Joanne Pappas Nottage, a Functional Medicine Certified Health Coach and speaker at our April 2017 Patient Education Conference, spent years struggling to get correctly diagnosed and treated for her autoimmune issues. Today, she’s helping people blend traditional western medicine and functional medicine to get and stay healthy. This is part two of a five part series from Joanne on functional medicine.
If you’re living with scleroderma or another autoimmune disease, you know how overwhelming it can be to manage. In a previous post on this blog, I described my challenging personal journey with autoimmune disease, and my eventual discovery of Functional Medicine (FM) – an innovative health approach that complements Western medical practices. FM has helped me feel better than I had in decades. I want that for you, too. Let’s start by exploring some specific factors FM addresses so you can begin to take control of them.
Functional Medicine Perspective on Autoimmune Disease
The first factor is food. FM advocates approaching food as medicine. To understand why, let’s consider the potential causes of autoimmune disease from the FM perspective. FM confronts autoimmune as a disease of the immune system, where a common internal system connects all autoimmune conditions. In some individuals, that connected system reacts to certain triggers (shown below), causing an autoimmune response. Unfortunately, many of these triggers are commonplace in modern life, and people with autoimmune disease can go for years without making the connection.
The Importance of Gut Health
The core of that interrelated biochemical process is the gut, making it critical to overall health. Our gut is important to our overall wellbeing because its health determines what nutrients we absorb and what toxins, allergens and microbes are kept out. Good intestinal health enables optimal digestion and absorption of food, which in turn allows the important processes within our bodies to function well. Many diseases that seem totally unrelated to the intestinal system, such as psoriasis or arthritis, can actually be caused by problems in the gut.
The modern diet is full of foods that can create gut problems (processed foods, sugar, bleached flour, caffeine to name a few) and for some of us they trigger an autoimmune response. Pervasive in today’s food options, gluten— a protein found in wheat, barley and rye— is one of the leading offenders. While gluten-free diets are all the rage, they’re not just another fad. People who are sensitive to gluten or who have Celiac disease can have serious health consequences.
A growing volume of published medical literature shows that gluten can damage the gut lining, contributing to intestinal permeability (Leaky Gut Syndrome) and allowing bacterial toxins and undigested food particles to pass into the bloodstream. This can lead to the malabsorption of nutrients (Gut Dysbiosis, a microbiome imbalance), and can cause inflammation throughout the body—which can eventually trigger chronic and autoimmune disease. Beyond the oft-mentioned GI issues, gluten has been linked to scleroderma, Hashimoto’s, Graves’, diabetes and lupus. If you have one of these conditions, consider a gluten elimination plan and monitor your symptoms!
Think About Food as Medicine
We may not be able to change our genetic predisposition for autoimmune disease (30% of our risk), but we can change what we eat. Beyond gluten, sensitivities to other foods—dairy, soy, corn, peanuts or sugar—may contribute to your symptoms. Be mindful when you eat and notice how you feel afterwards. Try to identify and remove any foods that trigger inflammation and worsen your symptoms.
While there is no “one best” food plan for everyone, consider these practices: eat “the rainbow” – colorful fruits and veggies for important phytonutrients and antioxidants; consume healthy fats like olive oil and avocados; choose anti-inflammatory foods like broccoli, spinach, ginger, wild salmon and bone broth; add fermented foods like coconut kefir, sauerkraut, and pickled ginger for probiotics. Very importantly, stay hydrated! Water helps eliminate toxins and is an important contributor to body function.
My next post will explore the second factor FM addresses – our high stress modern lifestyle – and how it impacts autoimmune. Until then, I wish you good health!