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May 26, 2023

The Ultimate Guide to the Signs of Autoimmune Disease

Symptoms and signs of autoimmune disease tend to be nonspecific. Understanding them can help you determine when to seek medical evaluation.
Medically Reviewed
Written by
Amy Brownstein
Medically Reviewed by
Dr. Anshul Gupta

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How do you know when symptoms of fatigue, muscle aches, weight fluctuations, and brain fog are signs of an autoimmune disease? Understanding the signs of autoimmune diseases and what causes them can help you determine when to see a healthcare provider.

There are nearly 100 types of autoimmune disease, many with similar, nonspecific symptoms that can affect quality of life and activities of daily living. It is important to seek guidance and treatment to help manage your autoimmune disease, because having one autoimmune condition may put you at an increased risk of developing another. Managing your condition by shifting your lifestyle is imperative to keep symptoms under control and keep them from getting worse. (Source, Source

In this article, we will discuss the signs of autoimmune disease as well as the causes, risk factors, and diagnosis process for this group of health conditions. If you have an autoimmune disease, know that there are holistic and comprehensive ways you can manage your condition.

Autoimmune Disease: The Basics

How the Immune System Works

The immune system consists of a network of cells, tissues, and organs throughout our bodies. Its function is to prevent or limit infection. The immune system achieves this by recognizing and responding to foreign substances known as antigens. Antigens may be biological, such as viruses, fungi, or bacteria, or environmental substances such as toxins, chemicals, drugs, or foreign particles. Antigens may also be cells damaged by cancer or injury, such as sunburn. (Source, Source)

An immune response occurs when the immune system spots an antigen and attacks it. The immune system produces antibodies (proteins that destroy antigens) as part of its response. Antibodies may stay in our immune system once the antigen is no longer a threat, providing immunity or protection from certain diseases. (Source

What Happens in an Autoimmune Disease?

In a normal immune reaction, the body will attack foreign substances. In an autoimmune disease, the body cannot distinguish between foreign substances and itself. Instead of destroying harmful antigens, the body mistakenly attacks healthy cells, organs, or tissues. An autoimmune disease can affect any part of the body. (Source)

What Causes an Autoimmune Disease?

It is unclear what exactly causes autoimmune diseases, but research has found that genetics and environmental factors affect the risk of developing them. Because of this, autoimmune disease tends to run in families; however, autoimmune diseases are not hereditary. Some people with genes for autoimmune disease (genetic predisposition) will not develop an autoimmune disease because the genes are never activated. In order for an autoimmune disease to develop, the genes need to be turned on. This may happen when environmental factors such as nutrition, pollutants, geography, and illnesses affect how genes are expressed and trigger an autoimmune disease. (Source, Source, Source)  

Who Is at Risk for Developing an Autoimmune Disease? 

Inheriting certain genes increases your likelihood of developing an autoimmune disease. However, just because you may be genetically predisposed does not mean you will develop an autoimmune disease. If you do have one autoimmune condition, though, you are more likely to develop another, because many of the genes associated with autoimmune diseases are located close to each other and share similar activation signals and pathways. (Source

An autoimmune disease changes the cell signal pathways involved in an immune response. This may make you more susceptible to environmental factors that can turn on genes associated with other autoimmune diseases. However, there is good news: Understanding the shared pathways involved with autoimmune disease allows scientists to develop targeted therapeutics. Because of these shared pathways, lifestyle changes to manage symptoms and signs of autoimmune disease and prevent complications are not disease-specific. (Source)

Autoimmune diseases affect some groups more than others. Hormones contribute to the different rates of autoimmune disease between men and women, with women — particularly middle-aged women — being on average twice as likely to be affected by an autoimmune disease as men, depending on the disease. Risk factors also differ across races and ethnicities and depend on the specific condition. Additional factors include age, infections, smoking history, exposure to toxic substances, and weight. (Source, Source, Source, Source)

How Common Are Autoimmune Diseases?

