Is the term ‘autoimmune disease’ one that you’re familiar with, or are you scratching your head trying to figure out what that even means?
Well, if you have an autoimmune disease, you know exactly what it means...and if not, the term can be a little confusing. In its simplest terms, an autoimmune disease is a condition arising from an abnormal immune response to a normal body part. Which is to say that in the case of autoimmune disease, the body perceives its own tissue to be an invader and enacts an immune response against it.
Here are a few conditions you may not have known are autoimmune diseases (there are over 80):
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
- Celiac disease
- Type 1 Diabetes
- Graves disease
- Inflammatory bowel disease (such as Crohn’s)
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Systemic Lupus
- Ulcerative Colitis
How does someone develop an autoimmune condition and why is it common to have onset as an adult?
Luckily, we are not usually born with our immune systems attacking systems or tissues within our bodies. Phew. There are environmental factors at play throughout our lives that can create the “perfect storm” for autoimmunity to present itself, however, such as antibiotic use, pathogens in the digestive tract, candida overgrowth, low stomach acid production or antacid usage, chronic stress and food sensitivities or allergies.
All of the variables above contribute to the overall condition of leaky gut, also known as increased intestinal permeability, which is the root cause of most food allergies and sensitivities and autoimmune disease. In fact, if you suffer from food sensitivities or allergies, it’s time to pay attention because autoimmune disease(s) are probably right around the corner. (I say disease(s) because once you develop an autoimmune condition, you are likely to develop another unless the root cause of leaky gut is addressed.)
When someone has leaky gut (often referred to as increased intestinal permeability), the “net” in your digestive tract gets damaged, which causes even bigger holes to develop in your net, so things that normally can’t pass through, are now be able to.
Some of the things that can now pass through include proteins like gluten, bad bacteria and undigested foods particles. Toxic waste can also leak from the inside of your intestinal wall into your bloodstream causing an immune reaction.
- Dr. Josh Axe
Dr. Josh Axe does an excellent job of explaining leaky gut and autoimmunity HERE and I would encourage you to give it a quick read for a deeper understanding of how the digestive tract is such a critical component in our overall health.
Hopefully I’m making it clear that what we do and do not eat is critically important for the health of our digestive tract (our gut) and is the deciding factor of our overall health.
Does gut healing sound like something you need help with? Download my Guide To Leaky Gut Cheatsheet below!
Now let’s talk about “Mustang Sally”. Sally isn’t wild about her before and after photos being plastered on the internet with her real name attached, so we’ll do her the honor of a stage name. She has, however, authorized me to share these photos and her story as a resource for anyone else suffering from an autoimmune disease.
Sally came to me for nutritional therapy about a year and a half ago. She reported being generally healthy for most of her life despite struggling with her weight and the onset of psoriasis in her early 50’s, which was the driving force behind her desire to make some diet and lifestyle changes. Her psoriasis had started on the edge of her nose and her scalp, and over a few years had spread to her elbows and large patches on the front of both shins.
It was quickly revealed through our intake assessment and first session that Sally had considerable digestive issues that she had accepted as “normal” and hadn’t connected to her psoriasis, such as chronic acid reflux, diarrhea, and a gallbladder that had been removed after a painful attack.
Spoiler alert: heart burn or acid reflux is an indication of having low stomach acid, not too much...and the treatment for it is very easy! When you have enough stomach acid, many other digestive complaints will resolve themselves, such as IBS and gallbladder attacks. SInce our gallbladder is instrumental in the digestion of fats, you want to keep that bad boy in place. A gallbladder attack is a symptom that the system is working poorly, to be sure, but it usually does not need to be removed! After a few tweaks everything can usually be running smoothly again.
Furthermore, Sally had been treated for years by her primary care physician and multiple dermatologists who had prescribed a variety of psoriasis treatments, both oral and topical, and were pushing her to start taking Humira. You know, the one with side effects which include depression, anxiety, blindness, seizures, and “no blood pressure or pulse”...ummm...wow.
