How Am I Reversing Autoimmunity?
It used to be that I would go to a doctor appointment and leave either more confused than before, deflated, or scared about a new awful diagnosis I might have gotten. And, even when I did get a diagnosis, it was vague, like "unspecified autoimmunity", "maybe lupus", "maybe Lyme", or even worse, "fibromyalgia" or "myofascial pain syndrome". I say worse for those last two, because they are some of the most vague and misunderstood conditions. They are almost like the diagnosis you get when there is no other diagnosis to be made. Over time, we found answers that addressed the root cause of what was actually going on. Thank goodness, because addressing and removing the root causes is when healing can begin!
Once that healing process began, my appointments shifted and I started to leave feeling empowered and blessed. And, a few days ago was the one of the best appointments yet! Why? Well, my naturopath told me I was literally "erasing my autoimmunity". OK, that's amazing. I had previously heard that it was possible to reverse autoimmunity, but to hear that I am the one doing it... well, it was pretty emotional. I mentioned "unspecified autoimmunity," which is something I definitely did have. With my previous knowledge base, I never knew it was possible to reverse autoimmunity. This concept never presented itself until I started researching my own chronic illness.
What is Autoimmunity?
Autoimmunity occurs when the immune system attacks the body's own various tissues. Autoimmune diseases include: Rhematoid Arthritis, Multiple Sclerosis, Ankylosing Spondylitis, Lupus, Psoriasis, Psoriatic Arthritis, Bechet's Disease, Crohn's, Ulcerative Colitis, Celiac and others. In the past, I understood autoimmunity as the body going "haywire". It sure seems like the body is going haywire, or awry, when it starts attacking itself. But, our bodies are "fearfully and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139:14). Every system is intricate, and there for a purpose. Why then, would the body suddenly turn against itself?
As it turns out, it has become widely accepted that there must be some trigger for autoimmunity. The known triggers can include: viral illness (like Epstein-Barr Virus), bacterial illness (like Lyme), food allergies or sensitivities (like gluten in Celiac disease), heavy metal/chemical toxicity, or mold. Sometimes more than one of these is present. Note also, that all of these conditions would ultimately cause systemic inflammation, which puts the immune system on high alert. These foreign invaders can look like human tissue, so the body not only attacks the invader, but also the similar looking tissue. OR, the foreign invaders can become embedded in human tissue. The immune system recognizes the foreign invader and attacks it, sometimes attacking its own tissue in the process.
I became to realize, autoimmunity could be seen as far "smarter" of a reaction in the body than immune system apathy. If apathy of the immune system occurs, the body is really in trouble.
What Does it Mean for Me to Reverse, Erase, or Overcome Autoimmunity?
Regarding the numbers, it had to do with an ANA (Antinuclear Antibody) panel. This panel has multiple types of ANA that it measures. When my ANA panel was done just under 4 years ago, some of those numbers were through the roof. Today, my ANA panel was still technically positive, but when you compare the labs from 2014 to today's results, all of the numbers are either normal, or just barely above normal (for those of you who want to see the numbers, I have them listed at the end of this post).
Regarding how I feel, it means the chronic pain is all but gone. I have much better energy, my sleep has greatly improved, I have minimal gut problems, and I am just plain stronger. I can walk many miles, and even mountain bike. Compare this with 4 years ago, when we had just purchased a wheelchair because I could only walk one block.
HOW Does One Go About This?
This is the million dollar question. I've written about how I healed my gut and never again had another Ulcerative Colitis flare. This was certainly a component of my autoimmunity. But, not everyone with Ulcerative Colitis has elevated ANA counts that look like Lupus or unspecified autoimmunity. And, as I've mentioned before, healing my Ulcerative Colitis did not solve my chronic pain. In fact, my chronic pain ultimately worsened over time, despite how well the gut healing process had previously worked for me. Here are the issues we identified that I was ultimately able to address:
1. Gut Infections: Even though my gut responded so well to Specific Carbohydrate (SCD) and Paleo, something called Secretory IgA, which is an important component of the gut's immune system, was very low. Secretory IgA is affected by the multiple components that contribute to a damaged (or leaky) gut, but it takes awhile to increase, and due to other existing problems, mine never did increase, leaving me wide open to infection. Over time, I acquired 3 gut infections: H. Pylori, Parasites, and Candida.
