The prevalence of autoimmune diseases is increasing at an alarming rate and doesn't show any signs of slowing down. As of 2023, more than 100 autoimmune diseases have been identified, and it is estimated that almost 24 million Americans are living with one or more autoimmune conditions. (Source, Source, Source)
Despite the skyrocketing incidence of autoimmune disease, treatment options are limited and primarily focused on managing symptoms or suppressing the immune system so that it no longer actively attacks the body's tissues.
For example, in the conventional medical model, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is treated by replacing thyroid hormone once the gland has been sufficiently damaged by the autoimmune process. Lupus is treated with drugs that reduce inflammation, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and corticosteroids, as well as medications such as methotrexate that suppress the immune system. (Source)
However, functional medicine looks at autoimmune disease management differently. While conventional medical therapies that help relieve symptoms and modulate the immune system can be very helpful for individuals with autoimmune diseases, hese treatments do not address the underlying causes of autoimmunity. Conversely, when we identify and address the root causes of autoimmune disease, we can not only reduce flare-ups and symptoms, but also improve long-term health.
While autoimmune diseases cannot be cured, they can be managed with natural approaches, leading to fewer flare-ups and symptoms, a higher quality of life, and potential disease remission.
Is it Possible to Cure Autoimmune Diseases Naturally?
While it is not possible to cure autoimmune diseases, symptoms can be well managed and you can get your life back! At WellTheory, we take a different perspective on autoimmunity. While susceptibility to autoimmune diseases is undoubtedly influenced by several unmodifiable risk factors, including genetics, sex, and age, many risk factors are modifiable.
The symptoms of autoimmune diseases are like the “stem” and “leaves” of a weed — we see them above ground, but we understand that they grew from roots that originated below the surface. Some of these “roots” are modifiable risk factors, and pulling them up can help stop the weed from growing and potentially generating more weeds! After all, once an initial autoimmune disease develops, there is an increased probability that other autoimmune diseases will subsequently develop.
Is it possible to cure autoimmune diseases naturally using a functional health care approach? While it isn’t possible to cure autoimmune diseases, we can use natural approaches to reduce symptoms and flare-ups, dramatically improve quality of life, and potentially bring autoimmune conditions into remission.
Here, we’ll dive into 5 root-cause approaches, plus a few additional considerations, that can help you alleviate autoimmune symptoms and reclaim your health.
5 Root-Cause Approaches to Decrease Autoimmune Symptoms
Let’s dive into 5 approaches that address autoimmune conditions at the root-cause level. When each of these elements is addressed, we may be able to relieve autoimmune symptoms and greatly enhance quality of life.
1. Optimize Your Diet
Autoimmune disease may partly stem from an “evolutionary mismatch,” an imbalance between our bodies’ biology and our modern environment. Few aspects of modern day life are more mismatched with our biology than the modern Western diet. There is evidence your diet may directly affect the development and progression not just of chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, but of autoimmune disease as well. (Source)
Food influences the trajectory of autoimmune disease in several ways.
Food informs your immune system. Your dietary choices can either increase or decrease chronic inflammation, a driver of autoimmunity. For susceptible individuals, specific food components, such as gluten, can also disrupt immune tolerance to self-antigens, one of the foundational autoimmunity processes. (Source, Source)
Dietary habits that may promote the development and progression of autoimmune disease include consuming gluten (for those genetically predisposed to celiac disease), refined sugars, and a high dietary ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. Insufficiencies of certain nutrients, including vitamin D and selenium, may also affect autoimmune disease. Correcting these nutritional imbalances may help reduce symptoms and biomarkers of autoimmunity. (Source, Source)
Conversely, an anti-inflammatory, nutrient-dense, whole foods diet may help the immune system and gut recalibrate, achieving a healthier homeostasis in which autoimmune disease activity is decreased. Supporting the gut microbiota with adequate fiber and fermented foods, and the immune system with sufficient vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids, may positively affect autoimmune disease management.
For many people with autoimmune disease, the paleo diet, the autoimmune protocol, or simply adding in anti-inflammatory nutrient-dense foods can replete nutrients, restore gut microbiome imbalances, and support overall health by alleviating symptoms.
Compromised gut health is believed to play a significant role in many autoimmune conditions, not just those that affect the gut!
