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  • Writer's pictureMartha Calihan MD

The Rise of Autoimmune Illness and Inflammation

I am concerned, worried, about the dramatic rise of Autoimmune Illness in our country.

The incidence of Hashimoto’s, an autoimmune disease of the thyroid, alone has risen dramatically in recent years. It is estimated that close to 12% population has a thyroid condition, and about 90% of them have Hashimoto’s. And the majority of the patients are women.

With numbers like this, we can assume that we all know people in our families or our lives who are dealing with these conditions, whether or not they know it yet.

Why is this? In Functional Medicine, our approach is to look for the underlying factors or contributors to a condition, looking for common threads that tie it all together. We do know that once someone has an autoimmune condition, they are more likely to get another one; and this is because most often the root cause has not been addressed, so of course, the process that is driving the condition persists and another illness or condition may develop.

What factors do we know that contribute to the development of autoimmune disease? Because we know that autoimmune diseases are associated with inflammation, we want to look at potential sources of inflammation that can be contributing factors.

One of the major drivers of inflammation is the gut, and gut imbalance, whether through an altered microbiome, leaky gut or infection needs to be addressed to treat the autoimmune condition. We do this by removing inflammatory foods, toxins, and infections, replacing any missing or depleted digestive enzymes and acids to ensure proper digestion, re-inoculating the gut with healthy bacteria, and healing the gut lining with glutamine and other healing nutrients.

Because gluten is a common contributor to the development of a leaky gut, we remove gluten form the diet, along with other likely inflammatory foods, and focus on a whole-foods, low inflammation diet that provides adequate nutrients for health and well-being.

Toxins can contribute to inflammation, so we assess potential elevated levels of substances such as mercury and determine the best and safest way to reduce elevated levels.

And we address stress; the giant elephant in the room when we talk about inflammation. We know that stress can contribute to inflammation, and is clearly one of the drivers of autoimmune disease. It has to be addressed, and tools learned to respond differently to our stressors if we want to heal from or reduce our risk of autoimmune illness.

So yes, there has been a dramatic rise in the incidence of autoimmune disease, and it concerns me greatly. I see this process as a canary in the coal mine; showing us how far off balance many of us are and the myriad factors that come together to contribute to the development of an immune system gone awry. The good news is that we can address these factors and reduce our risk of developing either a primary or secondary autoimmune disease.

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