By Tereza Pultarova
The incidence of autoimmune diseases is on the rise. There are tens of known autoimmune conditions caused by the immune system turning against various organs in the body. Autoimmunity can affect the brain (multiple sclerosis), pancreas (type I diabetes), the thyroid gland (Hashimoto or Grave’s), joints (rheumatoid arthritis) or the digestive tract (Crohn’s disease, celiac disease or ulcerative colitis). But evidence is emerging many more conditions likely have an autoimmune component to them, such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or endometriosis. Mainstream medicine believes that the only way to treat patients with autoimmunity is to essentially suppress the immune system and manage their symptoms. But what if there is much more you can do? This week, I spoke to Chad Larson, Californian clinician and consultant at Cyrex Laboratories (that’s a little advertisement, I know), which specialises in detecting autoimmunity years before any symptoms develop.
TP: There seems to be a consensus that autoimmune conditions are on the rise globally. Why is that in your opinion?
CL: The first reason is that with modern laboratory science and technology, we are advancing our understanding of various conditions, which in the past we would consider just chronic disease. Now we can detect autoimmune antibodies in organ tissue and determine that there is actually an autoimmune component.
The second reason is probably because humans are currently exposed to many synthetic chemicals, which we didn’t have in the past and these are causing some haywire in our system.
I think of autoimmunity as a sort of three-legged problem. The first factor is a genetic predisposition. However, it is estimated that genetics only contribute to the development of autoimmune conditions by 30 per cent. That leaves a whole 70 per cent for other factors and these other factors are environmental factors. The third factor is the integrity of our barrier systems. The most important of those is the gut barrier, which can be compromised for a whole variety of reasons. .
When that gut barrier becomes compromised, antigens that we ingest that would otherwise not cross that barrier and would be eliminated out of the body, could now be allowed to cross that barrier and get into the system. If they get into the system, they can be a major inducer of immune activation and inflammation.
In most of the people who manifest autoimmunity at least two of those factors are usually responsible.
TP: Let’s start with the genetics. Most people think that there is nothing one can do about their genes but is it really true?
CL: There is this relatively new field known as epigenetics. Epigenetics is what controls and turns on and off the genetics. Epigenetics, clinically and scientifically, is the future of genetics and is exactly what we need to care about. We believe that a big component involved in epigenetics is the human micro biome – that’s all the microorganisms that live in the human body and how they interact with our DNA. Most of these bacteria are actually in our gut.
TP: So how does one care about the gut?
CL: Any person with an autoimmunity condition should have their gut barrier evaluated. This is important because we believe that what has been described as the leaky gut could be key to autoimmunity. Because gluten has been tied to so many different autoimmune conditions, I would recommend everyone to get tested for gluten sensitivity. But there could be other foods associated as well so multi-food sensitivity testing would also be a good idea.
TP: If I have food sensitivity, will I see that immediately in my body when I eat something that is causing me problems?
CL: Some people know when they have a food reaction. For example they eat shellfish and their eyes get swollen. They eat peanuts and their throats start to get itchy. That’s what we call an acute hypersensitivity. That’s mediated by immunoglobulin E, which controls the body’s acute reactions. Most people have those recognised but there are also delayed reactions where the person may not recognise that a food is causing certain symptoms because the reaction is delayed. It can take for days or even weeks for those antibodies to be produced after the food exposure.
TP: What can suggest that I may have such a delayed autoimmune response?
CL: There would likely be a recurring symptom. There might be some chronic problem. But the person doesn’t know that it has to do with food because they don’t get symptoms within fifteen minutes from eating that food as they would with the Ig E type allergy.
These delayed hyper-sensitivity reactions are very important, they are almost sub-clinical. It’s hard to make the immediate connection between the food and the symptoms. For every person with an autoimmune condition, this is what should be tested.
TP: What symptoms can suggest that I may have a delayed autoimmune reaction?
