Part I: Dig Deep
One time I had an explosion of canker sores in my mouth, which was nothing like I've ever experienced before. Sure, I've had canker sores before from brushing my teeth too hard or eating something that accidentally caused blunt trauma to my gums. This, however, was something else. The canker sores were everywhere - on my gums, underneath my tongue, etc. - AND they came out of no where! What was also unusual about these canker sores was that they weren't healing like normal. I thought they would go away naturally after a few days, but they weren't reducing in size. The pain was particularly the worst.
I felt that I reached a low point when my abilities to speak and eat solids were drastically hindered due to the intense pain. Since the canker sores were concentrated around the tip of my tongue, liquefied food like soups and Jamba Juice smoothies were the only things that would go down easily for me. Furthermore, the tip of my tongue was so painfully sensitive that I had to aim food to the back of my throat where there thankfully weren't any canker sores. My speech became slurred from not being able to press my tongue to the roof of my mouth in order to formulate words. I felt helpless and frustrated. I'm all for natural ways of healing and all, but I recognized that I needed to go to urgent care ASAP. The doctor prescribed an oral steroid ointment to treat the symptoms, and my canker sores healed completely after 5 days. End of story.
Well, not really...
I was so traumatized by the experience that I couldn't sit around waiting for this to happen again. I learned from the doctor at urgent care that the explosion of canker sores was autoimmune-related. Bummer, because I knew what THAT meant. My body was fighting itself but no say as to why. What I thought was just some type of acute illness may very well have been the manifestation of a chronic condition that was developing over time.
There was something deeper going on here.
Why did this happen? Could I have prevented it? Or was this a long time coming? The thought of me being a ticking time bomb waiting to happen was concerning.
By the time I saw the doctor at urgent care, a cascade of activity in my body may have been going on for years negatively impacting my immune system. Yet nothing I felt physically up to that point indicated something was wrong. I remember feeling healthy at the time. I didn't change anything about my diet; I worked out and went to yoga per usual. Although I can correlate the surprise canker sores to a stressful time in my personal life, and admittedly I neglected my self-care routine due to the stress.
The incident with the canker sores wasn't my first rodeo with autoimmune challenges. I get Atopic Dermatitis (Eczema) on occasion, and I had Hyperthyroidism from Graves Disease for five years. Nonetheless, it woke my ass up and brought my attention to two things:
Autoimmune diseases cannot be cured but can be managed. Therefore, I needed to find out how I could be more proactive about averting these autoimmune challenges from happening in the future. It's probably worth finding out what the root causes are, but is that even possible?
Eczema... Hyperthyroidism... canker sores... I looked at them as isolated diseases, but they all fell under the umbrella of autoimmune diseases. There had to be a connection here. I may need to better understand autoimmunity by looking at it from a wider lens. In other words, I need to educate myself more about the overall subject.
Part II: Discernment is everything.
Just as I was focusing my energy to understanding autoimmunity, it so happened that there was a local event called "How to Combat Autoimmune Challenges Naturally." There couldn't be any better resources to go to than professionals speaking specifically on the topic, right?
The talk was led by an Integrative Medicine group, which I've never heard of before. I wasn't going to totally discredit the Integrative Medicine group just because I've heard of neither Integrative Medicine nor Functional Medicine. After all, chiropractic care and Acupuncture weren't considered mainstream for the longest time. Not only does my primary care physician recommend I see a chiropractor or acupuncturist, but also my health insurance covers these specializations. I have friends who've expressed to me positive feedback about their own experiences working with Integrative Medicine/Functional Medicine professionals as well. So I was open-minded and wanted to hear what had to be said.
I did find some parts of the talk informative:
I learned a factoid that autoimmune diseases are higher in women.
I learned that signs of autoimmune challenges included but were not limited to:
Lab results showing up as normal despite how terribly you feel
Some days feeling better than others
Mysterious symptoms popping out of the blue (Case and point: the explosion of canker sores. My eczema comes and goes too.)
