Have you ever felt like your autoimmune disease came on suddenly, almost overnight? For many of my patients, it seemed like everything was fine, and then one day – poof! – they were given an autoimmune diagnosis. While it may seem like an autoimmune disease appears suddenly out of nowhere, it actually can be brewing under the surface for quite some time before it is ever diagnosed. Sometimes an autoimmune disorder has been in the works for decades before finally coming to the surface. The good news is that just like these conditions can slowly build over years, we can also reverse their trajectory. We can turn around autoimmune diseases. Keep reading to learn how you can put autoimmunity behind you and feel like your old self again.
What are autoimmune disorders?
Autoimmune disorders occur when the immune system mistakenly attacks and damages its own body. Instead of targeting foreign invaders as it should, the immune system may create antibodies to attack a person’s own tissues.
- Type 1 diabetes
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Psoriasis/psoriatic arthritis
- Multiple sclerosis
- Systemic lupus erythematosus
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Addison’s disease
- Graves’ disease
- Sjogren’s syndrome
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
- Myasthenia gravis
- Autoimmune vasculitis
- Pernicious anemia
- Celiac disease
A functional medicine approach to autoimmunity is helpful no matter what autoimmune disorder you are dealing with. That’s because many autoimmune disorders share the same issues at the core, regardless of the tissue or gland that is impacted by an autoimmune disease. For example, in Hashimoto’s disease, the thyroid is viewed as the problem gland, whereas the joints are the culprit in rheumatoid arthritis. But actually, Hashimoto’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis have a lot in common. They are both characterized by a dysfunctional immune system and they may both be driven by the very same underlying causes.
But how do you get from point A to B? How does a healthy person become one with an autoimmune disease?
Autoimmune Disease Advances in Four Stages
We will explore each of the four stages of autoimmune disease progression, from the time it is just a whisper in the body to the time it is in full effect causing fatigue, mood changes, pain, and destruction. You will learn when autoimmune lab tests start to show problems and when the body begins to show signs of autoimmune disease.
Understanding these four stages is the key to turning autoimmunity around. Autoimmune disease can be reversed when you work with a knowledgeable functional medicine practitioner to walk these stages backward.
The Four Stages of Autoimmune Disease Progression
- The Stage of Autoimmune Susceptibility
- The Stage of Subclinical Autoimmune Disease
- The Stage of Clinical Autoimmune Disease
- The Stage of Autoimmune Recovery, Disability, or Death
The Stage of Autoimmune Susceptibility
This first and earliest stage has to do with the set-up for an autoimmune disorder. Susceptibility means how likely you are to be influenced or harmed by something. This stage of autoimmune disease isn’t usually talked about. It has to do with the hand of cards that each of us is dealt that makes us more or less likely to develop an autoimmune condition.
Each of us is a unique product of our genetics and environment. Did your parents hand down genes that made you more susceptible to develop autoimmunity? Did you live in a stressful home growing up? Did you endure emotional or physical trauma? Were you given many rounds of antibiotics as a child, which may have harmed your microbiome and your gut lining?
Many different factors can tip the scales toward the development of an autoimmune disorder. Here are common risk factors that can set the stage for autoimmunity:
Genetic risk (family members with autoimmune disease)
Intestinal permeability or leaky gut
Poor blood sugar control
The Stage of Autoimmune Susceptibility can last many years or even decades and it can go undetected by conventional doctors and typical blood tests. Sometimes it is just one factor that puts someone on a path for autoimmunity. But often, it’s due to multiple factors that build on one another or that occur at the same time- a “perfect storm.”
For example, one of my patients was a very active athlete. Many years before I knew her, she had been in a serious car accident, but she eventually recovered. Since then, she had sustained injuries to her joints and had a badly sprained ankle which was difficult to heal. Soon after, she tested positive for a common autoimmune marker called antinuclear antibody, or ANA. This woman had experienced many physical traumas in the Stage of Susceptibility which set her up for autoimmunity. Only later did her autoimmune markers show up…along with an autoimmune diagnosis.
The Stage of Subclinical Autoimmune Disease
This stage is characterized by biochemical and immune changes to the body, but no obvious symptoms of disease (hence the name, “subclinical”). After the triggers mentioned earlier are allowed to brew for years and decades, the immune system eventually starts to respond negatively. However, it doesn’t cause outright symptoms. For this reason, you may feel perfectly fine even though an autoimmune process is underway. Symptoms of this stage might be mild. You might feel more joint pain or fatigue. You might notice that you have more food sensitivities or that you get sick more frequently.