Autoimmune diseases affect 3%–5% of the general population. The most common autoimmune diseases are type 1 diabetes and autoimmune thyroid diseases, particularly Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. There are approximately 80 to 100 unique autoimmune diseases, some of which are organ specific while others affect multiple organs. (Source)

The incidence (a measure of the number of new diagnoses of a disease in a given period of time) of autoimmune disease is increasing, thought to be due to environmental factors often associated with the Western lifestyle. The Western diet (high in processed and inflammatory foods), exposure to chemicals in foods and household items, pollutants, stress, infections, and the increasing use of medications contribute to the growing number of autoimmune disease diagnoses. (Source, Source)  

How Are Autoimmune Diseases Diagnosed?

It can be difficult and frustrating to get an autoimmune disease diagnosis. On average, it takes about 4.5 years to receive an autoimmune disease diagnosis. Many of the signs of autoimmune disease are common in other illnesses, and fluctuating symptoms also contribute to difficulties with diagnosis. If you think you may have an autoimmune disease, it’s best to consult a rheumatologist, a doctor who specializes in immune disorders. (Source)

Autoimmune diseases are diagnosed by assessing symptoms and family history and by conducting a physical examination. A medical examination will include imaging studies and laboratory and blood tests to assess the presence of disease-specific autoantibodies and markers of inflammation. (Source

woman drinking coffee on bed with laptop

Signs of Autoimmune Disease

Signs of autoimmune disease depend on the part of the body affected. Common symptoms include: 

  • joint pain or stiffness
  • skin rashes, blisters, or color changes
  • fatigue
  • weight changes
  • muscle aches
  • persistent, low-grade fever
  • swollen glands
  • hair loss
  • brain fog
  • shortness of breath
  • palpitations
  • inflammation
  • tingling or numbing sensation in the extremities
  • frequent infections

Fatigue is the most commonly reported symptom and can be debilitating. (Source, Source, Source)

Autoimmune disease symptoms fluctuate. During flare-ups, symptoms may be worse and more painful. In remission, symptoms may improve or disappear entirely. Illnesses, activity, and changes to diet or environment affect your autoimmune disease symptoms. (Source)

Despite these factors, you can reclaim a sense of agency over your health. Lifestyle changes — specifically ones that address diet, sleep, stress, and movement — can provide relief from symptoms and move you into remission. You can still lead a full, healthy life with an autoimmune disease. 

10 Common Autoimmune Diseases and Their Symptoms

Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is characterized by insufficient insulin production due to beta cell (ꞵ-cell) destruction. ꞵ-cells are located in the pancreas and produce insulin, which helps us control blood glucose levels. Insulin is like a key: It opens our cells so that blood sugar can enter and be used for energy. Without insulin, blood sugar cannot enter the cells and blood glucose levels remain high. If you have diabetes, you must rely on exogenous insulin (insulin produced outside the body) to control blood sugar. Most cases of type 1 diabetes are immune-mediated, meaning they occur as a result of the immune system destroying pancreatic ꞵ-cells. (Source, Source)

Type 1 diabetes usually develops in children, teens, or young adults, but it can occur at any age. Signs of type 1 diabetes include: 

  • hyperglycemia (high blood glucose levels)
  • polyuria (excessive urination)
  • polydipsia (excessive thirst)
  • blurred vision
  • weight loss

Some people may not realize they have diabetes until they develop diabetic ketoacidosis, a serious condition that occurs as a result of very low insulin levels and very high blood sugar. (Source, Source)

High blood sugar levels damage the body. Type 1 diabetes affects multiple major organs. Uncontrolled diabetes can result in long term complications, including nerve damage (neuropathy), eye damage (retinopathy), kidney damage (nephropathy), and microvascular and macrovascular issues. (Source)

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a global arthritic disease whose prevalence has been increasing for the past 30 years. Signs of early RA include:

  • fatigue
  • feeling stiff in the morning
  • swollen and tender joints
  • flu-like symptoms