Seeing multiple specialists (I have an endocrinologist for the Hyperthyroidism and dermatologist for the Eczema obvi.)
I learned of 3 contributors to autoimmunity:
Genetics & Epigenetics (Graves Disease and Eczema run in my family.)
Chronic stress (Probably what triggered that random canker sores scare.)
Leaky Gut (A "syndrome" that describes when the tight junctions in the gut become loose from factors like gluten, candida, etc. The theory is that this makes the intestinal walls permeable. Bacteria and toxins can then "leak" from the gut into the bloodstream. The accumulation of bacteria and toxins in the bloodstream increases inflammation and possibly trigger the immune system, as a result.)
But I got to be honest. The talk was a bust for me.
I didn't vibe with the speaker. He was actually a chiropractor by trade, which I thought was interesting but it didn't necessarily bother me. It was his shift in energy when someone asked him about his educational background that raised some flags. He came off very defensive especially when someone in the audience asked to cite resources and validate the legitimacy of Integrative Medicine and Functional Medicine since it was her first time hearing about these practices too.
I left the talk being in fear instead of feeling empowered. The first time I heard of the Leaky Gut phenomenon was a year ago at a talk on Thyroid challenges. Similarly, the speaker for the talk on Autoimmune challenges placed such a huge emphasis on Leaky Gut as a key root cause to autoimmune diseases. With all the buzz I've been hearing around Leaky Gut, I couldn't help but wonder if it was something I should address "or else..." The speaker also made me feel like I HAD to get tested for a gluten allergy, which apparently was the leading cause of Leaky Gut.
Lastly, I didn't get the value I was hoping to receive, which was to leave knowing a little bit more on how to combat autoimmune challenges naturally (as the name of the event implied). Yet if I paid for a discounted $275 package of consultations and tests that was originally worth $700, the practitioner could determine if Leaky Gut MIGHT be the root cause of my autoimmune challenges. This was where things came way out of alignment for me. My intention for going to the talk in the first place was to learn - not to be sold to. I wasn't in a place to readily pay out of pocket for these services, and I knew that most, if not all, insurances didn't cover Integrative Medicine/Functional Medicine services since they were not recognized as "real" medical practices. Regardless of whether the services offered by the Integrative Medicine Group truly helped people with their autoimmune challenges or not, it wasn't an immediate "yes" for me anyway. If it's not an immediate yes, then it's a definite no.
Part III: Where do I go from here?
I reached out to my primary care physician the next day to get her professional opinion about autoimmunity and what I could do to navigate through my challenges. I got more information from this email than I did in the 2 hour event! I learned that Leaky Gut is NOT a medical condition recognized by mainstream medicine, which clearly opposed what I had heard at the talk. As different as these schools of thoughts were though, I noted that the common denominator between the Integrative Medicine practitioner and my own primary care physician was that FOOD IS MEDICINE.
My primary care physician further explained that unknown food allergies can cause symptoms. Testing for gluten is possible, but it does not always explain symptoms. One way to find out what I'm allergic to without having to fork up beaucoup bucks for lab work was to do an elimination diet first. During an elimination diet I would avoid specific food groups like gluten, dairy, processed sugar, etc., then reintroduce foods and see how I feel.
The elimination diet is something I could do within my own means to determine what's fighting against disease rather than feeding it. Plus it allows me to deepen that mind-body connection. It will teach me how to recognize the signs my body was telling me when something was wrong.
Another thing I can do to combat autoimmune challenges naturally is get a handle on how I deal with stress. When you're chronically stressed, your sympathetic nervous system (fight vs flight response) is activated all the time. It's like putting your gas to the pedal and flooring it, because your body thinks it's in constant danger. So remembering to stay on top of my self-care routine via meditation, breathing, yoga, etc. can help prevent a trigger and consequent exacerbation of an autoimmune disease.
As I continue on this journey of understanding autoimmunity, I feel better now knowing that it's very possible to be in control of my challenges. I invite you to be diligent when it comes to researching about your health and be sure to keep asking the right questions!