CL: It could be gastro-intestinal issues, where a person has for example chronic diarrhoea or chronic constipation. It could be some other gastrointestinal dysfunction including GERD – the Gastroesophageal reflux disease. I hear pretty frequently about joint issues, migrating joint pains. With a whole variety of autoimmune or chronic conditions, the food is essentially stuck on the gas pedal of the body’s inflammation system and every time you eat the food you reinforce this inflammation.
Fatigue is also very common. That’s basically the immune system and the inflammatory system dragging down the energy of the whole body. Another one is brain fog, when people feel kind of dull mentally. They feel that they can’t focus as they used to. Their mental endurance is greatly diminished. Another one is insomnia. People with sleep issues could definitely have food sensitivity as an underlying component. Also hormone imbalances can be influenced by autoimmunity. Depression and anxiety are common manifestations of food sensitivity.
TP: What would you recommend to people who suffer from such chronic issues?
CL: Before starting medication people suffering from these types of problems should definitely look at autoimmunity. Once they get on the medication that completely changes the dynamics of their physiology. It’s best to test these things beforehand and see if we can find some therapeutic opportunities with food testing and gut testing first. And if we find the trigger there then we can perhaps help them completely avoid taking pharmaceutical medication. It’s more preventive and it’s actually truly treating their condition instead of just masking it.
It’s really important for people to understand that these delayed reactions exist and that they can contribute to chronic inflammation and immune activation, which in certain people can become autoimmunity. Food can be medicine but food can also be poison.
TP: If I have a suspicion that I might have autoimmune tendencies, what shall I do?
CL: If a person has a family history of autoimmunity they should definitely look at their diet and life style differently than those who don’t have the family predisposition. They have to consume foods that are more hypoallergenic and generally live a life-style that is more in an alignment with health and avoid things that we know can lead to autoimmunity.
The important thing to remember is that this autoimmune predisposition may demonstrate differently in different family members. For example, an aunt may have rheumatoid arthritis, mum has multiple sclerosis and sister has Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. However, if there is autoimmunity in at least one first degree relative, that means a mum, dad or a sibling, that certainly is a reason for concern.
TP: Is there any way how to find out with certainty whether I have autoimmune tendencies before I start having problems?
CL: For anyone with some sort of persistent symptoms for which there is no proper explanation, it might be a good idea to get tested for autoimmunity. For example the Cyrex Labs can do these autoimmune tests, which detect elevated auto antibodies in various organs before the organs become damaged and before symptoms develop. We can basically identify a disease that the patient would develop in future. The disease might not manifest for another five or ten years but the antibodies are already elevated now. If a person has those elevated auto antibodies then we can take action to put that into remission and have those auto antibodies go down.
TP: Is the current healthcare system geared towards detecting these things early enough?
CL: Today, what is considered prevention is not really prevention but rather early detection. Early detection is still a valid concept. People’s lives can be saved by early detection, whether we are talking about cancer, or viruses or autoimmunity but what we are talking about here, with these predictive auto antibodies, is truly about preventing the diseases from even manifesting by evaluating these markers early on. Currently, there is no emphasis on this at all. We pretty much have a disease-care system. You have to wait until the person has full blown symptoms to make the diagnoses and there is really little emphasis on preventing those in the first place. Doctors only get paid when they treat a disease. Even the annual check-ups are about ‘oh you don’t have a disease this year, so come back next year and we will see whether you have a disease.’ There is not much emphasis on what you should do over the next year to help you maintain health.
TP: What would need to change?
CL: We need doctors to develop the basic understanding of what the human body needs for health. One of the basic things that the human body needs at its most fundamental level is nutrition. And nutrition is not taught at most medical schools. The thing that the human body needs most to stay healthy is not being taught at medical schools. That’s a big problem. What is taught in great detail is pharmaceutical treatment. Doctors are very well trained in what drug goes with what set of symptoms but they are not taught what you can do with nutrition and diet to help treat certain symptoms. The change has to come from that very fundamental level of education. The pharmaceutical system has such a strong hold over medical education that they are in some ways really dictating what future doctors are learning.