How to Beat Autoimmune: 6 Keys to Reclaim Your Health
February 17, 2022
If you’re dealing with frustrating or debilitating autoimmune symptoms — like profound fatigue, aches and pain, numbness and tingling or brain fog — you know how they wreak havoc on your life. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Many people, including me, have healed completely after devastating autoimmune diagnoses.
You may be wondering how such a thing is possible, especially if your doctor has pronounced your disease as chronic and incurable. That’s because most conventional doctors never learned how to effectively treat autoimmune disorders, defaulting to prescription medications to manage symptoms, which frequently lead to troublesome and paradoxical side effects including autoimmune conditions, and even cancer.
Thankfully there’s another way. We have the science, the information, and methods for reversing and preventing autoimmune disorders right now. Contrary to common belief, autoimmune disease is not a one-way street. Thanks to groundbreaking research in the last decade, we now have an autoimmune equation to reverse and prevent them: Detect and remove your inflammatory root causes and heal and seal your gut.
Two decades after my diagnosis at 19, I reversed my multiple sclerosis (MS) thanks to a mix of tenacity and hope plus trial and error. I spent the next five years trying to understand how I’d done something I’d been told by multiple doctors was impossible. I dove into the research, interviewed dozens of doctors and other individuals who had completely recovered from autoimmune conditions.
I learned it can be far quicker, more straightforward, and less costly to reverse or prevent any one of the 150 known autoimmune conditions today. But, most importantly, I discovered that the keys to healing are in your hands.
Good News! Lifestyle Matters Most
For decades, we blamed our health woes on “bad” genes, but we now have proof that our genetic makeup is only a small fraction of what leads to chronic disease like autoimmune conditions. That means most of our health is largely dependent on lifestyle factors within our control. Empowering science puts you in control:
1. Epigenetics trounces genetics
The relatively new science of epigenetics, which translates literally as “above the gene,” reveals that genes are turned on or off depending on our environment. Those so called “bad genes” only account for up to 10 percent of health outcomes.
The other 90+ percent? What we eat, think, drink and do every day. In other words, our environments, inside and out, are the modifiable lifestyle factors that we mostly control. This explains why I was able to reverse the MS. While I’ll always have the genes for MS, I mostly control whether those genes get expressed.
2. A leaky gut is the set up for autoimmunity
Beyond genes and lifestyle factors, there’s a third element that sets up autoimmune conditions: increased intestinal permeability, commonly known as a leaky gut. A leaky gut allows food or bacteria to penetrate the intestinal barrier and enter the bloodstream, causing widespread inflammation, and initiating the autoimmune cascade.
3. Modifiable root causes you control
What are the modifiable root causes? Based on years of research and clinical experience, I call them the six big lifestyle factors F.I.G.H.T.S.™ — for Food, Infections, Gut health, Hormone balance, Toxins and Stress. It turns out these six important environmental factors are both the root causes and solutions. Address each and you have the keys to autoimmune reversal and prevention.
Time for the Good F.I.G.H.T.S.™
Together, the six F.I.G.H.T.S.™ categories represent both the root causes of all autoimmune conditions and their solution. That means to return to health you must address each of the six, regardless of which you believe most contributed to your condition. You may notice some overlap in the categories and that’s because in biology, we must think of systems and not disparate parts. Stress, for example affects your hormone balance, gut health, and even your ability to fight infections.
On the flip side, relaxation calms your gut, helps with hormonal harmony, and creates an environment for healing and well-being. The good news is as you address each category, you’ll be positively affecting the others and creating upward spirals of health. Where to begin?
1. Start with food
We need food to live, but few of us consider how, depending on what we choose to eat, food can be friend — nourishing us from the inside out — or foe, harming our guts, causing inflammation and immune burden. Because food is the highest leverage root-cause category of autoimmune conditions, it’s also a powerful place to start the healing journey. People often heal 60 percent to 80 percent, and sometime 100 percent, just by changing what they eat.
So, how does food hurt? A Standard American Diet (SAD) — high in processed foods, sugar, chemical additives and manmade oils — harms the balance of bacteria while creating, inflaming and perpetuating a leaky gut. When food particles and bacterial waste breach your intestinal barrier and enter your body, your immune system revs up and attacks the invaders. But because these foreign particles resemble cells in your body, your immune system can become confused, and in the process of protecting you, begin to attack your own tissues.
