by Nancy Gahles, DC, CCH, RSHom(NA), OIM

The truth about autoimmune disease is that it is auto-initiated. The prevailing theory of how this occurs is that the immune system mistakenly attacks parts of the body that it is designed to protect. There are several diseases that fall into the category of autoimmune, among them are multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, type 1 diabetes, and psoriasis. Autoimmune diseases described by the National Institutes of Health “share common flaws in immune function and regulation, leading to inflammation that destroys tissue.”

The physical body is an exquisite repository of wisdom. It reacts to our mind, thoughts, fears, and pleasures with the orchestration of predictable responses designed to carry out our intentions and protect our lives. The body does not interpret the validity of a thought of harm, threat, fear. The body responds with a life protective response.

The process of inflammation is initiated often to wall off tissue from destruction. C-reactive protein, which is measurable on blood tests, is a marker of increased inflammation in the body. Several studies have linked increased C-reactive protein to a mind-body process called rumination. Rumination is the act of worrying, in plain speak. The mind process of going over and over the same thought repetitively, with no solution or action to dissipate its charge, produces an inflammatory response by the body. The repetitive thoughts cause a fight, flight, freeze, or faint response from the autonomic nervous system. If you aren’t going to take action, the body, in its infinite wisdom, will initiate a response. It’s own call to action will be inflammation. The inflammatory response can be anywhere in the body that you are susceptible to expressing it.

A recent study published in Arthritis & Rheumatology found trauma exposure and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in women was strongly associated with increased risk of developing lupus, an autoimmune disease. In this study of 54,763 women, investigators found a nearly three-fold elevated risk of lupus among women with probable PTSD and more than two-fold higher risk of lupus among women who had experienced any traumatic event compared with women not exposed to trauma.

And whom among us has not been exposed to trauma? “We were surprised that exposure to trauma was so strongly associated with lupus,” said Dr. Andrea Roberts, lead author of the study. “Trauma was a stronger predictor of developing lupus than smoking.”

I am not surprised. I am joyfully validated that studies like these are finally adding to the understanding that our thoughts—thought wounds, as it were—feelings, and perceptions create diseases, and that knowing that this is true leads us to disempowering the disease process.

The synchronicity of this awakening has been met with a plethora of studies on mindfulness and its efficacy for decreasing the effects of rumination. Mindfulness offers us a viable, practical, self-care tool for self-efficacy. It has been demonstrated to change the structures in the brain so to alter the epigenetics of the expression of the disease.

The truth about autoimmune diseases, like lupus, is that you do have autonomy, the ability to access choices and skillful strategies to mitigate the “inflammation that destroys tissues”.

There are also the possibilities inherent in whole systems medicines cited in this study, by Alexio Brustolin et al, published in Microb Pathog. 2017, that address the issue of “flaws in immune function and regulation”. Treatment with a highly diluted homeopathic remedy, Lycopodium Clavatum, demonstrated a beneficial immunomodulatory action reducing the pathogenic progression of digestive Chaga disease.

Autoimmune diseases emanating from life stresses and traumatic events, past or present, as well as the daily rumination on current events, politics, and natural disasters are manageable, can be prevented, and most certainly can be transformed from debilitating, life sentences to empowering life issues. 

Transformation from a state of symptomatology to a state of equilibrium wherein the body is not in a state of self-defense from perceived attack on its constitution requires a thorough evaluation.  Evaluation of the presenting symptoms is the entry point to unravelling the threads of the case.

The Mayo Clinic website begins its description of lupus stating, “No two cases of lupus are exactly alike.” This is music to the ears of a whole person practitioner who understands the necessity of treating the individual. The site continues to describe the variability of signs and symptoms, again, giving us pause to consider the unique susceptibilities in each person. “Most people with lupus have mild disease characterized by episodes-called-flares when signs and symptoms get worse for a while, then improve or even disappear for a time.”

The beauty of this scenario lends itself to the discovery of the Principles of Cure according to Samuel Hahnemann, MD, author of Organon of the Medical Art, the seminal work on homeopathy. According to his principles, the unprejudiced observer, as Hahnemann names the practitioner, “perceives nothing in each single case of disease other than the alterations in the condition of the body and soul, disease signs, befallments, symptoms, which are outwardly discernable through the senses.” Unique to the medical art of homeopathy is Hahnemann’s understanding of consideration given to alterations in the condition of body and soul.

For our purposes here, we can construe this to include the emotional trauma that a person may have suffered as a fundamental piece to the puzzlement of episodic flares and the disparate areas of expression of the disease. In the case of the autoimmune condition of lupus, the totality of symptoms, body, mind, and spirit, the factors that aggravate or ameliorate, together with causative events, lead us to a specific prescription matching the vitality and state of a person suffering. I routinely give a stress and PTSD risk assessment questionnaire to my patients as well.

Cases that are taken from an integrative perspective allow for the blending of complementary practices, such as cognitive behavioral stress reduction, positive emotion therapy, acupuncture, mindfulness meditation, and movement among other evidence-informed practices.

Taken as a whole, the truth about autoimmune disease is that it lends itself to self-care strategies. Once the person understands the totality of their condition, it becomes manageable. The label of a disease does not hold sway. One becomes able to preview the conditions that may trigger an episode thereby preventing the flaws in immune function and regulation, that lead to inflammation that destroys tissue.

The potential, indeed the possibilities and promise of interdisciplinary models, have recently been acknowledged as effective and worthy of insurance reimbursement in the field of chronic pain with this Minnesota law leading the nation. Notable in this endeavor is the fact that chronic pain is most often an outcome of trauma and PTSD, as well as a component and sequelae of autoimmune diseases. Should this legislation bear the fruit of outcomes, we will see the most significant obstacle to integrative care overcome.