Autoimmune diseases are extremely common and can develop at any age. Common examples include Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis and lupus.
Autoimmunity is a lifelong diagnosis, so it’s important to be regularly monitored to determine the success of your treatment plan. I encourage all my patients to take charge of their health by asking questions and educating themselves about their diagnosis, associated risks, and supportive therapies that you can do to improve your prognosis. Whether you’re newly diagnosed with an autoimmune condition, or are looking to take charge of your health, here is my list of what you should be aware of if you have an autoimmune disease.
BE AWARE OF CO-EXISTING CONDITIONS (CO-MORBIDITIES)
All autoimmune conditions have increased risks of developing associated symptoms and health conditions. I recommend having a discussion with your healthcare team to understand exactly what is associated with your condition and how it could be prevented or managed.
You may experience side effects from medications, such as restlessness and weight gain while taking prednisone. Alternately, some symptoms are caused by the condition itself, such as fatigue in rheumatoid arthritis. Some symptoms are complications of your condition, such as uveitis (swollen, red eyes) in someone with Crohn’s disease, and may indicate that you require more advanced treatment.
Once diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, there is also an increased risk of developing other autoimmune diseases. This is because the body’s immune system is already hyperactive and has lost the ability to differentiate between attacking intruders, like bacteria, and attacking its own body. It’s important to be screened regularly for other autoimmune conditions, especially if new symptoms arise.
Lastly, some autoimmune diseases put you at increased risk of other non-autoimmune diagnoses. For example, people with ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease are at increased risk of developing colon and small bowel cancers.
The bottom line is to understand your risks so that you can recognize new-onset symptoms and conduct regular screening for early detection of prevalent co-existing conditions.
BE AWARE OF MEDICATION PROS & CONS
Many autoimmune conditions require medications for either a short period of time to promote remission, or in some cases for the rest of your life. Many medications are a phenomenal part of autoimmune treatment, but I always want patients to understand what they’re putting into their body, including the risks and side effects of medications. It’s also important to ask about side effects of coming off of medications, as there can be rebound effects when medications are stopped. Finally, it’s helpful to discuss what treatment escalation would look like if “plan A” doesn’t work, including the drawbacks and benefits of “plan B”.
Some side effects such as weight gain, depression, or fatigue can occur because of nutrient depletions or changes to eating and sleeping patterns caused by medications. Your Naturopathic Doctor can help you minimize side effects by developing a meal plan, lifestyle changes, and supplement plan to ensure your body is well supported during treatment. If pregnancy is something you’re considering, it’s important to ask about the effects of medication on fertility, safety during pregnancy, and what your prescribing physician’s plan during pregnancy would look like. This is important even if you’re not thinking of pregnancy in the near future or aren’t yet sure if you’d like to have children – it’s always helpful to have information available.
UNDERSTAND TREATMENT MONITORING
Some autoimmune conditions require close monitoring by your specialist. Treatment monitoring is most often done through symptom reporting (how are you feeling), imaging (MRI, ultrasound, etc.) and blood work (autoimmune and inflammatory markers). It’s helpful to have a general understanding of what tests are needed, how frequently they should be run, and what parameters should be met for a treatment plan to be considered successful. I also encourage annual or semi-annual testing for vitamin D, vitamin B12, iron and inflammatory markers CRP, ESR and others, depending on your autoimmune condition, to monitor your health and immune status.
Learn about what you can do in your day-to-day life to improve treatment outcomes, prevent co-morbidities, reduce medication reliance, and mitigate side effects.
There is so much that can be done with your Naturopathic Doctor to tailor your nutrition, supplements, herbs, and lifestyle factors to help you manage the course of your autoimmune condition. You may feel that aspects of your healthcare plan are beyond your control, but eating an autoimmune friendly diet, prioritizing sleep, and minimizing triggers like stress and over-exercising is something over which you have complete autonomy. It can also be helpful to consider booking with a certified psychotherapist or social worker to, who can give you tools to help you manage anxiety and stress, which can exacerbate autoimmune conditions. Practitioners like osteopaths, physiotherapists, and massage therapists may also be helpful for managing pain and improving mobility in some autoimmune conditions.
The bottom line is that you are your best health advocate! Take charge by keeping your own health records, asking questions, becoming well-informed, and seeking out healthcare professionals who will support you. You are in control of your own health journey, and there’s so much you can do to reduce disease progression and improve your quality of life.