Give it a try:
To determine any food triggers, you need to commit to a strict elimination diet, or as I prefer to think of it, a 30-Day Food Vacation. While toxic SAD foods, like gluten, conventional dairy, processed and packaged food need to go for good, for at least 30 days you’ve removed the most common autoimmune suspect foods, too, like eggs, grains and nightshade vegetables, in favor of colorful vegetables, healthful fats and grass-fed meats.
After 30 days, you can reintroduce each suspect food one by one over a two-day period. If you experience any new or exacerbated symptom as you reintroduce foods, you’ll know which is a trigger for you. Note that symptoms may not be confined to your gut; you might experience joint pain, headaches or brain fog. Avoid any trigger food for six months before trying it again.
2. Heal your gut
Naturally, what you eat and your gut health go hand in hand. But eliminating your trigger foods is only one step in healing a leaky gut. Before we discuss other strategies, let’s look at what’s really going on in your gut.
The “gut” is shorthand for your intestines, both small and large. The small intestine’s job is to absorb nutrients from your food. It’s also home to about 80 percent of your immune system — yep, really! Meanwhile, the large intestine contains your microbiome, a vast population of microbes that aid digestion, eliminate toxins and maintain the integrity of your intestinal barrier.
Think of your microbiome as the defensive line against toxins, harmful bacteria and other problematic organisms entering your body. When that defensive line gets worn down attempting to hold its ground against triggering foods and other F.I.G.H.T.S.™ factors, the microbiome becomes imbalanced and your defenses weaken, causing inflammation that can lead to a literal breach in your defensive line and the breakdown of your intestinal lining. Hello, leaky gut. The autoimmune cascade has begun.
Give it a try:
Given the right support, a damaged gut can heal. Besides removing your trigger foods and incorporating into your diet an abundance of colorful vegetables, nourishing fats and grass-fed meats, including bone broths, you can use pre- and probiotics to help build back up your depleted microbiome.
Supplements, like L-glutamine powder, zinc, pantothenic acid (vitamin B5) and aloe vera juice, can also support intestinal lining repair. And, finally, focus on reducing stress, getting more sleep and moving more, as able.
To learn more about healing a leaky gut, check out Dr. Axe’s actionable book, Eat Dirt: Why Leaky Gut May Be the Root Cause of Your Health Problems and 5 Surprising Steps to Cure It
3. Clear Infections
Immunologists and practitioners have long noted a strong connection between infections and autoimmune conditions. And the problem is two-fold: Infections can trigger an autoimmune reaction, and having an autoimmune disorder makes you more vulnerable to infections.
Our immune systems evolved to protect us from the onslaught of infectious microbes we encounter each day. But if you have a genetic predisposition and a leaky gut or face other inflammatory F.I.G.H.T.S.™ factors, your immune system can malfunction and kick into overdrive, leading to an autoimmune reaction or reducing your immunity against the next infection. And even if you don’t feel sick, that doesn’t mean your body isn’t hosting a dormant or stealthy infection (herpes virus is one example), which hide out until your defenses drop.
Give it a try:
You can’t avoid microbes, but you can strengthen your immunity by — you guessed it —a voiding your trigger foods and healing a leaky gut. Other simple methods include cutting out sugar, getting restorative sleep and increasing your intake of vitamin C and vitamin D, both of which have been shown to help prevent and fight infections.
For optimal health, take 1–2 grams of vitamin C (ascorbic acid) per day, in 1,000 mg divided doses, and get your D levels at least over 50 ng/ml, or ideally 70–100 ng/ml, with D3 and K2 as needed. Don’t know your D level? Get it checked the next time you have blood work done.
If you suspect an infection as one of your root-cause triggers, consider working with a skilled practitioner to go beyond these basic tips. A functional or naturopathic doctor can help you find and resolve underlying infections. For further information about preventing and clearing infections, read more about the infection-autoimmune connection.
