritional supplements, mind-body techniques, and other modalities that support immune regulation, reduce inflammation, and promote tissue healing. By combining conventional medical treatments with evidence-based complementary approaches, functional medicine offers a comprehensive and personalized treatment plan that addresses the multifactorial nature of autoimmune conditions.

Functional medicine utilizes nutritional compounds which have been shown to modulate the physiologic systems associated with the immune response.  These compounds can actually help decrease attacks on self-tissue when incorporated into the diet.

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