Sally didn’t want to end up with “no blood pressure or pulse” in the name of clearing up her skin, but the large patches of psoriasis on her legs were a constant source of comments from strangers who thought she had suffered chemical burns, and that kind of sucked.
To paraphrase Sally’s expectations when we began working together, she felt like she had nothing to lose by trying to address her psoriasis through some thoughtful nutrition changes, but she didn’t have very high hopes for success. If nothing else, she was hoping to lose a few pounds and chalk it up to another experimental treatment.
I, on the other hand, was practically giddy to help Sally implement some gradual dietary and lifestyle changes in the name of improving her digestion and nutrient absorption and thus the expression of her autoimmune disease.
THESE ARE THE 3 WAYS WE ADDRESSED SALLY'S PSORIASIS:
1. Healing THE gut
Reducing the intestinal permeability (aka the “holes in the net” as explained by Dr. Axe) was the first priority for Sally. Because she was suffering from heart burn, we knew she likely had unadequate stomach acid production, and we needed to increase it.
Step number one was for Sally to discontinue her PPI (proton pump inhibitor) use and allow the stomach acid production to resume. Buh-bye Prevacid.
Now that she was producing more stomach acid, the nutrients in Sally’s food were actually being digested properly and could be absorbed through her intestines.
At the same time that Sally was weaning herself off of her acid blocking medication, we focused on introducing more diverse bacteria into her digestive tract via more probiotics and fermented foods. (Sally was already taking a good quality probiotic, which is pretty much essential for anyone who has ever taken a round of antibiotics and killed off their army of little friends.)
I repeat: Take a probiotic and make your kids take a probiotic (unless your doctor has instructed you not to due to immune challenges like chemo). Fermented foods like raw sauerkraut, kombucha, and raw apple cider vinegar are crucial for re-colonizing your gut flora! Now is not the time to be a pansy: you’ve probably taken a shot that tasted way worse than apple cider vinegar diluted in water. Make it happen.
Sally didn’t have any known food sensitivities, but if she had, we would have made sure to completely eliminate them from her diet immediately. Exposing your gut to a source of inflammation over and over again does not promote healing, ok? It would be a great idea to remove gluten and dairy from your diet if you are experiencing leaky gut or autoimmunity as both usually contribute inflammation to the gut lining and prolong healing. For the sake of full disclosure, Sally didn’t eliminate either one, but if she had, she may have seen improvement of her psoriasis much sooner.
Artificial sweeteners were totally OUT at this point. As a former diet pop drinker, (it is POP...not soda.) Sally initially struggled to eliminate artificial sweeteners, but after the first few weeks she was totally convinced that those chemicals had been really doing a number on her digestion and joints. Don't take my word for it: do as Sally did and just try eliminating artificial sweeteners for a period of 2 weeks and see how your digestion and joints feel. I am pretty sure you won't go back!
The crown jewel (for Sally) was the addition of collagen peptides into her diet about a year after we started working together.
This surprised the hell out of me.
Don’t get me wrong, collagen peptides are an amazing source of vital amino acids and protein that are incredibly healing to the gut lining and our malnourished bodies in general, and I recommend them to pretty much everyone, but the addition of the collagen seemed to be about 50% responsible for Sally’s psoriasis improvement.
Prior to trying the collagen peptides, it had been about a year of nutritional therapy and roughly 50% compliance on Sally's part. Her psoriasis had improved about 50%, and she was happy with that result. It was around that time that I recommended she try a hot chocolate recipe that I had concocted that used a healthy amount of collagen peptides in addition to coconut milk and cocoa. Within a few weeks, the psoriasis was almost gone. (see after photo)
Are collagen peptides the magic pill to heal everyone’s autoimmune disease? Of course not. However, the nutritional profile seems to be exactly what Sally’s gut lining needed to reverse the appearance of the autoimmune disease that had been staring her in the face for almost five years, so it might be worth a try!