4. Minimize toxins
Our bodies face a torrent of toxins every day, from the foods we eat and the water we drink to the air we breathe and the products we use. As with infections, our bodies are built to withstand environmental toxins, using powerful, innate detoxification processes courtesy of organs like the liver and kidneys, the lymphatic system, even our skin.
But there are more toxins in our modern-day environment than ever before — estimates put the number of man-made chemicals in commerce in the U.S. at upwards of 100,000 — and most of them haven’t been tested for safety. And then there are those that have been tested, proven to be damaging and remain ubiquitous: things like Bisphenol-A (BPA), heavy metals and pesticides in our foods and water, phthalates and parabens in personal care products, and the list goes on.
Our body burden of toxins is accumulating faster than our detox systems can keep up. That’s why proactive daily detox strategies are so important.
Give it a try:
Since eliminating all toxins is impossible, the goal is to reduce the number you encounter on any given day by focusing on those in your control. Some easy ways to minimize toxins include buying, when possible, organic produce and organic, grass-feed meats, choosing clean personal care and home cleaning products (check out the Think Dirty app for help), and reducing your prescription medications as much as you can safely do so.
5. Address stress
Studies show that 80 percent of people report uncommon emotional stress prior to the onset of an autoimmune condition. Does that mean dealing with stress always triggers an autoimmune condition? No, but it does mean we need to consider the role of stress in our lives and its impact on our physical health.
We all deal with stress in one way or another. But there’s a big different between acute stress — the adrenaline we feel after a near-miss on the road or under a work deadline — and chronic stress.
Chronic stress, typically brought on by a traumatic event or a series of stressful episodes, like, say, a global pandemic, is an unrelenting level of worry, fear or panic. It’s basically what happens when the body gets stuck in flight-or-fight mode and can’t relax. When stress hormones, like cortisol, keep pumping into our system, eventually, we have a prime environment for uncontrolled inflammation, which is the habitat of autoimmune conditions.
Give it a try:
If you can determine areas to reduce or eliminate stress, great — get on it! But even if you can’t reduce the stress in your life or avoid unexpected stressful situations, you can adjust how you respond to stress — and that’s more important. Self-care isn’t just a buzzword; it’s a critical way of addressing the impact of stress on your body.
One of the best ways to care for yourself is to prioritize sleep, as in 8–9 hours per night. But even just 10 minutes a day of focused self-care can serve to support your well-being. Need some ideas? Breath work, like meditative breathing or yoga, can help you move from the stress response to the relaxation response, as can time spent in nature. Or find a form of exercise you enjoy and work up a sweat. Check out more ideas to reduce the impact of stress in your body.
6. Balance your hormones
Microscopic but mighty, hormones act as the chemical messengers of the body, instructing cells to perform various important roles, like preparing for a baby, regulating our appetites and stabilizing our moods, among many others. When your hormones are balanced, you feel good, your energy is stable, and your immune system is strong. But too much of one or not enough of another and the balance tips, leaving you more susceptible to adverse health outcomes like autoimmune conditions and other chronic illnesses.
While we have dozens of hormones, there are six that when imbalanced contribute to poor health outcomes: low vitamin D, low thyroid (hypothyroidism), low DHEA (the foundation hormone), high cortisol, high insulin and estrogen dominance. Fortunately, hormones are last on the list for good reason: When you address the other five F.I.G.H.T.S.™ factors first, your hormones tilt toward balance naturally.
Give it a try:
Once you’ve optimized your food, healed your gut, cleared infections, reduced your toxin load and incorporated stress reduction into your daily routine, you’re well on your way to balancing your hormones.
You’ll want to know your numbers, so consider a “comprehensive thyroid panel,” not just a TSH test, to confirm your markers are in the optimal range. The panel should include both thyroid antibodies, TPO and TG, which will reveal whether you’re dealing with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, the most common autoimmune condition.
If you’ve lowered your toxic load and you’re still struggling to balance your hormones, it can be beneficial to work with a practitioner skilled in the use of bioidentical hormones to restore the right levels for you.
Congratulations! By opening yourself to the possibility of reversing your autoimmune condition, you’ve taken the first real step in healing transcending debilitating symptoms. No matter how recent or long-standing your diagnosis, when you begin to address the six F.I.G.H.T.S.™ factors, you unlock the door to abundant health and well-being.
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