In RA healthy tissue is destroyed, joints are inflamed, and the fluid contained within the joint capsule is increased. A chronic inflammatory state develops, leading to bone and cartilage break down and a loss in range of motion. (Source)

Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis fluctuate, but without proper management the disease will gradually worsen to the point of irreversible damage. Physical and psychological functioning is affected as the condition becomes more complicated. Some complications of RA include fluid in the lungs, lung disease, blood vessel issues, and blood disorders such as anemia and white blood cell abnormalities. Signs of poorly treated RA are associated with a chronic inflammatory state and increased mortality. Symptoms of RA may be managed, and even brought into remission, with alternative and holistic approaches. Research has consistently shown the benefits of an anti-inflammatory diet for managing symptoms of RA. (Source, Source)

woman resting hand on friend

Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, is an immune-mediated inflammatory disease that occurs in the gastrointestinal tract, the largest immune organ in the body. Inflammatory bowel disease is characterized by recurrent gastrointestinal inflammation and affects millions of people worldwide. (Source)

Common symptoms of irritable bowel disease include: 

  • persistent diarrhea
  • abdominal pain
  • rectal bleeding
  • bloody stools
  • weight loss
  • fatigue 


Ulcerative colitis most frequently includes ongoing or recurring bloody diarrhea, whereas symptoms of Crohn’s disease include chronic abdominal pain and diarrhea, sometimes accompanied by bloody stools or perianal lesions. Individuals with IBD may also experience anemia. An endoscopy or colonoscopy is performed to differentiate between Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis and determine a diagnosis. Despite any discomfort with IBD flare up symptoms, you can experience immense relief with lifestyle changes, such as modifying your diet, reducing stress, and taking probiotics. (Source, Source)

Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis

In Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, or Hashimoto’s disease, an immune response results in antibodies attacking the thyroid gland. The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland in the front of your neck that produces hormones involved in metabolism, growth, and development. Hormones produced in the thyroid affect almost every organ in the body. In Hashimoto’s disease, the thyroid becomes damaged and is unable to produce enough hormones. This may lead to hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid), the most common consequence of Hashimoto’s disease. (Source, Source

Hashimoto’s disease is one of the most common endocrine disorders. Signs of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis include:

  • fatigue
  • weight gain
  • difficulty tolerating cold
  • joint and muscle pain
  • constipation
  • dry skin
  • dry, thinning hair
  • heavy or irregular menstrual periods or fertility issues
  • slowed heart rate


An enlarged thyroid, called goiter, may cause the front of your neck to appear swollen. Goiter is not usually painful, but it may cause you to feel a sensation of fullness in your throat. Overtime, damage may cause the thyroid to shrink. When this occurs, the goiter will disappear as well. (Source)

If untreated, Hashimoto’s disease may lead to several health problems. Complications include high cholesterol, heart disease and heart failure, high blood pressure, and, in rare instances, myxedema, a condition in which body functions slow down to the point of being life threatening. Although Hashimoto’s disease is irreversible, you can experience relief from your symptoms and prevent complications of the disease with lifestyle changes. (Source)

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is the most common type of lupus. It affects the joints, skin, brain, lungs, kidneys, and blood vessels. SLE can lead to lupus nephritis, a form of lupus that impacts the kidneys and can result in kidney failure. SLE is found more frequently in women, with women of childbearing age (15 to 44 years) at the greatest risk. Minority racial and ethnic groups have a greater likelihood of developing lupus than Caucasians due to genetic and socioeconomic factors related to education and access to medical care. (Source, Source, Source)

Symptoms of systemic lupus erythematosus include:

  • fatigue
  • fever
  • skin rashes
  • joint pain or swelling
  • sun sensitivity
  • oral ulcers; arthritis
  • lung, heart, and kidney problems
  • seizures
  • psychosis
  • red and white blood cell abnormalities


Holistic approaches can help you find significant relief from symptoms. Modifying your diet, reducing stress, and moving your body can increase the duration of remission and prevent complications associated with SLE.

