Inflammation is a “hot” topic in medicine. It appears connected to almost every known chronic disease: from heart disease to cancer, diabetes to obesity, autism to dementia and even depression.
Other inflammatory diseases, such as allergies, asthma, arthritis and autoimmune disease, are increasing at dramatic rates. As physicians, we are trained to shut off inflammation with aspirin, anti-inflammatory medication, such as Advil or Motrin, steroids and increasingly more powerful immune-suppressing medication with serious side effects. But we are not trained to find and treat the underlying causes of inflammation in chronic disease. Hidden allergens, infections, environmental toxins, an inflammatory diet and stress are the real causes of these inflammatory conditions.
Autoimmune diseases now affect 24 million people and include rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, thyroid disease, inflammatory bowel disease and more. These are often addressed by powerful immune suppressing medication and not by addressing the cause. That’s like taking a lot of aspirin while you are standing on a tack. The treatment is not more aspirin or a strong immune suppressant but removing the tack.
If you want to cool off inflammation in the body, you must find the source. Treat the fire, not the smoke. In medicine, we are mostly taught to diagnose disease by symptoms, not by their underlying cause. Functional medicine is the emerging 21st century paradigm of systems medicine that teaches us to treat the cause, not only the symptoms, and to ask why you are sick, not only what disease you have.
Functional medicine is a different way of thinking about disease that helps us understand and treat the real causes of inflammation instead of finding clever ways to shut it down. Medicine as it is practiced today is like taking the battery out of a smoke detector while a fire burns down your house!
Autoimmune conditions are connected by one central biochemical process: a runaway immune response also known as systemic inflammation that results in your body attacking its own tissues.
AUTOIMMUNITY: WHAT IS AN AUTOIMMUNE DISEASE AND HOW IT OCCURS
We are facing an epidemic of allergies (60 million people), asthma (30 million people) and autoimmune disorders (24 million people). Autoimmune diseases include rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, celiac disease, thyroid disease and the many other hard-to-classify syndromes in the 21st century. These are all autoimmune conditions, and at their root, they are connected by one central biochemical process: a runaway immune response also known as systemic inflammation that results in your body attacking its own tissues.
Your immune system is your defense against invaders. It is your internal army and has to clearly distinguish friend from foe — to know you from other. Autoimmunity occurs when your immune system gets confused and your own tissues get caught in friendly cross-fire. Your body is fighting something — an infection, a toxin, an allergen, a food or the stress response — and somehow it redirects its hostile attack on your joints, your brain, your thyroid, your gut, your skin or sometimes your whole body.
This immune confusion results from what is referred to as molecular mimicry. Conventional approaches don’t have a method for finding the insult causing the problem. Functional medicine provides a map to find out which molecule the cells are mimicking.
Interestingly, autoimmune disorders occur almost exclusively in developed countries. People in poor nations without modern amenities like running water, flushing toilets, washing machines and sterile backyards don’t get these diseases. If you grew up on a farm with lots of animals, you are also less likely to have any of these inflammatory disorders. Playing in the dirt, being dirty and being exposed to bugs and infections trains your immune system to recognize what is foreign and what is “you”.
In this country, autoimmune diseases are a huge health burden. They are the eighth leading cause of death among women, shortening the average patient’s lifespan by eight years. The annual health care cost for autoimmune diseases is $120 billion, representing nearly twice the economic health care burden of cancer (about $70 billion a year).1
Unfortunately, many of the conventional treatments available can make you feel worse. Anti-inflammatory drugs like Advil, steroids, immune suppressants like methotrexate, and the new TNF-alpha blockers like Enbrel or Remicade can lead to intestinal bleeding, kidney failure, depression, psychosis, osteoporosis, muscle loss, diabetes, infection and cancer.2
When used selectively, these drugs can help people get their lives back, but they are not a long-term solution. They shouldn’t be the end of treatment but a bridge to cool off inflammation while we treat the root cause of the disease.