At my Guardian featured Harley Street IBS & Autoimmune Clinic I am often asked if there is a way to treat the cause of autoimmune disease, rather than just treat the symptoms.
Autoimmune diseases are a huge problem in the UK. Connect Immune Research estimates that four million people in the UK are living with an autoimmune condition – which is more than six per cent of the population. This includes 400,000 people with type 1 diabetes, over 100,000 living with multiple sclerosis (MS) and over 400,000 with rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
There are many other autoimmune conditions – said to be around 80 – and what they all have in common is that the body is attacking itself.
Autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis often include challenging symptoms such as pain, swelling, fatigue, and mobility problems. All autoimmune diseases have systemic inflammation caused by an immune system that has gone off the rails and is attacking the body in some way, unable to tell the difference between self and foe.
Your immune system is your radar and suit of armour. Its job is to keep you safe by looking out for invaders, toxins, allergens, abnormal cells etc. When necessary, the immune system can mobilise its own army to see off any foes.
Autoimmunity happens when your immune system gets confused and your own tissue gets mistaken for a foe. Your immune system is designed to fight off infections, toxins, allergens etc but sometimes and for reasons not always fully understood, that immune army launches an attack on your body.
Orthodox medicine acknowledges this problem, but, instead of asking the question WHY, it merely gives pharmaceutical drugs to inhibit the immune response. It does not look for the answer.
At Harley Street IBS & Autoimmune Clinic, we ask why is the body out of balance to start with and how do we help get it back into balance.
Tania is a 59 year old lady from Oxfordshire who loved riding horses and walked into the autoimmune clinic several years ago with a severe case of the autoimmune disease, CREST, having been diagnosed with it five years previously.
What is CREST Syndrome?
CREST (calcinosis, Raynaud’s phenomenon, esophageal dysmotility, sclerodactyly, and telangiectasia) syndrome is a member of the group of Sclerodermas.
Its name is an acronym for the main clinical features of the syndrome, which are briefly explained below:
Calcinosis: CREST causes thickening and tightening of the skin with deposition of calcific nodules or calcinosis.
Raynaud’s phenomenon: Raynaud’s phenomenon is frequently the first sign of CREST, often preceding other symptoms by years. Stress and cold temperature induces a constriction of the small arteries, arterioles, and thermoregulatory vessels of the skin of the fingers and toes. Fingers and toes turn very pale and even blue until they warm up again. This occurrence is often painful. Sometimes this phenomenon leads to ulcerations, which can predispose to chronic infections of the involved site.
Esophageal dysmotility: This condition presents as a sensation of food getting stuck – dysphagia – in the mid or lower esophagus, chest pain, or cough. Patients often state they must drink liquids to swallow solid food. This motility problem results from atrophy of the gastrointestinal tract wall smooth muscle.
Sclerodactyly: Though it is the most easily recognisable manifestation, it is not evident in all patients. Thickening generally only involves the skin of the fingers distal to the metacarpophalangeal joints in CREST. Early on in the course of the disease, the skin may appear swollen and inflamed. Eventually fibroblasts overproduce extracellular matrix, which leads to increased collage deposition in the skin. Collagen cross-linking then causes a skin tightening. Ulcers commonly form on the distal fingers in 30-50% of patients.
Telangiectasias: Marked telangiectasias (dilated capillaries) occur on the skin of the face, the palms of the hands, and the mucous membranes. The number of telangiectasias and the sites involved tend to increase over time.
Tania had stiff, painful, swollen fingers with regular eruptions of pus and also hard deposits of calcium just beneath the skin and tender to touch. Her fingers often got infected and it was not unusual for her to be given three courses of antibiotics in a year. She also suffered with Raynaud’s disease and had digestive issues of constipation, bloating and gas. Poor sleep too along with several bouts of migraine every year. Also recurrent UTIs or urinary tract infections.
She had been given many courses of steroid drugs to try to reduce the inflammation. Despite this approach, she was seeing no improvement in her condition and decided to try the natural, functional medicine approach to autoimmune disease.
Six weeks after I first saw Tania and had discovered and treated the underlying causes of her inflammation, her symptoms began to subside.
I see inflammation in the body as fire and we need to put out the flames for a long-term resolution. We do that by finding out what is fanning the flames of inflammation and then we address it. This is to go beyond hanging a label on a health issue and then merely suppressing the symptoms. Symptoms are a massage sent to us by the body to tell us something isn’t right. We need to listen to it and sort it – not just shut it up!
Functional Medicine approaches the body as a system – a whole system – as everything is linked and nothing is in isolation. Balance must be restored to the whole body. When the body is divided into different compartments with a different doctor for each, there can be no big picture to work with.
This Functional Medicine approach at our autoimmune clinic provides a common sense way of solving health problems, one that allows us to determine the cause of the symptoms and address them rather than shutting down the immune system with drugs. We seek to find the driver of the inflammation, however that is manifesting for you.
It is only by taking a full case history of the patient, including lifestyle, diet, environmental exposures, family history etc. that potential triggers of inflammation and immune irritants can be identified.
Tania’s lab tests identified much for us to address. She had elevated levels of antibodies to several foods, gut flora imbalances and high levels of toxicity.
Her treatment was with natural medicine to support her liver and adrenal function; and natural health supplements. Over time her inflammatory markers decreased and she had a sense of recovery.
I have found that this approach works well for many autoimmune diseases by diagnosing and addressing the underlying problems rather than merely suppressing the symptoms.
Tania’s Testimonial for Harley Street IBS & Autoimmune Clinic
“I first became a patient of Deborah Grant’s Autoimmune Clinic this year. Eight years ago I visited the local surgery with what I thought was an infected splinter in my finger. When it didn’t respond to antibiotics my doctor said that she strongly suspected that I had CREST. I had suffered from Raynaud’s disease for some years and in addition to the white fingers, I had noticed red ‘dots’ on my fingers, hands, lips and cheeks in the last couple of years. Ulcers in the form of a nasty thick yellowish liquid, or worse, hard gravel-like lumps poking out of my finger and thumb were very painful, ugly and causing me distress.
This diagnosis was confirmed by a well-respected consultant rheumatologist, who tested my heart, my swallowing, and could not have been more thorough. He informed me, however, that my symptoms were something that I would just have to cope with – and that there is no evidence whatever that diet could play a part in reducing the pain, inflammation, and general misery of this condition.
Having been to visit Deborah Grant on five occasions, by visit two I was conscious that the pain had almost disappeared and the swelling was far less. Four months later I am astonished to find I can use my hands almost normally and although I can still feel the lumps, there are no ulcers. The red dots have not changed, but white fingers are rare (this is summer so I have yet to discover whether I will have to go back on to traditional medicine to improve my circulation). From feeling that I was doomed, and that this condition would steadily worsen over the years, I am thoroughly excited that there is a way through diet, lifestyle and natural substances that can change everything. At the moment I feel that the progress of the disease had stopped in its tracks. I hope that this will bring hope for the people that suffer from this very unusual disease.”
Autoimmune diseases – one or more – now affect over 50 million people in America and over 4 million people in the UK. If you have been given an autoimmune label and pharmaceutical drugs to suppress your immune system but would like to find some answers to your questions, I would be delighted to help you.
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