What is Autoimmune Disease?

Autoimmune disease is this century’s silent killer. Oh, it generally won’t kill you. But it does kill hopes, dreams, careers, and relationships as it systematically destroys a person from the inside out. In autoimmune disease, the cells typically responsible for protecting you from infections –  antibodies – mistake your own tissue for foreign invaders and attack it in full force. It can strike anywhere at any time, and it affects everyone a little differently. While many of us have more than one autoimmune disease, each affecting different parts of our body (from our thyroids in Hashimoto’s to our skin in Psoriasis to our brains in Multiple Sclerosis), they all share a root cause: Those rogue antibodies. From there, it should follow that correcting that rogue immune system would result in, if not full recovery, at least a cessation of hostilities between your antibodies and their target.

Unfortunately, most autoimmune patients experience a slow and steady decline under the care of physicians that either do not know how to treat the underlying autoimmune disease or, worse yet, do not believe the patient’s continuing symptoms have anything to do with it. To be fair, autoimmunity was only discovered about fifty years ago, and most of the advances in the field have been made in the last few years, long after most of our physicians left medical school. Our understanding of the cornucopia of autoimmune diseases is shifting all the time, and very few doctors or med-school curricula keep up with it.

What we do know for certain: People with a family history of autoimmune disorders are far more likely to develop one. Autoimmune disease is more common in women than in men, and rates have been rapidly rising in both genders over the past twenty-five years. There is a significant rate of autoimmune disease among people exposed to toxins even in amounts that the EPA deems safe, and some theorize that it is a buildup of these toxins in our own tissues that triggers the autoimmune attack. Others, inspired by the confirmed relationship between gluten sensitivity and autoimmune disease, believe that it all begins with leaky gut. Anything from smog, smoke, and stress to puberty, pregnancy, and physical or emotional trauma can set off an autoimmune attack. While many autoimmune patients are sick for years before becoming disabled or even getting diagnosed, others fall ill in one terrifying instant. In this increasingly polluted and stressful world, everyone is at risk.

So, what can we do about it?

If you happen to get diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, most doctors will give you a prescription and tell you to check back in every couple of months. If you ask, they’ll tell you that these diseases are incurable and often degenerative, but that you ought to do okay on whatever drug they’ve given you. Most of the time, they won’t mention diet, exercise, or other lifestyle changes, and any patient that wants a better quality of life will be left to do the research and recovery on their own. Fortunately, there have never been more resources available to help us along our way. Allergen-free, anti-inflammatory, and eco-friendly diets and lifestyles have exploded across cyberspace the past couple of years, and there are a growing number of blogs and cookbooks dedicated to healing autoimmune disease. Considering that the alternative is to continue being sick for the rest of our lives, never mind seeing our children and grandchildren develop similar problems, these diets and lifestyles are blessedly easy fixes. What’s a little more time in the kitchen, on a treadmill, or outdoors compared to a lot more time on the toilet, in bed, or — heaven forbid — in an early grave? Whatever your doctor or anyone else tells you, the diet and lifestyle links to autoimmune disease have been well-established and have helped thousands of patients improve their quality of life. For me, it all started with a clean plate.

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