As many as 20 million people in the United States have some sort of autoimmune condition – and millions of them don’t know it.
Autoimmune disease gets missed frequently by doctors because the symptoms can be so variable, and the early warning signs non-specific.
Too often I see people finally diagnosed when Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Lupus or Rheumatoid Arthritis is full blown, when it easily could have been caught, and in many cases reversed or slowed down with functional medicine, months if not years sooner.
What is Autoimmune Disease
Autoimmune disease occurs when your body is unable to tell the difference between your own cells and foreign cells, making you more susceptible to infections and causing inflammation that leads to redness, pain and swelling. Normally, your body’s immune system attacks germs like bacteria and viruses, but with an autoimmune disease, proteins called autoantibodies attack healthy cells. Symptoms can include unexplained rashes, body aches, brain fog, and more— and can be more or less severe depending on the type of disease.
Types of Autoimmune Disease
There are over 80 different types of autoimmune diseases, such as diabetes and multiple sclerosis, that attack different parts of your body. Some of the most common types of autoimmune diseases are:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Celiac disease
- Hashimoto’s disease
- Sjögren’s syndrome
- Polymyalgia rheumatica
- Multiple sclerosis
- Ankylosing spondylitis
- Type 1 diabetes
- Alopecia areata
- Temporal arteritis
Causes of Autoimmune Disease
Doctors and researchers are still unsure of what causes the confusion in your immune system that leads to autoimmune disorders, though recent research has led some scientists to think the western diet or environmental factors may play a role. However, there are certain populations that are more susceptible to developing them. For example, women are twice as likely as men to get an autoimmune disease. Different ethnicities are also more likely to develop certain autoimmune diseases and some diseases, like lupus and multiple sclerosis, have a genetic component. Currently there is no cure for autoimmune disease, but with diet and lifestyle changes and in some cases, medication, most people are able to manage their symptoms.
Here are 5 early warning signs that you could have an immune related disorder:
1. Unexplained rashes. Your skin is a great mirror for the level of inflammation in your body. Red, itchy, blotchy or scaly rashes that come and go can be an early warning sign of autoimmune diseases like lupus or psoriasis. Even acne and eczema can be signs that there is underlying hyperactivity of your immune system – food sensitivities like sugar, gluten and dairy are a frequent trigger I see, but autoimmune disease shouldn’t be ruled out.
2. Body aches. Unexplained persistent muscle pain and joint pain can be a sign of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Lupus or Rheumatoid arthritis. If you hurt all over and it’s not from your workout, you may need blood work and even x-rays to rule out an autoimmune condition.
3. Fatigue and brain fog. If you feel foggy and exhausted despite getting at least 8 hours of quality sleep, you could have underlying immune dysfunction. Sometimes fatigue is a sign of anemia of chronic disease, a type of low blood count that develops when there is underlying inflammation in the body. This can be one of the earliest signs of an autoimmune condition.
4. Belly pain. Sometimes people think that diarrhea cramping and bloating that come and go are just the hard knocks from eating one too many take-out meals, but if you frequently have abdominal discomfort, autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s and Celiac could be the issue. It’s much better to catch these conditions early as the longer they persist the more damage they can do to the digestive tract.
5. Weight gain. If you feel like your metabolism has stalled, maybe it has, and it might not be that glass of wine – it might be a thyroid condition. Hypothyroidism affects as many as 1 in 8 women in their lifetimes. I see it frequently come and go. It can be caused by nutrient deficiencies, chronic stress, inflammation, and waxing and waning autoimmune activity. Most doctors don’t routinely test for thyroid antibodies but at Parsley they are part of our proprietary baseline panel that we order for every member. If caught early and addressed with functional medicine sometimes these antibodies will go away entirely, or at least stabilize and not cause further thyroid destruction.
The Autoimmune Paleo Diet
The Autoimmune Paleo Diet (AIP) is a great way to manage symptoms of your autoimmune disease. It works by healing your immune system and gut lining through nutrition and lifestyle changes. This variation of the Paleo diet relies on 30 days of elimination of foods like dairy, gluten, grains, legumes and more, and slowly re-introducing them to help you uncover which foods produce a reaction. The goal is to relieve your symptoms, heal your gut microbiome, and decrease inflammation.