2. Methylation Problems: Methylation is a bit difficult to understand, but for those who are affected by it, it is incredibly important to understand. According to Chris Kresser, "Methylation is vital metabolic process that happens in every cell and every organ of our body. Life would not exist without it. It takes place more than a billion times per second in the body." Wow! Something that occurs this much is bound to be incredibly important. And, it is. The methylation process in our cells has many complex components, and some people have "mutations" in one, or multiple, of those components. When one component is "broken", so to speak, it causes a chain reaction to the other components that can affect their ability to work properly. Sometimes the body can compensate, and other times it cannot.
During methylation, various different nutrients or enzymes are created, or converted to forms that can be utilized. These nutrients/enzymes send messages to various parts of the body to perform different tasks. In the end, methylation can affect pretty much anything in the body, but most commonly, it affects the brain, cognitive ability, the gut, and the detoxification systems. In my case, the "mutations" I had very heavily affected my detoxification system.
In a nutshell, because I had multiple issues with my methylation, I was unable to detoxify my body like most people. I was unable to convert B vitamins to their methylated form, which is the form the body can actually use. B vitamins send messages to enzymes in the body to detoxify the cells. Interestingly enough, the other components of my body's detoxification system (liver, kidneys, lymphatic system, respiratory system) were doing great, but because of the methylation problems, I couldn't get toxins out of my cells or bloodstream, so they could not get to those detoxification pathways in order to be flushed from my body. Instead, my body, somewhat wisely, stored the toxins in my cells and tissues. I say wisely, because my body stored them in tissues down the back of my neck and and back area, and while this caused many problems, it protected my brain.
3. Heavy Metal/Chemical Toxicity, Leading to Autoimmunity: The above methylation issues caused a build up of heavy metals and chemicals in my tissues. And because the gut infections attracted heavy metals as well, the issue completely snowballed. In my case, there were many knots and bound up areas of tissue down the back of my neck and back, which was ultimately the cause of my chronic pain. Not only did this issue cause pain and injury, but it also caused autoimmunity. My immune system had not gone haywire at all. It was smart and recognized the foreign invader, but because that foreign invader was in my tissues, in order to attack the bad guys, it also attacked my tissues.
And, very briefly, here is what I did to address these problems:
1. Treat the Gut Infections. There are many different ways of going about this. It took me about 1 year to actively treat these until I found the modality that finally worked for me. I had difficulty tolerating herbs and medications that treated my infections, so as soon as something started to work, I would have to discontinue it because I could not tolerate it. This was actually because of my methylation issues. Finally, we identified frequency as what ultimately worked for me. For complicated infections like parasites, it takes ongoing treatments for months. This does not mean it is impossible to do; it just means that whatever treatment a person ends up using, they'll need to continue it regularly for 6 or more months. (Note: as with multiple items addressed in this post, I'll discuss more specifics of treating gut infections in future posts).
Interestingly, once the H. Pylori and Parasites were taken care of, the Candida went away on its own! This is because parasites, in particular, change the pH of the GI tract. Candida thrives in those conditions, but once the conditions are removed, the Candida dies off on its own.
2. Address the Methylation Problems. There were a few things that clued my naturopath in to recommending I have methylation testing done (I used 23andMe). One was my lack of ability to tolerate certain medications. This was because I could not process them and ultimately, could not fully remove them from my body. When the results came back, multiple methylation issues were found to be present. For me, taking Methylated B12, Methylated Folate, Methylated B Complex vitamins, and SamE were (and still are) how we addressed these issues. As I added in these supplements, my naturopath and I closely monitored my response, and we had to make adjustments to the dosing until it was right for me. Getting 23andMe testing is something you can do on your own, but treating the findings really should be handled by a provider who has a good understanding of methylation.
I have to say, I am a completely different person now that I am taking these specific supplements! Multiple systems in my body function far better, and I have much higher energy levels.
3. Detox slowly and intentionally. Detoxification is a word that is thrown out so much these days. It can sound vague, or like something you only do during a spa treatment. The truth is, we have a miraculous detoxification system built right into our bodies, so do not be fearful that what happened to me is happening to all of us, all the time. However, some of us detoxify better than others, so, if you have chronic pain and/or autoimmunity, it is something to look into. And the truth is, everyone can benefit from reducing our exposure to heavy metals and harmful toxins. Toxins are increasingly all around us these days, and there are so many easy ways to reduce our exposure, so that our detoxification systems do not become overwhelmed.
In my case, I did (and still do) have to intentionally make efforts to detoxify my body. There are so many ways to do this, and so many different things you can do to support the process. I'll get into these options another day!
