A Holistic Approach to Managing Autoimmune Diseases

Marnie Schwartz
May 12, 2020

A holistic approach to managing autoimmune disease symptoms

If you do show signs of autoimmune dysfunction or are diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, managing symptoms is important to help you feel better and also to calm potentially damaging inflammation , which is a hallmark in most autoimmune conditions.

At Parsley Health, doctors are often able to catch the early symptoms of autoimmune diseases and help manage or reverse the condition without the need for medication. In people who are on prescription medications for autoimmune disease, they are often able to help patients reduce or eliminate the need for medication, though in some cases, medication is needed and treatment will focus on symptom management.

The lifestyle changes that your doctor may recommend for managing symptoms include an elimination diet, which can help identify food triggers for your flares, and ways to manage stress, since for many people, their diseases flare under stress. Your functional medicine doctor may also look for micronutrient deficiencies and recommend dietary changes , herbal supplements , and detox and cleanse regimens to help your immune system calm down, says Dr. Jacobson. In Ayurvedic medicine, a clean diet combined with yoga, meditation , and body treatments helps reduce rheumatoid arthritis symptoms or even eliminate them, she says, though it’s not known how food and lifestyle changes have this effect or why antibody levels go down. Body therapies like massage, acupuncture, and infrared sauna may also be helpful, she adds.

Yoga and meditation can be so important because there’s cross-talk between your immune and nervous systems, and you want them to remain balanced, explains Dr. Jacobson. “The reason I emphasize yoga is that it links breath, movement, and intent,” she says. “Breath practices get us in nervous system balance.” That’s crucial to making sure you can get in and out of a “fight or flight” state quickly, to avoid prolonged exposure to stress hormones and keep steady, because “an overactive mind revs up the body.”

In addition to herbs, another therapy being explored is a low dose of naltrexone, a drug that in higher doses helps people recover from addiction by blocking opioid receptors. In people with autoimmune diseases it might help with GI symptoms, pain, joint symptoms, and brain fog , says Dr. Jacobson. Research suggests that it may help improve quality of life in people with Crohn’s disease (an inflammatory bowel condition), rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis (a central nervous system disease) and reduce itching in people with systemic sclerosis (a form of scleroderma, a disease that affects the skin and connective tissues).

Since the early signs of many autoimmune diseases—fatigue, bloating—may be vague and common, people commonly push them aside or think they’re not worth telling their doctor about. “People ignore GI symptoms their whole lives!” says Dr. Jacobson. But women, in particular, need to be hypervigilant, because working with a doctor before your symptoms increase in severity, is ideal, she says.

Marnie Schwartz

Marnie is a freelance writer with experience covering health, food, nutrition, fitness, and personal finance for publications including Shape, Good Housekeeping, Men's Journal, Women's Health, and more. She is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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