Autoimmune disease is on the rise, just like many other chronic health issues of the 21st Century. It is estimated that around 5% of Australian’s experience some type of autoimmune condition. That is over a million people, and alarmingly, 75% of those living with autoimmunity are women. This number includes those with rheumatoid arthritis, Celiac disease, alopecia, Crohn’s disease, Lupus, endometriosis and thyroiditis, but there are in fact over 100 known illnesses that are classified as autoimmune in nature.
Autoimmunity is strongly linked to an excessive immune response that encourages the body to attack itself. The immune system mistakenly tags healthy cells as harmful threats, and produces antibodies to fight them. This results in a number of unpleasant signs and symptoms that can impact day-to-day life.
The challenge with autoimmunity is that it often takes multiple doctors and many years to finally get autoimmunity diagnosed. During this time people can go from one specialist to another trying to find answers to their health challenges, all the while the immune system is mounting an attack on important body systems. The earlier the condition can be diagnosed the better. And yet, therein lies the problem – it takes so long to get answers. It’s usually the last thing looked for, once all other diagnostic options are exhausted.
Without encouraging you to ask Doctor Google, the following list gives you some signs and symptoms to consider that are common to many autoimmune conditions. If you experience a number of these, I suggest you request further investigation from your Doctor/GP.
We all feel tired at times, but with many autoimmune conditions, fatigue is a constant companion. Therefore, extreme tiredness is one of the more common signs of an autoimmune disorder. This feeling of exhaustion is more than feeling a bit tired though; it’s the type of fatigue that feels like it’s bone deep and doesn’t improve, even when you get enough sleep.
Muscular and Joint Pain
Pain is another common symptom associated with many autoimmune conditions and can stem from inflammation. This pain often feels like burning sensation in the joints along with sore muscles (that aren’t linked to exercise or overexertion). If you have chronic muscular and joint pain, or you experience pain in random flares with no obvious pattern (especially when you haven’t been overdoing the exercise), this can be another potential warning sign of autoimmunity.
Low Immune Resilience
Do you feel like you’re always getting ill and struggling to shake of any bugs you pick up? Low immunity, resulting in frequent infections, can be another warning sign of autoimmune disease. Common colds and viruses are the obvious one to think about, but this can also extend to yeast infections, sinus problems and Urinary Tract Infections (UTI’s). Typically, it will take longer to get better compared to someone who doesn’t have an autoimmune disease.
Chronic Digestive Problems
Digestive problems can be another common symptom of autoimmunity. Increased intestinal permeability, where the lining of the intestinal tract becomes ‘leaky’ or permeable, is now thought to underpin the development of autoimmune conditions, but this leakiness is also associated with increased digestive problems, so it fits that digestive issues are more common with autoimmunity. Diarrhoea, constipation, bloating, excessive wind and stomach cramps, along with feelings of fatigue and even mood issues are all linked to increased intestinal permeability.
Brain Fog and Memory Difficulties
Concentration issues, slower than normal thinking, and trouble retaining new information can be associated with various autoimmune conditions, due to inflammation in the brain.
Unexpected changes in weight, either increases or decreases, can also be associated with autoimmune disease. Weight loss when you’re not dieting has been linked to celiac disease, Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and Grave’s Disease. Weight gain has been associated with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and a number of other health complications.
Unusual Body Sensations and Unexplained Rashes
Numbness and tingling in the hands and feet (and sometimes, elsewhere in the body) can be a response to an autoimmune attack, as can waxing and waning skin rashes.
Noticed more hair coming out when you wash or brush your hair? Nutritional deficiencies like low iron levels and hormone changes can be culprits in hair loss, but it can also be a sign of autoimmune disease. Alopecia areata is an obvious one, given that it is characterized by hair loss, but other autoimmune conditions can also result in hair loss.
What To Do Next
If you’re nodding “yes” to a number of these signs and symptoms don’t be alarmed. And please don’t diagnose yourself based on symptoms. Just speak to your doctor about the possibility of autoimmune disease, and allow them to test for it. If it turns out you do have an autoimmune condition, then seek out appropriate help and support.
Many times, patients are told that there isn’t much that can be done for autoimmunity, but with a functional nutrition approach we know there are many factors that we can change to help lessen the severity of autoimmunity, and to slow the progression of various conditions.
A Functional Nutrition Approach
My mentor, Andrea Nakayama, likens health problems to a tree. The branches and leaves are the signs, symptoms, and even diagnoses that we experience with our various health challenges. Symptoms like fatigue, lowered immunity, aches and pains are all branches and leaves; the consequences rather than the cause.
Now, consider that our tree has three roots. These roots are the underlying factors that contribute to the growth of the branches and leaves. These three roots are:
- Our genetics
- The health of our digestive systems, e.g. how well we digest and assimilate nutrients along with the microbes that reside in the digestive tract
- Our level of inflammation, which refers to the degree our immune system is over-reacting to various insults, such as unresolved low-grade infections, food intolerances, and environmental impacts from pollution and toxins, and our stress level
A functional nutrition approach will look at these three underlying factors, as these are things we can modulate. We can improve our digestion and assimilation of nutrients, the gut microbiome, food intolerances, and work on calming the immune system to bring the body back into balance. Improving these types of factors will likely also influence our genetic expression. Read more about how diet and lifestyle impact genetics here. We do this by working on the soil the roots are growing in. If you go back to the tree metaphor, it is the soil (or terrain) the roots are growing in that contributes to the development of various health challenges. Through changes to the soil, by way of dietary and lifestyle modification, we can ultimately gain traction in improving symptoms.