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Sjögren’s Syndrome

Sjögren’s syndrome is a systemic autoimmune disease that affects the exocrine glands including sweat, salivary, and mammary glands, as well as the stomach, pancreas, and intestinal organs. Exocrine glands produce and release sweat, tears, saliva, milk, and digestive juice through ducts or other openings to the body surface. In Sjögren’s syndrome, your exocrine glands do not produce enough fluid. (Source)

The primary signs of Sjögren’s are dryness of the mouth and eyes. Your tongue and throat may feel dry, and you may have trouble or pain with swallowing. Dry mouth can contribute to gingivitis, oral yeast infections, dental cavities, and structural changes to teeth. With dry eye symptoms, you may experience irritation or a gritty or burning sensation. Vision may be blurred, or you may be extra sensitive to bright light. If not properly treated, dry eyes can increase the risk for infection and corneal damage. Dryness is not limited to the eyes and mouth; It can also occur in the nose, sinuses, ears, throat, skin, and vagina. (Source, Source)

As a systemic disease, Sjögren’s syndrome may also impact other organs in the body. Additional symptoms include joint and muscle pain, dry skin, rashes on the hands or feet, numbness or tingling in the extremities, a persistent dry cough, and chronic fatigue. Symptoms and their severity fluctuate. (Source)

Complications of Sjögren’s include lymphoma (cancer of the lymph glands), lung disease, and numbness and tingling, especially in the lower extremities. Sjögren’s syndrome can also affect the nervous system. Symptoms of nerve dysfunction include irregular heart rate, sweating, heart rate fluctuations, and issues with temperature regulation. (Source)

Lifestyle changes that address movement, sleep, and dietary habits can improve symptoms of Sjögren’s. Following an anti-inflammatory diet rich in high quality fish, nuts, and seeds is beneficial for symptom management and may prevent complications of the disease. (Source)

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At WellTheory, we believe sustainable healing starts with your practitioner's ability to relate to your circumstances. That's why all our practitioners have autoimmune or chronic conditions, too.

“I’m not sure when it all started. Looking back, I can identify my Hashimoto's symptoms all the way back in my teens. After years of feeling sick and tired, I was finally diagnosed in 2009, at the age of 26. While I was relieved to have a name and valid reason for all my debilitating symptoms (I really wasn’t crazy!), it didn’t fix anything.

Traditional medications never relieved my symptoms or aches and pains, and my dosages continued to increase. I tried doing all the 'right' things to get healthier, but I was still stuck in one constant flare up. I got hives every time I tried to exercise, had horrible hip and joint pain, couldn’t get out of bed, experienced uncontrollable weight-gain, bounced between anxiety and depression, and was living in a constant state of brain fog.”

Carly Michelson
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Addison’s Disease

Addison’s disease, or primary adrenal insufficiency, is typically caused by an autoimmune disease. In Addison’s disease, adrenal glands are damaged and are unable to produce enough of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol, often referred to as the stress hormone, is released by our bodies in times of stress to help regulate blood pressure, blood sugar, and metabolism. Cortisol may also reduce inflammation. In some cases, Addison’s disease may affect production of the hormone aldosterone, which helps maintain the balance of sodium and potassium in the blood. Modifications to diet, sleep, and movement can improve symptoms of Addison’s disease. (Source)

Common signs of Addison’s disease include:

  • chronic fatigue 
  • muscle weakness
  • loss of appetite
  • weight loss
  • abdominal pain
  • darkening of the skin, especially around scars, skin folds, and pressure points like the elbows, knees, knuckles, and toes

Symptoms of Addison’s disease usually appear slowly over time, making early diagnosis difficult. (Source)

Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is an autoimmune response to foods that contain gluten. Unlike gluten sensitivity or wheat intolerance, celiac disease results in damage to the small intestine. Celiac disease can have serious and long–lasting effects on digestion and nutrient absorption. Treatment for celiac disease is to avoid all products that contain gluten, and if you have celiac disease you must follow a strict gluten-free diet. (Source)