4. Continue a gut healing paleo diet. I no longer have Ulcerative Colitis. This is quite a bold statement, and I didn't want to jinx myself by saying it! But, I've removed the root causes of this disease so that it no longer exists. I plan to keep it that way by supporting my gut health in every way I can. Furthermore, maintaining good gut health is paramount to my ongoing healing process! This has just simply become a lifestyle which I have embraced.
And Perhaps, the Most Important Component: Belief
The way I approached chronic illness was a complete 180 from what anyone in my life would have thought. With my training and experience as a Registered Nurse for so many years, I was well versed in the traditional treatments for illnesses like Ulcerative Colitis and chronic pain.
But if I had gone down that road, I felt like I would have been accepting some kind of reality that my body had gone haywire; essentially had turned against me, for no reason at all. Something inside me knew differently. I knew that I had previously been healthy, and that some very stressful events in our lives had caused a change in my physical health. I couldn't shake the feeling that what had gone wrong could somehow be removed, and that once it was removed, my body would want to heal. I truly believe that God planted that seed in me; and I couldn't deny it, despite my prior knowledge.
Don't get me wrong; it wasn't something that came easy for me during the years that I was in poor health. Early on, that feeling God gave me (the one that knew I could get better) was fairly strong. But as time went by, and my condition worsened, I was hanging onto that belief by a thread. While Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD) and Paleo had been a clear answer to healing Ulcerative Colitis, my chronic pain and unspecified autoimmunity became so bad that the world around me felt dark and empty. This was when my faith was the ONLY thing that could get me through. My faith, by the way, was also barely hanging on. But, the right people were placed in my life at the right time, and I realized I had never truly given my healing over to God. I had asked Him for help, but then continued to go my own way. When I came to the end of my ability to do anything more for myself, was when I relinquished. THAT was when the answers came.
So, while my hope is to share my story and all that I have learned in order to help others, ultimately it is faith, belief, whatever you like to call it, that makes the biggest difference of all.
Do You Believe it's Possible?
What do you think? Is it possible to overcome, or reverse autoimmunity, or do you think my experience was a fluke? (Hint: It wasn't a fluke. Many others have reversed autoimmunity). I'm not going to lie. It takes faith and a LOT of hard work. Some people don't want to take it on, to be honest, because it all just feels too overwhelming. Sometimes there is even a fear of the unknown; some people have taken on their chronic illness as their identity. This certainly is not on purpose, but by default, because of having to live with the chronic illness for so long. If that part of their identity is lost, what might happen? How might they have to change?
But if you have a chronic illness, close your eyes and imagine what life might be like without it. What could you accomplish? How could you affect others? How much fuller might your life be?
Here's what I do know: Most diseases have a root cause. Disease is not a natural state for the body; in fact, the body is constantly trying to repair itself, whether it be from a tiny cut or a full blown chronic disease. Symptoms of illness, while often painful, are actually the body's way of telling you something. Those symptoms can be used as clues to identify root causes. If you identify and remove the root cause, the body has this amazing ability to heal itself!
Ultimately, for most people (I'm not saying all, because I do acknowledge that some conditions are, indeed, permanent), it takes a decision and a commitment. Then, it takes faith, support, and hard work.
Appendix: My Before and After Labs
I know, not everyone cares about this stuff. But if you're like me, the numbers were important to see. So, if you do happen to care, here you go:
Reference Range Units
ANA Positive [Negative]
Selected Antigens 16 (High) [<= 10] U/mL
Hep 2 Cells <11 [<= 10] U/mL
Anti-dsDNA 175 (High) [<= 40] IU/mL
Anti-ssDNA 131 (High) [<=98] U/mL
Anti-ENA (Smith) 20 [<= 89] U/mL
Anti-ENA (RNP\Smith) 172 (High) [<= 83] U/mL
Anti-SSA (RO) 22 [<=91] U/mL
Anti-SSB (LA) 15 [<=73] U/mL
Reference Range Units
ANA Positive [Negative]
Selected Antigens 15 (High) [<= 10] U/mL
Hep 2 Cells <11 [<= 10] U/mL
Anti-dsDNA 10 [<= 40] IU/mL
Anti-ssDNA 14 [<=98] U/mL
Anti-ENA (Smith) 12 [<= 89] U/mL
Anti-ENA (RNP\Smith) 100 (High) [<= 83] U/mL
Anti-SSA (RO) 22 [<=91] U/mL
Anti-SSB (LA) 3 [<=73] U/mL
As you can see, the "after" labs on 3/14/18 still show a positive ANA Panel. But only 2 items on the panel are in the high range, compared to 4 items on 8/17/14.