Imbalance in the gut microbiota, the collection of microorganisms that lives in the digestive tract, may precipitate autoimmunity. Research suggests this imbalance, or dysbiosis, can have several effects, from chronic inflammation to increased permeability of the gut lining that allows microbes to pass out of the intestines and into circulation, stimulating an immune response. (Source)
Addressing gut imbalances with interventions such as herbs, probiotics, and digestive support may help regulate the immune system, reduce inflammation, and improve nutrient absorption, resulting in improvements in autoimmune disease symptoms. Also critical to gut health is stress management, discussed in more detail below. (Source, Source)
3. Improve Your Sleep
Sleep deprivation and poor sleep quality may provoke autoimmunity by promoting the breakdown of immune system self-tolerance and suppression of T-regulatory cells, immune cells that usually prevent the immune system from mistakenly attacking the body. (Source)
Conversely, optimizing the quality and duration of your sleep may help you mitigate autoimmune symptoms naturally by reducing inflammation and regulating your immune system. High-quality sleep also buffers against stress and supports a healthy gut microbiome, addressing two crucial aspects of autoimmune disease healing. (Source, Source)
Several strategies you can apply to optimize your sleep include:
Aim for a consistent bedtime and waking time every day.
View sunlight by going outside within 30 to 60 minutes of waking. This will help synchronize your circadian rhythm, which plays a critical role in your sleep cycle.
Eat your last meal of the day no later than 2 to 3 hours before bed. Eating too close to bedtime is a recipe for restless, non-restorative sleep.
Refrain from exercise within 3 hours of bedtime.
Wear blue light blocking glasses while looking at phone, tablet, or computer screens during the 3 hours before your bedtime.
Keep your bedroom cool (around 65° F is ideal) and as dark as possible.
4. Manage Your Stress
Physical, mental, and emotional stress are strongly implicated in the development of autoimmune disease. While managing stress may not make your autoimmune condition disappear, it can significantly reduce your symptoms and improve your quality of life. (Source)
Stress management practices may alleviate autoimmune symptoms by supporting a more resilient intestinal barrier and a healthier community of gut microbes. It may also reduce levels of catecholamines (such as epinephrine and norepinephrine) and glucocorticoids (such as cortisol) — all neurotransmitters and hormones involved in the stress response that can affect the immune system. (Source, Source)
In short, managing your stress may help alleviate autoimmune disease naturally as part of a comprehensive approach to autoimmune healing.
There are countless healthy ways to manage stress. The key is to find a stress management practice that you enjoy and can practice consistently, because managing stress is an ongoing effort. Exercise, meditation, guided imagery, and social connection are all great ways to manage stress.
Exercise offers numerous health benefits for everyone, but may provide some unique benefits for people with autoimmune diseases.
Studies show that regular, moderate exercise is anti-inflammatory, with daily exercise reducing levels of inflammatory cytokines such as C-reactive protein and interleukin-6. Exercise elevates levels of T-regulatory cells and helps balance the immune system. (Source, Source, Source)
Exercise also promotes a healthy gut microbiota, which may support balanced immune system activity. As part of a comprehensive approach to autoimmune disease management, exercise may help reduce autoimmune disease symptoms and improve overall health. (Source)
Of course, it is important to note that exercise intolerance is a common symptom of autoimmunity. Therefore, it’s essential to listen to your body when deciding what type and how much exercise to perform.
Additional Considerations: Address Infections and Toxins
Other strategies that may reduce autoimmune symptoms and flare-ups and bring autoimmune diseases into remission include addressing chronic infections and toxin exposures.
A growing body of research indicates that exposure to pathogens, including harmful bacteria and viruses, may play a role in autoimmune disease development. One possible way this may happen is through molecular mimicry, in which a pathogen presents a molecule, or antigen, to the immune system that is similar to a self-antigen, or a molecule on a normal cell or tissue. In this scenario, the immune system can’t tell the difference between the antigens and begins to attack the normal cell or tissue. (Source, Source)
For some autoimmune disease patients, chronic infections may play a role in driving autoimmunity. For example, Lyme disease, an infection transmitted by a tick bite, may trigger autoimmune disease, possibly through chronic inflammation or molecular mimicry. In addition, the periodontal pathogen Porphyromonas gingivalis is associated with rheumatoid arthritis. (Source, Source, Source)
A 2022 review published in Environment International looked at data collected for the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), a survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to gauge how Americans are faring, between 1988 and 2012. The reviewers found associations among participants between a number of environmental toxins and the presence of antinuclear antibodies, types of autoantibodies that often show up before autoimmune conditions develop. (Source)
The Bottom Line
There are no cures for autoimmune diseases. However, addressing underlying causes can significantly reduce symptoms, reduce the frequency of flare-ups, and help you live a fuller, healthier life.
Healing autoimmune disease requires a multifaceted approach that includes a nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory diet, gut healing strategies, and attention to sleep, stress management, and physical activity. In addition, you may need to address gut health, chronic infections, and toxins for complete healing.
Give yourself the time and space to find out what your ideal routine looks like to support your autoimmunity. Over 75 days, you’ll incorporate new routines focused on diet, sleep, movement, stress management, and lifestyle to make steady, sustainable progress towards reducing your symptoms.”