Functional Medicine Approach to Autoimmune Diseases

July 18, 2023

With all the noise from the holistic health influencers on Instagram, I am sure you are no stranger to the term ‘autoimmune disease’. But it’s very likely that you are a stranger as to what an autoimmune disease really is, and how functional medicine aims to reverse an autoimmune condition, so, let me demystify that for you. 

What is autoimmunity/an autoimmune disease? 

Clinically, an autoimmune disease is one where your immune system mistakenly attacks the healthy cells of your body. While this definition can translate to mean that your body is devoid of any sort of threats – think of allergens, toxins, microbial (bacterial/viral/fungal) infections, etc., that would be a grossly inaccurate interpretation. Your immune system does not react unless there is a perceived threat. When there is a perceived threat, your body does everything in its power to adapt and survive in a hostile environment. During this, it ends up attacking your skin, joints, brain, and perhaps even your whole body. This mechanism is called molecular mimicry by which infectious agents (or other exogenous substances) trigger an immune response against the host antigens (i.e., foreign matter that the body does not recognize).

As of today, around 80 diseases have been identified as autoimmune diseases, and an estimated 4% of the world’s population is affected by one or more of them. Some of the common autoimmune diseases are rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, psoriasis, celiac disease, Addison’s disease, Crohn’s disease, Sjögren’s syndrome, etc. 

Conventional Approach to autoimmune Diseases

The conventional approach to treating autoimmune diseases works simply by mitigating symptoms with the administration of steroids, anti-inflammatory drugs, analgesics, and/or immunosuppressant drugs. This approach temporarily helps with your symptoms by stopping the pain signals from being sent to the brain and suppressing the immune system. It essentially shuts down the signals from your body that indicate that something is wrong and does not actually resolve the root cause of the issue. Additionally, the usage of anti-inflammatory drugs and immuno-suppressants can potentially cause intestinal bleeding, kidney failure, depression, psychosis, osteoporosis, muscle loss, and diabetes, not to mention overwhelming infection and cancer. So while you will experience a state of no symptoms over time, that doesn’t necessarily translate to your body having been healed. The root cause of your autoimmune disease persists in your body and chances are that it may evolve into something else that manifests with a whole new different set of symptoms. 

When it comes to treating diseases of any kind, conventional medicine approaches diseases by suppressing, covering over, blocking, or otherwise interfering with the body’s biology. There is no attempt made to understand and address the underlying cause, which is usually one or more of these – infections, poor liver functioning and/or gut health, stressed nervous system, food allergies, sensitivities, chemical and heavy metal toxicities, hormonal imbalance. These imbalances, foreign bodies, toxic substances, etc., are perceived as threats by the human body and the body indicates that something is wrong in the body via pain, neurological symptoms such as fatigue, depression, insomnia, anxiety, mood fluctuations, etc., digestive symptoms such as constipation, indigestion, etc. and skin & hair symptoms such as psoriasis, eczema, hair loss, etc. ultimately throwing the body out of balance. 

Functional Medicine Approach to Autoimmune Diseases

While conventional medicine treads on shallow waters, functional medicine asks 2 key but simple questions and dives deeper into understanding the disease – a) Why is the body out of balance? b) How do we help the body regain its balance/homeostasis?

By asking and answering these two questions, a functional medical practitioner helps identify what perceived threat your body is reacting to, develops an individualized protocol to remove that threat, and restores homeostasis. Functional medicine views the human body as a system on its own, seeks to find the cause of illness, understands the fundamental functions of the different systems that make up the human body, how they can go askew, and how to bring them back to balance, and understands the different interconnections between symptoms, organs and functions. Functional medicine also takes a far more holistic approach in that it takes into account factors such as genetics, and environmental factors to paint a clearer picture of all possible causes and develop healing protocols that work best for you.

As a first step, your functional medicine practitioner prescribes a diagnostic assessment to detect key pathogens resulting in autoimmune diseases, along with a blood work to identify any deficiencies. This diagnostic tool helps 

  1. Detect immune reactions to key pathogens that may lead to multiple autoimmune reactivities
  2. Determine the role of pathogens in cases of 'unexplained' autoimmune reactivities
  3. Monitor the effectiveness of clinical protocols for addressing pathogens associated with multiple auto-immunities

Your functional medical practitioner will also ask you questions to understand your medical history, overall medical conditions, diet, lifestyle, etc. to get a complete sense of what may be going on with you. Once they have all of this information, in combination with the results of your diagnostic assessments, they will then prescribe a protocol that works on detoxing, healing, and supplementing any deficiencies. Detoxing helps eliminate any pathogens and toxins that are perceived threats to the body. This involves a combination of natural anti-microbial, anti-viral herbs that are chosen based on the outcomes of the diagnostic assessment, along with binder agents to help flush them out of your system. In addition, you will also work on shifting to a healthier lifestyle by including exercises, relaxation practices, and getting sufficient sleep. You will also have to adopt a diet protocol where you identify and remove any food sensitivities and eat more cleaner, healthier foods. Supplementation involves supplementing certain nutrients that your body is deficient in, and that you are unable to get from food. Typically, in the case of autoimmune diseases, it is a vitamin D3, or a B12 deficiency, however, it is not limited to either of them. 

After the protocol is kicked off, you are monitored on a periodical basis to measure progress and modify protocol as needed. 

The Functional medicine approach of addressing root causes, in almost all cases, is able to put the autoimmune condition into remission. A lot of factors determine the degree of remission – the severity of the condition, the damage caused, your practitioner’s accuracy of diagnosis and strength of treatment protocol, and most importantly, your conviction to make the necessary changes to your lifestyle, routine, and stay committed to the treatment protocol for as long as needed. The functional medicine approach to autoimmune diseases drastically improves the quality of your life, reduces your symptoms, and helps you get back to living your life in the best possible way. 



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