When faced with a debilitating illness, the journey to health is typically through conventional medicine. But consider the story of Isabel, who suffered from an autoimmune disease. Dr. Mark Hyman’s functional medicine approach to her illness not only erased her symptoms, it gave her a new chance at life. It provides a new hopeful perspective on how we can heal autoimmune disease.
Isabel, a cute 10-year-old girl from Texas, loved riding horses. But a few years ago, she was so sick from autoimmune disease that she couldn’t do what she loved.
Two months after I first saw Isabel, she was symptom free. In less than a year, she was completely healthy, her blood tests were normal, and she was off her myriad medications. If you ask me how, I’d tell you I discovered and treated the underlying causes of her inflammation. She’d tell you she “stopped eating gluten, dairy and sugar and took some supplements.”
Isabel walked into my office with one of the most severe cases of autoimmune disease I had ever seen; her face was swollen, her skin was inflamed, her joints were swollen, her immune system was attacking her entire body—including her muscles, skin, joints, blood vessels, liver, and her white and red blood cells.
Isabel couldn’t squeeze her hand or make a fist. The tips of her fingers and toes were always cold from Raynaud’s disease that inflamed her blood vessels. She was tired and miserable and was losing her hair. Isabel was on regular large doses of intravenous steroids just to keep her alive, and she was taking prednisone, aspirin, acid blockers and methotrexate, a chemotherapy drug used to shut down the immune system daily.
But despite these megadoses of medication, she wasn’t getting any better. Her doctors wanted to add another powerful immune-suppressing drug to the regimen of medication she was already taking. Unwilling to accept the newest drug (with its dizzying side effects) as the only course of treatment, her family came to see me to see if I could help heal her autoimmune disease.
Today, in conventional medicine, patients are told more often than not to take medication to treat their symptoms, instead of undergoing a more holistic review of their underlying causes. We are inhibiting, blocking or anti-ing everything. But we don’t necessarily ask one simple question: why is the body out of balance and how do we help it regain balance?
Functional medicine, which is what finally helped Isabel cope with and heal her autoimmune disease, is based on a different method of diagnosing and treating illness—one that focuses on causes, not symptoms, one that is based on an understanding of the dynamic way our genes interact with environment, one that goes beyond simply treating diseases based on their label. Understanding root causes is how functional medicine approaches how to heal heal autoimmune disease.
From Conventional Illness to Functional Health
For Isabel, the only response physicians had to her life-threatening autoimmune disease was to shut down her immune system, leaving her at risk for cancer, infection, osteoporosis, muscle wasting and psychiatric illness.
I knew there was another way. I simply asked the question WHY. I didn’t focus on WHAT the name of her disease was (mixed connective tissue disease, an autoimmune disease that affects the whole body), but WHY she was inflamed, WHERE this inflammation originated from, and HOW we could locate the causes and restore balance to her overactive immune system which was attacking her own body. I believed that we need to look at the body holistically – its functions are all interconnected.
During our first conversations, I learned she was being exposed to a toxic mold, Stachybotrys, in her house. Her mother worked in limestone pits exposing her to excessive amounts of fluoride while pregnant. Isabel had all her immunizations before 1999 when thimerosal was removed from vaccines. She also had a thimerosal-containing flu shot every year. Thimerosal contains mercury, and mercury is a known immune toxin. This problem was compounded by her diet, which included large amounts of tuna and sushi, that she loved and ate regularly (and which exposed her to even more mercury), and loads of dairy, gluten and sugar. In the year before she developed an autoimmune disease, she had many courses of antibiotics.
The immune system usually responds to some insult such as an allergen, a microbe or a toxin, and then runs out of control. So for Isabel, finding and removing that trigger was essential. After learning more about Isabel’s background, we now had a lot of possible causes for her inflammation. Mold, mercury, antibiotics, sugar, dairy, gluten—that’s a long list of potential immune irritants.
Isabel’s lab tests at her first visit were frightening. Her muscle enzymes and liver function tests showed severe damage. She had many autoimmune antibodies, a sign that the levels at which the body was attacking itself were extremely elevated. Other markers of inflammation were extremely high as well. Her white blood count and red blood cell count were low. Her vitamin D was also low. She had elevated levels of antibodies to gluten, which is a common cause of autoimmune disease and triggers significant intestinal inflammation. And her mercury level was 11 times the norm.
Healing Through Diet and Supplements
Initially, Isabel started an anti-inflammatory elimination diet to remove possible triggers of inflammation from food allergens. She stopped eating sugar, dairy and gluten (from wheat). I gave her a multivitamin; vitamins D, B12, folate, fish oil, and evening primrose oil, all of which are anti-inflammatory. I also gave her nystatin (a non-absorbed anti-fungal) to treat suspected yeast because of her multiple courses of antibiotics. I also gave her NAC (N-acetyl Cysteine) to support her liver, and told her to get off the acid blocker, the calcium channel blocker and the intravenous steroids that she had been taking. She started taking probiotics to support healthy digestive function and reduce gut inflammation, and a chelating agent to help bind the mercury from her tissues and cells and help her body get rid of it. To help her get off the prednisone, I gave her herbs to support her adrenal gland function.
Amazingly and quickly, she began to heal! After only two months, her rash was completely gone. She had no joint pain, and her hair was starting to grow back. Her autoimmune markers had dramatically improved. Her muscle enzymes, liver function and levels of inflammation were all normal. And a year after I first saw Isabel, her tests were normal, and she was off all medication. Her mercury eventually went down from 33 to 11, and her gut inflammation was gone. She was feeling happy and normal. And best of all, she was able to participate in activities that she loved, especially riding her horse.
Isabel’s experience with autoimmune disease is not rare, and the outcome should be more common. Through diet change and supplements, her health made a dramatic turnaround – we were able to start Isabel on the path to heal autoimmune disease. Functional medicine doctors have the knowledge and the methods to improve our health and heal not only autoimmune diseases but a variety of conditions. All we need is the knowledge and courage to apply them.
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