By Dr. Lina Sakr

What do rheumatoid arthritis, Grave’s disease, Type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, lupus, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis and more than 100 other diseases affecting up to 10% of the U.S. population have in common?

They are all autoimmune disorders, products of an overactive immune system unable to distinguish between foreign invaders and the body’s own cells.

Confused by perceived infections, toxins, allergens and stress responses, the malfunctioning immune system instead turns inward. This redirects its disease-battling forces against those internal systems.

Despite modern medical advances, the prevalence of autoimmune disorders has increased dramatically since 1939, according to the Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM). That has raised serious questions about the role of environmental factors in this drastic increase.

Treating autoimmune disorders primarily (or solely) through prescription drugs will typically only address the symptoms – not any underlying causes.

Autoimmune disorders: Who’s at risk

Research shows that women are roughly twice as likely as men to be afflicted with autoimmune disorders, with particular susceptibility during periods of significant hormonal change or extensive stress, including pregnancy.

Genetics also play a role, as autoimmune diseases tend to run in families, and may also disproportionately impact certain racial groups. Additionally, the presence of high levels of antinuclear antibodies (ANA), detected through blood tests, may indicate the presence of an autoimmunity imbalance.

At Naples Center for Functional Medicine, we take a holistic approach to identifying and treating autoimmune disorders and diseases. Our care model treats the whole patient rather than focusing primarily on surface-level symptoms.

READ MORE: Beyond statins: A functional medicine approach to cardiovascular health

A functional medicine approach to autoimmune disorders

As we explore how functional medicine can holistically treat autoimmune disorders, a closer look at one particularly insidious form of such ailments – rheumatoid arthritis (RA) – offers a glimpse at the benefits of this approach.

RA is marked by swelling and inflammation of the joints, a condition that prescription drugs only effectively treat at most about half the time, according to IFM. Some of those RA drugs have been shown to increase the risk of dementia in a patient population with twice the mortality rate of the general population.

Absent a miracle cure, patients can still take control of factors within their reach. In particular, this includes lifestyle modifications that boost nutrition and promote regular exercise.

A plant-based Mediterranean diet will deliver foods rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatories as you work to move beyond statins. It’s also high in fiber. Staples of this diet include olives and olive oil, as well as whole grains. It also includes little to no red meat, refined or processed food, or inflammatory oils such as corn, soy and sunflower.

The antioxidant influence of green tea has been shown to reduce disease activity and increase health in lupus patients. Exercise is also crucial. In RA, MS and Type 1 diabetes patients, studies show that physically active patients were found to have improved joint mobility and reduced risks of cardiovascular disease.

Other lifestyle choices are within reach: Get a good night’s sleep. Failing to do so damages your metabolism and weakens your immune system. Take up meditation or practice deep breathing – both have been shown to reduce pain in autoimmune patients.

We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: lifestyle is the ultimate anti-inflammatory.

READ MORE: Lifestyle: the ultimate anti-inflammatory

Treating the whole patient

Functional medicine isn’t about the quick fix. Its practitioners are akin to disease detectives, or investigative reporters. We provide each patient with a personalized assessment that includes a detailed medical history and chronological timeline of life events that could contribute to the disease process.

We help you create personalized nutritional plans, based on food sensitivity testing that can identify (and remove) potentially harmful substances being consumed. If needed, advanced testing can measure hormone levels and better detect underlying imbalances or triggers.

The core questions: how did the body get out of balance, and how can we restore that proper balance?

As always, consult with your physician prior to making any substantial lifestyle, health or nutritional changes. For questions, please contact our office at 239-649-7400.

About the author:

Dr. Lina Sakr is a board-certified internal medicine physician at Naples Center for Functional Medicine with nearly 40 years of experience. She specializes in metabolic and nutritional medicine, anti-aging medicine and women’s health.

This article was featured in Naples in Florida Weekly.