When I see autoimmune patients in my practice, one of the first things I tell them is that they need to know their own body better than any of the doctors they are working with can possibly know it. Doctors see many patients with the same conditions, but none of the patients are exactly the same.
‘Doctor’ in Latin means teacher. We need to teach our patients how to control or correct the condition they have. In order to do this effectively, the patient has to know his or her own body.
Autoimmune disease is a diagnosis that I see in my practice every day as a naturopathic doctor (ND). NDs are known for being the best practitioners to treat chronic conditions. This is because we view each patient as an individual case and look for the causes of conditions and not just the symptoms presented. Patients who know their own bodies will benefit the most from this type of holistic treatment.
MDs and NDs Working Together
The best modality of care for autoimmune patients is a cooperative approach between MDs and NDs to determine the root cause of the disease and then treat the resulting effects. This type of MD / ND co-management is ideal for a patient who can benefit from both preventative lifestyle changes and traditional medications when needed. There are many different naturopathic approaches to autoimmune disease that can be effective, including diet, food-sensitivity testing and supplements. All of them involve putting the patient in charge of his or her own healthcare.
MDs are becoming more aware that naturopathic physicians do practice traditional medicine, but with some philosophies that are different than their own pharmaceutical-based training. NDs do recognize the need for pharmaceuticals, primarily as a last resort. NDs usually work with patients to determine when a treatment is no longer necessary. This requires the commitment and cooperation of all involved; patients and doctors. Hopefully, we’re closer to the day when MDs and NDs will seamlessly work together on a cooperative plan for patients, utilizing the best of both approaches.
Managing Your Healthcare
Patients need to learn how to manage their own health care, make their own decisions, and seek treatments that work for them. If they don’t find the answers they are looking for with a practitioner, they should keep looking. To paraphrase an old saying, “No one person, doctrine or religion has the monopoly on knowledge.” Patients with autoimmune conditions, or any chronic condition, should keep this in mind as they begin the search for awareness about their treatment options. Things a patient does every day, from the foods they eat to the products they use, the work they do, lifestyle, etc., all can have an effect on their health. Doctors cannot follow the patient every minute of the day to figure out what has adverse effects on that patient. The patient has to become savvy enough to figure it out, with help and direction from their doctors.
For example, one of my patients suddenly began having dizzy spells. They were random and sometimes lasted for hours, sometime for seconds. None of the doctors she went to could determine the cause or an effective treatment to correct the symptom. The patient changed her contact lens solution and symptoms completely resolved. None of us would have connected the two. The patient was aware enough of her daily lifestyle routine that she immediately noticed the change that stopped the symptom. Knowing your own body and recognizing that everything in your lifestyle has a bearing on your health is so important.
Treat The Cause(s) Not Just The Symptoms
Digestion is almost always an issue with autoimmune patients. It needs to be addressed right away. If you can’t process and assimilate nutrients from food or supplements, then getting any remedies into the system is going to take much longer. Systemic treatment requires a systemic approach. Therefore, it is important that the body’s digestive system work in the patient’s favor. Any chronic condition will need to have the digestive system working optimally. The functions of the digestive tract are directly related to the optimal function of the immune system. An immune system already in trouble is likely to also have a digestive component that is problematic.
Autoimmune patients need to know that what they are eating has a HUGE effect on their condition. Some patients are told that what they eat doesn’t matter. Your food is your nutrition—how can it not matter? It’s only logical that the human body requires the ability to assimilate all of the available nutrients in order to function. This is especially true for patients who have health conditions, including autoimmune disease.
When I advise patients to alter their diets in order to treat autoimmune issues, a frequent response is, “I’ve been eating this way my entire life, so how could food be an issue now?” Think about this statement. If food plays even a small part of the equation, and the patient has been eating the same way their entire life, then doesn’t it make sense that diet is at least part of what is causing the damage that has led to a bigger health problem?
The human body, when given the proper tools (such as nutrients), has an amazing ability to heal itself. It is also amazing how much abuse it will take before breaking down and creating a condition that is going to be more difficult to repair down the road.
