There has been an alarming increase in the incidence of autoimmune disease, which doubled in the last 15 years, having already doubled in the previous 15. This is impossible to explain on the basis of genetic susceptibility, since genetic mutations do not arise this quickly. Our environment–what gets into our bodies–does change rapidly, however. Antibiotics, pollution, heavy metal toxins, pesticides, processed foods, and untold additional factors cause disturbances in immune function that cause the body to turn against itself, no longer fully able to distinguish between what belongs and what does not belong there, i.e. what is “self” and what is “non-self”. Unfortunately, studies have demonstrated that symptomatic disease–such as Rheumatoid Arthritis, for example–is preceded by the development of antibodies ten years earlier! In other words, many unsuspecting people go about their lives considering themselves healthy when in reality something life-changing is going on beneath the surface. At this stage, it is much easier to address the problem than it is once symptoms hit.
Once symptoms occur, drawing one’s attention to the problem, traditional medicine relies on unbelievably expensive drugs to shut down the immune system in order to suppress the effects of the disease. Unfortunately, the side effect lists of these drugs read like a “who’s who” of diseases nobody wants, including hard-to-treat infections and cancers.
In functional medicine, we focus not so much on the autoimmune disease as we do on the person who has the disease. Although this approach requires a lot more effort on the part of doctor and patient alike than merely prescribing and taking a drug, the result is also much more satisfying. If we ignore the many underlying factors, a single autoimmune disease will be only the beginning of one’s health problems, not the end.
Take for example the young man who had “clear the room” gas as a child. He just assumed this was the way he was. It didn’t occur to him or his family that this was a sign of an important disruption in his gastrointestinal function. Nor that 80% of the immune system is located in the gut, and is intimately dependent on healthy digestion, absorption, and elimination. This adolescent was then diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. He was treated, appropriately, with insulin. Unfortunately, traditional medicine ignores the fact that diabetes is an autoimmune disease. The insulin-producing cells in the pancreas are actually destroyed by one’s own immune system. Imagine this young man’s surprise when, nine years later, he developed celiac disease. Imagine his further surprise when, two years later, he developed ulcerative colitis. Morals of the story: 1) Don’t ignore the gut. 2) If you have an autoimmune disease, pay the price now to fix your immune system. Otherwise, chances are good that you will pay the price later with additional diseases and complications, especially autoimmune conditions.