You Can Beat Autoimmune Disease

You can beat autoimmune disease

Autoimmune disease tends to be viewed as a life sentence without a cure. However, as many have proved, you can recover and go on to thrive. In this comprehensive report we examine the causes of autoimmune disease and how it can be overcome.

Author of Beat Autoimmune, speaker and functional medicine health coach Palmer Kippola was a fun-loving, hard-working college student when she was diagnosed with MS (multiple sclerosis). “One morning I woke up and the soles of my feet had that pins and needles feeling,” Kippola recalls. Over the course of the morning the tingling had crept up to her knees. By the time she saw the neurologist it had reached her collarbone.

At the time, 1984, little was known about MS. Kippola was told there was nothing she could do beyond medication and seeing what happened. “We left her office absolutely terrified,” she says. “We had no idea what this MS thing was. We hadn’t heard of autoimmune disease.” For the next six weeks her whole body was so numb she couldn’t feel a pinch. Faced with an uncertain future, the 19-year-old wondered if she’d spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair.

Fortunately, Kippola had a relapsing, remitting form of MS, which meant she was able to resume some semblance of a normal life. What followed was a 20-year course of MS. Over that time, Kippola saw six different neurologists who all said the same thing: there was nothing she could do except take medication.

A friend challenged her to reflect on what might have caused her condition. Despite having two loving parents, Kippola began to realise her childhood had been one of chronic stress, insomnia and a hyper-vigilant immune system. Thus began a journey of healing and self-discovery, beginning with yoga and then meditation. The more Kippola relaxed, the more her symptoms subsided. Any stress would cause serious symptoms to flare up.

Another significant category she explored was diet. Guided by a library book — there was no internet at the time — she tried a low-fat, vegetarian diet but experienced a worsening of tummy troubles. In 2010, with the help of a functional medicine (otherwise known as root cause medicine) nutritionist and an elimination diet, Kippola discovered she had non-coeliac gluten sensitivity. Removing wheat, gluten, dairy and sugar, she adopted a paleo diet. Within a week her gut issues vanished. Within a month she had no MS symptoms at all. “I stopped having MS symptoms ever again. Full stop,” she says. An MRI eight years later revealed not only were there no more new lesions, but old ones had faded. Some had disappeared.

Another who recovered from autoimmune disease is Brooke Goldner, a medical doctor and author of three bestselling books, including Goodbye Lupus and Goodbye Autoimmune Disease. At age 16, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lupus nephritis. Already in stage four kidney failure, she was told she had six months to live.

With the help of multiple medications and a supportive family, she managed to build a life for herself with chronic disease. “I became very persistent and obsessed with making my life as good as I could, in whatever time I had,” she recalls. However, along with kidney failure, she would battle a blood clot complication and mini-strokes. She was told that pregnancy would be a death wish.

A turning point came when Goldner met Thomas Tadlock, an exercise science graduate. Tadlock, who would go on to write a bestselling book, Miracle Metabolism, would not only become her husband and soulmate, but help her unlock the secret to her healing. Tadlock’s obsession was metabolism and understanding the optimal diet for muscle building and fat loss. “He was very frustrated that his professors kept saying that there’s different diets for different people,” Goldner explains. To Tadlock, this wasn’t science. “All other species have an optimal diet,” she says. “There’s got to be an optimal diet for humans, certain components necessary for cellular nutrition that’s going to optimise your ability to function. Nobody knows the optimal, most elegant solution, and it drove him nuts.”

After following Tadlock’s diet advice to look great for their wedding, she not only lost weight but felt great. “For the first time since 16, I had no migraines; I had no joint pain; my skin was clear,” she says. When she went for one of her regular check-ups, for the first time in 12 years she was negative for lupus. Her kidneys had also healed. The only thing she’d done was change her diet. Now 45, Goldner has never relapsed and has two healthy children. “I have had zero pain. I have no health problems. I take zero medications,” she says.

A growing problem of the developed world

Unfortunately, autoimmune conditions affect many of us. A paper presented in 2018 to the 11th Annual Congress on Immunology & Immunotechnology held in Europe tentatively suggests that more than one in 10 people worldwide suffer from an autoimmune condition. Estimating the true prevalence of these conditions is hindered by the fact that there’s no universally accepted list and a tradition of studying and treating such disorders individually.