With any chronic condition, the patient will improve by eating what helps them, and eliminating foods that do not help, or cause further issues. For autoimmune patients, the first two foods to be eliminated are inevitably dairy and wheat. Just about every processed food has wheat in it. To avoid reading a ton of labels, the easiest way to handle wheat avoidance is to focus on eating plant-based foods. No labels, no guessing, just eat whole foods. As far as dairy, do not worry that eliminating it will cause a calcium deficiency. Many cultures around the world don’t consume the same large servings of dairy that Americans consume and they don’t suffer from osteoporosis. Many whole foods naturally contain calcium. If you’re still concerned, then you can always take a calcium supplement.
Other foods that should be excluded are sugar (of course) and red meat. There also is a group of vegetables, called the nightshades, which are considered highly inflammatory and should be avoided. These include the peppers, tomatoes, potatoes and eggplant.
Food Sensitivity Test
Food sensitivity tests are available to help patients determine what other foods might be creating issues. These are not food allergy tests to determine anaphylactic reactions, but rather food sensitivity tests that show what are called ‘delayed reactions.’ Delayed reactions to foods are notoriously difficult to track. It is hard to correlate a response to a food when there isn’t an immediate connection, and it takes time for the body to react. The only true way to determine a sensitivity is the elimination of it for at least two weeks, and preferably longer. A long-term condition won’t clear with two weeks of avoiding an offending food, but the patient will likely feel much better. That result is better than any test result.
Having a completely wholesome and healthy diet will make all the difference in how a patient feels and how the body handles various conditions. If a patient can’t handle the diet changes on his or her own, they need to seek help from someone who can guide them. This is a very important component of anyone’s healthcare, no matter what other treatment options they choose.
Supplements And Other Treatments
Each autoimmune patient is different from the next. The supplements, botanicals, homeopathic remedies, acupuncture, and medicine selected for each patient are all dependent on the individual and their symptoms. The modalities used by each practitioner can be very different as well. Patients have many choices to make when managing their chronic conditions. There is a lot of recent research on the effects of vitamin D, DHEA and omega fatty acid for autoimmune disease. The list grows every year, as does the availability of information about new treatment protocols. Again, the patient is the key component in the equation for what the best heath plan will be for each individual.
The health plan also needs to reflect what the individual is able, or not able, to do. If a patient is not able to make dietary changes to help control the condition, then there probably will be a need for more nutritional supplements and possibly protein-fortified drinks. This will differ from a patient who can handle a nutrient-rich diet, likes to juice, eats only organic foods, and is willing to eliminate all processed foods. Using other remedies usually does require professional direction. There are so many options; a patient needs to work with a doctor who can help narrow the choices down to a plan that works for the individual. Otherwise, a patient who “tries various methods that they read about” could end up wasting a lot of money and time and taking too many supplements that are not helping.
Clinical research can determine if a treatment or therapy will work for some patients, but it doesn’t mean it will work for all patients with the same condition. For example, the hormone DHEA may show promise for treatment…but what about patients who already have DHEA levels that are too high? The individual factor also is critical when examining the risk of interactions with pharmaceuticals. Even when patients are working with both MDs and NDs, the patient should be aware of contraindications between remedies and pharmaceuticals. Doctors see so many patients every day that they don’t remember what each patient is taking. It is extremely important to pay attention to what you are taking. Many patients come into my office with prescribed drugs, and I always ask if they know why they are taking each prescription. Many times, they don’t know what all the prescriptions are for.
The Whole Health Picture
In consideration of the mind-body connection, NDs often inquire about a patient’s emotional well-being and stress levels, past and present. Often, a trigger can be found in these areas. Helping the patient to understand the significance of these types of triggers, and determining how to resolve them, is another step in the direction of better health.
The complex nature of autoimmune conditions usually requires more than one practitioner to assist in a patient’s overall wellness. Working with doctors who appreciate the needs of a patient, and who are actively seeking and utilizing more than one modality at a time, can be an essential part of treatment. I advise patients to tell their MDs that they are seeking other treatment options that the MD may not be familiar with. We all need to work together to get a protocol that works for the patient. When an MD discourages a patient who explains that there are other specialists involved in treatment, the patient will not share essential information with that doctor. This is clearly not the best scenario for patients or doctors. Therefore, it is important for all medical professionals to appreciate the needs of the patient, and what each practitioner brings to the case, for an optimal plan that will benefit the patient.
Call ProNatural Physicians Group, 120 Webster Square Road, Berlin, to schedule an appointment at (860) 829-0707.
Dr. Ann Aresco is the founder of ProNatural Physicians Group.
See this article as it appeared in Natural Nutmeg.