2. More Vitamin D
Aside from working on digestion and healing the presence of leaky gut, which is priority number one for anyone dealing with autoimmune disease, it was really important to increase Sally’s level of Vitamin D. Vitamin D is absolutely imperative to lots of processes within our bodies, not least of all is wound healing. In fact, the link between Vitamin D deficiency and diabetes / wound healing is fascinating.
But I digress.
The fear of skin cancer has led multiple generations (mine included) to fear sunshine and slather on sunblock 24/7, which contributes to Vitamin D deficiency since UVB rays combine with cholesterol in our skin to produce Vitamin D. (I talk all about that and more HERE.)
That’s right, folks: we get Vitamin D through our skin and not our food, so supplementing with a pill isn’t going to get you very far. You can do it (and spend a pretty penny on Vitamin D3 supplements) but our bodies aren’t optimized to absorb Vitamin D through our digestive tract; it’s supposed to come through our skin.
Mustang Sally (ride, Sally, ride…) lives in a cold climate and doesn’t have access to the sun year-round, so we decided the most logical way to get her some extra Vitamin D was a topical cream that she could apply right on top of her psoriasis, where it was needed the most. (Remember the wound healing properties of Vitamin D?)
I’m happy to report that this dramatically improved her body’s ability to heal her skin, and I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that the extra Vitamin D increases her bone density as well.
3. Removal of inflammatory fats
The third way we addressed Sally’s autoimmune disease was to eliminate inflammatory fats from her diet. (If you need a refresher on what fats we should be eating and which to avoid, read here.)
Man-made (trans) fats change our bodies at a cellular level. It is some scary stuff. In addition to being the actual building blocks of our cells, the fatty acids we ingest are responsible for inflammation and anti-inflammation in our bodies.
It’s safe to say that an autoimmune disease where your body is attacking its own tissues as if it was an invader or pathogen sparks some serious inflammation, yeah?
By consciously avoiding processed foods with trans fats she was able to drastically reduce the inflammatory response that her entire body was feeling every time she ate a meal. (Sally didn’t cook with margarine or shortening or hydrogenated oils, but if she had, those would need to hit the trash ASAP)
The fat that naturally occurs in butter, meat, nuts and vegetables like avocados is easily recognized by our bodies as food. Trans fats and hydrogenated oils like “Smart Balance” and “Crisco” and “I can’t believe it’s not butter” are ingredients on most processed foods lining our grocery shelves, and our bodies do not see them as food, so they don’t know what to do with it. (Eventually trans fats get stored as adipose tissue or visceral fat surrounding the internal organs.)
In Sally’s own words: “I am reading labels in the grocery store to note more than carb or calorie content. I have begun to see the intricate interconnectedness of body systems and the fuel necessary for those systems to function optimally. I am much more focused on what TO eat, rather than what NOT to eat."
How cool is that?
Sally's "before" photo in February 2014 is the only photo she had that showed her psoriasis up close, but it actually got worse than that until January 2016 when she and I started our work together. (Sorry, no photo evidence of that exists that she knows of, but you'll have to take her word for it that it got worse than what you see on the left.)
The July 2017 photo shows pretty much clear skin, with the exception of a few areas that look more like a nick from a razor than a skin condition.
Not everyone will react the same way to a change in their diet or lifestyle, nor would the exact same protocol yield the same results.
- By addressing the foundations of nutrition and digestion (along with hydration) the body has the raw materials it needs to heal itself. With this approach, the results and timeline will be different for each client, but the root cause of the disease will be addressed instead of merely addressing symptom after symptom.
- Having one autoimmune disease present makes it likely that you could develop another at some point given the root cause of leaky gut in conjunction with the treatments that may further suppress immune function and/or increase gut permeability, so start gut healing sooner rather than later.
- Let food be thy medicine and thy medicine be food and all that jazz.
- If you give me a testimonial, I might change your identity to a late 1960’s song like Mustang Sally.