According to the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy, 5 per cent, about a million, Australians are affected by an autoimmune condition. This risk increases substantially if you’re female as 80 per cent of all sufferers are women, according to a 2020 journal article.

What’s undisputed is that autoimmune conditions are on the rise in the Western world, with some medical experts referring to it as an epidemic. Rheumatic disorders and those affecting the endocrinological and gastrointestinal systems — including coeliac disease and type-1 diabetes — have increased the most.

One disease? Or many?

Affecting different parts of the body, and ranging from the rare to the familiar — like rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis to name a few — over 80 different autoimmune conditions are “officially” recognised. However, over 160 suspected conditions and subtypes are listed on the Autoimmune Registry, including interstitial cystitis, myocarditis, endometriosis and chronic fatigue syndrome. More and more diseases are being added to the list of “suspects” awaiting further determination by research.

Having one autoimmune condition makes you vulnerable to developing another. Research suggests about 25 per cent of people with autoimmune conditions will succumb to another one. What’s going on?

Many experts believe that the myriad of autoimmune conditions are different manifestations of some core underlying root cause. What’s fundamental to them all: your own immune system turns on you, attacking your body’s cells, tissues and organs. The target can be highly specific, like a gland, or systemic, affecting many body organs and tissues at the same time, as in lupus. The resulting inflammation and damage is what causes health complications, pain and other symptoms.

Getting an autoimmune disease diagnosis

Many people with autoimmune conditions feel unwell but go undiagnosed. On average, it takes almost five years and five doctors to get a proper diagnosis, according to an American survey by the Autoimmune Association. Hindering diagnosis, people’s symptoms can vary widely depending on the body part affected. Common early symptoms tend to be quite general. These include fatigue, pain, insomnia, brain fog, weight changes, fever, swelling, numbness, rashes and a low mood.

A diagnosis is usually built by a medical practitioner around an assessment of your medical history, physical signs and symptoms, routine blood tests plus tests to look at hormone levels and to detect specific autoantibodies. Depending on your condition and its progression, scans, biopsies and other tests might be employed. A definitive diagnosis is usually based on elevated levels of specific autoantibodies such as rheumatoid factor. According to studies, the autoantibodies associated with autoimmune disease can precede signs and symptoms by up to 10 years.

What causes the body to attack itself?

Without an immune system you’d likely be dead in days from the ravages of unchecked microbes. An intricate system of highly specialised defence mechanisms, immunity includes the skin, mucous membranes of the body, lymphatic system, liver, specialised cells, chemicals, proteins and much more, ready to respond wherever invasion occurs.

In autoimmune disease, pro-inflammatory cells become overactive while those that suppress inflammation become underactive. T cells, which defend the body against microbes, viruses and toxins (foreign invaders known as antigens) attack our own tissues. B cells, which produce antibodies to attack specific antigens, start manufacturing antibodies against parts of your body. What causes such an aberration?

A 2020 scientific text, The Autoimmune Diseases, co-authored by leading medical experts and academics across the globe, argues that some level of autoreactivity is a normal feature of a healthy immune system. It’s the fine balance required by the immune system — it must stay vigilant but not so responsive as to harm you — that makes it inherently vulnerable to disruption. Supporting this notion, autoimmune disease is often accompanied by immunodeficiency. However, any change in your body’s internal chemistry and homeostasis might promote the immune activation that can lead to autoimmune disease, according to these experts. Research evidence points to several known triggers.

Genetic disposition

Genetic factors make you more susceptible to developing a specific autoimmune condition. However, it’s important to note, as stated by Noel Rose, grandfather of autoimmune research, in The Autoimmune Diseases, that genetic susceptibility is only a small fraction of why people develop the condition.

Environmental triggers

Research suggests 70 to 95 per cent of the risk of developing autoimmune disease comes from environmental causes, Sandra Cabot states in Healing Autoimmune Disease. Known environmental triggers of autoimmune disease, well established by research on animals and humans, include tissue damage caused by smoking, drugs, pharmaceuticals, heavy metals such as mercury and lead, chemicals, modern diets and even ultraviolet radiation and some vaccinations.

One of the main theories uniting all of these is that cell damage may cause the immune system to no longer recognise such cells as self. Alternatively, environmental toxins may damage the immune system and its functionality. Another theory is that the presence of foreign antigens such as chronic infections stimulates an overactive, disordered immune response. One hypothesis is that some self and foreign antigens have a structural similarity that confuses the immune system — known as “molecular mimicry”.