Signs of celiac disease are related to digestion and include:

  • bloating
  • chronic diarrhea
  • constipation
  • gas
  • lactose intolerance
  • loose, greasy, bulky, and bad-smelling stools
  • nausea or vomiting
  • abdominal pain

A person with celiac disease will likely exhibit many of the symptoms listed. Celiac disease in children can affect growth since nutrients are not well absorbed. Celiac disease may also present in other parts of the body. Some people may experience other symptoms, including fatigue, dermatitis herpetiformis (an itchy, blistering skin rash), reproductive problems in women and girls, and joint or bone pain. (Source)

Long-term complications of celiac disease include accelerated osteoporosis, nervous system issues, and problems related to the reproductive system. If undiagnosed or untreated, celiac disease can lead to malnutrition and vitamin and mineral deficiencies, such as anemia, as a result of poor nutrient absorption.(Source)

Celiac disease can be managed with a gluten-free diet, which significantly improves symptoms associated with this autoimmune disease. Cooking gluten-free does not mean you have to give up the foods you love. If you’re unsure of where to begin, our Nutritional Therapy Practitioners at WellTheory can work with you to ease the transition to a gluten-free lifestyle.


Psoriasis is a chronic autoimmune disease that causes skin cells to multiply too quickly, leading to scaly and inflamed patches of skin. Normally, skin cells grow and fall off of the body every 3 to 4 weeks. In psoriasis, dead skin cells accumulate on the surface of the skin instead of shedding. Elbows, knees, and the scalp are most commonly affected, but small or large patches may appear on other parts of the body, including eyelids, ears, lips, skin folds, and nails. Conventional psoriasis treatment depends on how much skin is affected and usually includes topical creams and ointments. Alternative approaches and holistic management may help you put psoriasis symptoms into remission. (Source, Source, Source)

The most common signs of psoriasis are:  

  • patches of thick, red skin with silvery-white scales that itch or burn
  • dry, cracked skin that itches or bleeds
  • thick, ridged, pitted nails

Psoriasis symptoms fluctuate and may be triggered by stress and skin injuries. There are different types of psoriasis characterized by the appearance of the skin reaction. It is possible to have multiple types of psoriasis simultaneously or throughout your lifetime. Symptom relief is possible, and a personalized anti-inflammatory diet can help you manage your psoriasis symptoms and achieve remission. (Source, Source)

Man helping woman move shoulder when her arm is bent at shoulder height

Psoriatic Arthritis

Psoriatic arthritis is an autoimmune inflammatory condition related to psoriasis. In psoriatic arthritis, prolonged, worsening inflammation leads to stiff, swollen, painful joints. Psoriatic arthritis often occurs in people with psoriasis or those who have a relative with psoriasis. Joints and skin are not the only parts of the body affected by psoriatic arthritis; psoriatic arthritis may also affect the gastrointestinal tract. (Source, Source)

Symptoms of psoriatic arthritis vary between people, but commonly include:

  • scaly, inflamed patches of skin
  • joint stiffness, pain, and swelling
  • fatigue
  • enthesitis, or tenderness in areas where the tendons or ligaments attach to bones, such as the back of the heel or the sole of the foot
  • painful swelling of fingers or toes
  • changes to your nails
  • eye pain, redness, or blurry vision due to inflammation
  • inflammatory bowel disease

Psoriatic arthritis in the spine, known as spondylitis, can cause back or neck stiffness and reduced mobility. Early diagnosis of psoriatic arthritis is key, as chronic inflammation can damage the joints. Individuals with psoriatic arthritis may avoid flare-ups and experience symptom relief by implementing lifestyle changes that include an anti-inflammatory diet, increased movement, stress reduction, and better sleep. (Source, Source)

Nutrition and Autoimmune Disease

Autoimmune disease and nutrition are closely related, as much of the immune system is located in the gastrointestinal tract. Research suggests that the rise in autoimmune disease may be due in part to a greater consumption of processed foods, which has led to an increase in intestinal permeability and gut dysfunction. Intestinal permeability seems to be a common feature in autoimmune diseases, and it is suggested that it plays a role in their development. It is thought that leaky gut syndrome may prompt an autoimmune response in people who are genetically susceptible. (Source)

As discussed earlier, environmental factors such as diet and nutrition may bring about the start of an autoimmune disease in someone with a genetic predisposition. Major life stressors and hormonal changes, like those experienced with pregnancy and high-stress life events, may also trigger the manifestation of an autoimmune disease. 