Usually, the symptoms aren’t too bad so people will brush them off. Autoimmune lab tests might be slightly abnormal in the Stage of Subclinical Autoimmune Disease. But because the results aren’t too abnormal, medical practitioners don’t notice them either. The standard reference ranges on lab tests only pick up extreme highs and lows. They may miss slight changes to your blood markers that indicate an autoimmune process is brewing.
The Stage of Clinical Autoimmune Disease
This is the stage that most people with autoimmune disease remember most vividly. At this point, the immune system has been acting up for some time but only now is it clear to the person and their medical practitioners that an autoimmune disease is at hand. The immune system is mistakenly attacking self-tissues. Symptoms often become more severe and you are much more likely to seek help from a practitioner if you ignored your symptoms beforehand.
Lab tests will finally appear obviously abnormal, which makes autoimmunity undeniable and leads to an autoimmune diagnosis. In the Stage of Clinical Autoimmune Disease, patients might develop one autoimmune disease, and then another, and another. That’s because the immune system continues to overreact and damage your tissues. If the root causes that launched you into autoimmunity aren’t addressed, the immune system continues to spin out of control.
Once autoimmune lab results are abnormal, most practitioners will agree that an autoimmune disease is underway. However, it was happening in the background, brewing under the surface, for years or even decades. And if you had the right functional medicine practitioner, it could have been addressed long before it raised your blood markers of autoimmunity.
The Stage of Autoimmune Recovery, Disability, or Death
Yes, this stage sounds frightening, but don’t worry. There are many tools to send you down a path of recovery instead of disability or death. The reason this stage is so doom and gloom is that autoimmune disease only gets worse without intervention. Autoimmune diseases are progressive. They are chronic degenerative processes. If you don’t do anything to change the trajectory, we know it won’t end well. In this advanced stage of autoimmune disease, there are autoimmune triggers that have not been addressed, a dysfunctional immune system, and tissue damage. It sets up for a vicious cycle that keeps the wheel turning indefinitely and toward an unhappy end. But don’t worry, there is good news!
We Can Reverse Autoimmune Disease Progression
Now that you know the four stages and how autoimmune disease comes to be, you also have the information you need to reverse the stages of autoimmunity. Every day I help patients walk these stages backward. We figure out the triggers that keep them in an autoimmune vicious cycle. We address the nine root causes of autoimmune disorders to calm down the immune system so it will stop attacking its own tissues.
- Leaky gut or intestinal permeability
- Insulin surges
- Mental and emotional stress
- Adrenal fatigue or HPA axis dysfunction
- Chronic infections
- Environmental toxins/chemicals
- Food sensitivities
- Nutrient deficiencies
- Estrogen dominance and other hormonal imbalances
By addressing these nine root causes, we can decrease symptoms and complications of autoimmune disease. Lab markers start to look normal again. In addition to reversing autoimmune diseases, this approach prevents people from developing other, new autoimmune diseases. It’s a wonderful thing to protect people from developing even more autoimmune disorders!
Don’t Ignore Your Autoimmune Symptoms
You don’t have to wait until Stage 3 Clinical Autoimmune Disease to take action. At any point, you can get help before an autoimmune diagnosis. Remember that symptoms are never normal! Seek out help from a functional medicine practitioner if you are developing symptoms. Symptoms are your body’s cry for help. Pay attention to laboratory markers that are nearly abnormal, even if they aren’t truly outside of the normal limits. Use your symptoms to figure out what your stressors are and eliminate them.
Turn Off the Vicious Cycle of Autoimmune Disease
Autoimmune diseases don’t show up overnight. They may have been set into motion long before you saw your first practitioner about the earliest symptoms. They were likely brewing for many years or decades before your symptoms were obvious. The next step to getting off of the autoimmune train is to schedule a complimentary virtual appointment with us. Together, we can figure out what tipped the scales for you, what root causes sent you down the path of autoimmunity. When we address those root causes, we can walk the stages backward until symptoms subside and lab tests normalize. We can get you back into Stage 1 of Autoimmune Susceptibility, controlling the triggers, and keeping you disease-free.