Infections

Established research shows that bacterial and viral infections can trigger autoimmune disease. For example, periodontal disease (gum disease caused by bacterial infection) has been shown to trigger rheumatoid arthritis. Guillain-Barr syndrome can be triggered by viruses.

Stress and trauma

Significant stress, such as the death of loved ones, often precedes the onset of an autoimmune condition. Several studies link stress and trauma to an increased risk of developing an autoimmune disease — unsurprising given the well-known association between stress and poorer health.

Gut issues

Leaky gut, dysbiosis (an imbalance in microflora) and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (an overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine) have all been implicated by research in autoimmune conditions.

Vitamin D deficiency

Scientific studies correlate vitamin D deficiency with an increased risk of autoimmune disease. Possibly the most important nutrient to human health, the sun vitamin plays a fundamental role in the immune system and inhibiting inflammation.
Estimates suggest 50 per cent of people worldwide have insufficient vitamin D levels.

Healing and recovery

Most likely, if you’re reading this and suffer from an autoimmune condition, you’ve been told there’s nothing you can do but take medication for the rest of your life. Kippola and Dr Goldner emphasise that autoimmunity can be healed, and it’s less rare than you might think!
Offering hope, both Goldner’s and Kippola’s books include multiple stories of people who’ve recovered, including those with diabetes, Hashimoto’s diseased, rheumatoid arthritis and Sjogren’s syndrome.

Kippola advocates a strategy using the easy-to-remember acronym F.I.G.H.T.S.™: addressing food, infections, gut health, hormones, toxins and stress. The main thing, she says, is to “take the bad stuff out”.

Dr Goldner’s focus is a rapid recovery program consisting of six easy-to-follow dietary steps supported by significant self-care. “What revolutionises this for people is understanding how simple it can be,” she says.

Eliminate problem foods

“Food is the first thing you address,” Kippola says. Goldner and Kippola agree that you should avoid all processed food, including all ready-to-eat or heat products such as bakery goods, confectionery, sugars, sauces, processed meats, spreads, canned and packaged foods. Also ditch all genetically modified foods.

Kippola recommends a classic “autoimmune paleo” elimination diet to identify foods that exacerbate symptoms. However, gluten, the top autoimmune trigger food, should be removed for good. Goldner additionally recommends the avoidance of animal products.

Eradicate unhealthy and “added” fats and oils

Goldner emphasises restoring the correct balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids and avoiding saturated fat. Too much omega-6 and saturated fat promotes inflammation in the body. The problem: most of us consume too much of them.

To restore balance, Goldner advises cutting out all foods rich in saturated fat — your body makes what it needs. Also drastically reduce omega-6-rich foods including processed vegetable oils, margarine, animal products and seafoods. Eradicating all processed foods means you’ll also avoid the unhealthy fats and oils, including trans fats, hidden extensively in such foodstuffs.

Hyper-nourish yourself

You may be wondering what’s left to eat? To fast-track healing, Goldner advocates what she calls “hyper-nourishment”. The key to this, she says, is to tap into the known healing powers of botanicals. Plants are packed with health-giving enzymes, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, she says. Crucially, you need to consume them raw. At the heart of her protocol is a daily smoothie to pack them in, using nature’s most nutrient-dense vegetables: leafy greens like spinach and cruciferous veggies including kale, cauliflower and cabbage. Some fruit for taste is permitted. By hyper-nourishing your body you provide it with the ingredients it needs to enable cellular repair, she explains.

Omega-3 — every day

Omega-3 also needs to go into your daily blend. “The imbalance in omega-3s versus the inflammatory omega-6s is likely one of the main health conditions that causes and perpetuates inflammatory diseases like autoimmune disease,” Goldner says.

Take your omega-3 in the form of chia or flaxseed — add them to your daily green smoothie. In order to be assimilated by the body, these should be ground up fresh on the day using a blender or coffee grinder. Avoid the pre-ground stuff: it’s going to be oxidised, she says.
Part of developing her protocols involved testing different foods and products. She says, “Supplements are no good, because omega-3s are extremely sensitive to oxidation by heat or air. How long would you leave a fish in your cabinet and still eat it?” Flax and chia are cheaper and work just as well. Those who want to use fish oils should use fresh, cold-pressed bottled oils, such as cod liver oil. “There’s a lot of issues around fish,” she says. Heating it to eat kills off omega-3. Fish also usually contains high mercury and PCB levels due to the pollution in oceans.