Research has been conducted on the association between diet and the onset and symptom management of autoimmune diseases. An anti-inflammatory diet that emphasizes omega-3 fatty acids, vegetables, fruits, and high-quality seafood is associated with reduced inflammation and improved pain in autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. The Mediterranean diet, which is rich in anti-inflammatory foods, has also been associated with better symptom management in autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Following an anti-inflammatory Mediterranean diet has also been associated with a lower risk of developing Sjögren’s syndrome. (Source, Source, Source, Source, Source)    

The autoimmune protocol diet (AIP), which encourages eating healthy fats and lots of vegetables, is an anti-inflammatory diet designed specifically to manage autoimmune diseases. AIP includes many of the foods and nutrients found in anti-inflammatory and Mediterranean diets. However, AIP goes beyond these two diets to focus specifically on anti-inflammatory, nutrient-dense whole foods that may help reduce autoimmune disease symptoms. Research has shown that following the AIP diet may relieve symptoms and decrease inflammation associated with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and inflammatory bowel disease. (Source, Source)

The AIP diet can help you manage your symptoms and signs of autoimmune disease and bring your condition into remission. Our Nutritional Therapy Practitioners at WellTheory can work with you to develop a personalized care protocol that supports your condition, symptoms, and nutritional status

The Bottom Line on Signs of Autoimmune Disease

If you regularly experience symptoms of any autoimmune disease, consult your healthcare provider. Getting your autoimmune disease diagnosed can be exhausting and frustrating, and you can best prepare for your medical consultation by tracking your symptoms and knowing your family history. You are in the driver’s seat of your health experiences, so get the care you deserve by walking into health care settings with a sense of empowerment, self-advocacy, and self-efficacy.

Lastly, remember that autoimmune diseases can be managed by means other than medication. Harnessing evidence-based changes to your lifestyle including stress reduction and improvements in nutrition, sleep, and movement can significantly improve your quality of life. If you are interested in exploring holistic autoimmune care, learn more about how WellTheory can support you with tailored guidance and lifestyle changes.

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The Ultimate Guide to the Signs of Autoimmune Disease

Symptoms and signs of autoimmune disease tend to be nonspecific. Understanding them can help you determine when to seek medical evaluation.
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In an autoimmune disease, the body mistakenly attacks its own healthy cells, tissues, or organs. 

Common symptoms and signs of autoimmune disease may include fatigue, joint pain or stiffness, weight gain, muscle aches, and skin rashes, blisters or color changes.

Autoimmune diseases are thought to occur as a result of an interaction between genes and environmental triggers, such as illness, nutrition, chemicals, and pollutants.

Lifestyle improvements in nutrition, sleep, and movement can significantly improve quality of life.

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The Ultimate Guide to the Signs of Autoimmune Disease

Symptoms and signs of autoimmune disease tend to be nonspecific. Understanding them can help you determine when to seek medical evaluation.
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In an autoimmune disease, the body mistakenly attacks its own healthy cells, tissues, or organs. 

Common symptoms and signs of autoimmune disease may include fatigue, joint pain or stiffness, weight gain, muscle aches, and skin rashes, blisters or color changes.

Autoimmune diseases are thought to occur as a result of an interaction between genes and environmental triggers, such as illness, nutrition, chemicals, and pollutants.

Lifestyle improvements in nutrition, sleep, and movement can significantly improve quality of life.

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