Embrace more water

Based on her trials, Dr Goldner recommends drinking at least 30 grams of water per kilo of body weight daily. For someone weighing 90 kilograms, that translates to almost three litres a day. “Most people are so dehydrated,” she says. “They are raisins instead of grapes. Water is necessary for all the chemical reactions required in the body for eliminating inflammation, for cell repair, to fill in the spaces in the joints and more.” Another advantage of Goldner’s “smoothie solution”: it adds water to your H2O quotient.

Eliminate infections

“I find that with almost every autoimmune condition, 95 per cent of the time there’s an infection present,” Kippola says. “And the big ones that I see are Candida, parasites and chronic Lyme infections. Candida yeast and parasites are way more common than people might imagine.” Mycotoxins, a by-product of mould, are also extremely common. “We have to get tested and we have to treat these infections as naturally as possible, for a sufficient amount of time,” she says.

Heal your gut

Kippola feels gut health is misunderstood. It’s not about taking supplements, but what you put in your mouth, she says. “The biggest part about gut healing is removing what we’re doing to the gut. Stop treating your gut like a garbage disposal.” This means cutting out antibiotics and unnecessary medications that wreak havoc on the microbiome and gut lining, as well as avoiding GMO and junk foods, pesticides, sugars, chemicals, additives and any foods you are sensitive to. Both agree probiotics can be helpful here.

Reduce toxins

Substantial evidence links autoimmunity to a vast array of chemicals and toxins. This includes pesticides, fungicides, dioxin and heavy metals. The key is awareness, avoidance and detoxing your personal environment as much as you can.

Kippola, who follows an organic paleo-style diet, says “70 per cent of your toxic load comes from food, including eating conventional animal foods and conventionally grown grains and vegetables. Just going organic or biodynamic will lower your toxic load almost immediately.”
But, “if it’s a choice between conventionally grown kale and no kale, eat the kale,” Kippola says. She couldn’t afford organic produce and she still recovered.

Stress less, sleep more

As a trainee doctor working in hospitals, Goldner witnessed how much people’s emotional state dictated their outcomes. “People with depression just couldn’t recover from even minor illnesses and people who were happy would have breakthroughs,” she says. “Depressed moods, anxiety and trauma are all inflammatory.”

Addressing stress with practices like mindfulness and getting sufficient sleep is a vital part of recovering from autoimmune problems, she says. A central focus of her recovery program is helping people overcome depression and anxiety through self-care measures.

But our emotional state is also key to dietary change. “Food doesn’t just represent vitamins and minerals. It’s our way of self-soothing and dealing with emotional pain,” she says. “Diet is attached to so much emotionally. It’s tradition and holidays, and peer pressure and self-esteem, fitting in and addiction. Humans have gotten really good at synthesising food that makes them sick.”

Boost vitamin D

Both Kippola and Goldner recommend getting your vitamin D levels checked, and supplementing if low. Another idea is to get your vitamin D straight from the source: the sun. Unfortunately, few foods contain sufficient vitamin D.

Balance hormones

“When you change what you eat, clear infections and address toxins and lower your stress, your hormones start to naturally balance,” Kippola says. She suggests balancing your hormones naturally with the good stuff in life, like raising your oxytocin by hugging your partner or pet or staring into your child’s eyes. “This is really about lowering stress and increasing love and joy.”

“I believe that autoimmune conditions are an invitation to people to wake up to who they truly are,” she says. “Symptoms are messages from your body inviting you to look at what’s out of balance in your life and to clean it up.

Linda Moon

Linda Moon

Linda Moon is a freelance feature writer reporting on health, travel, food and local producers, work, parenting, relationships and other lifestyle topics. Her work has appeared in International Traveller, Voyeur (Virgin Airlines magazine), Jetstar Asia, Slow Living, Traveller, Domain, My Career, Life & Style and Sunday Life (Sydney Morning Herald), Sprout, NZ Journal of Natural Medicine, Nature & Health, Australian Natural Health, Fernwood Fitness, The New Daily, SBS, Essential Kids, Australian Family, Weekend Notes, The Big Bus Tour & Travel Guide and more.

Based in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, Linda is a qualified and experienced naturopath, spa and massage therapist and a partly trained social worker.

Her writing interests focus on health, responsible consumerism, exploring beautiful places and the quest for a fairer, healthier and happier world for all.

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