Functional Medicine for Autoimmune Diseases

Learn how to reverse the symptoms from autoimmune diseases and heal your body with functional medicine.

The Immune System Recovery Plan

“The Immune System Recovery Plan” aims to identify and cure the cause of illness, personalize your treatment and help you to see immediate results.

Cover Courtesy Simon & Schuster

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The most prevalent form of chronic illness in this country, autoimmune diseases affect nearly 23.5 million Americans. This epidemic—a result of the toxins in our diet, our exposure to chemicals, heavy metals, antibiotics, and unprecedented stress levels—has caused millions of people to suffer from diseases like Graves' disease, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease, celiac disease, lupus, and more. In The Immune System Recovery Plan (Scribner, 2013), Susan Blum aims to help readers treat their own serious autoimmune diseases as she has with herself and countless patients with functional medicine. The following excerpt is pulled from the introduction.

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Getting Started:  A New Partnership

There’s a growing epidemic in our country. It doesn’t grab newspaper headlines or make the evening news, but it’s there and it is debilitating and potentially deadly. It is the epidemic of autoimmune disease. Autoimmune diseases are among the most prevalent forms of chronic illness in this country, now affecting an estimated 23.5 million Americans. More people suffer from this group of chronic illnesses than from cancer or heart disease, yet most people don’t even know what these conditions are. This lack of awareness is killing us—literally. It’s causing severe pain, disability, and even death. Worse yet, many people with autoimmune conditions suffer with their symptoms because conventional doctors either can’t figure out what’s wrong or can’t get to the root of the problem.

The answer is functional medicine, a medical specialty that has come of age in the past ten years and focuses on reversing these chronic conditions. Hope is here. You’re holding it in your hands.

Why a Book on Autoimmune Disease?

There are more than one hundred different autoimmune conditions, and they are all serious chronic diseases caused by an underlying problem in the immune system. This book is a call to alarm: these diseases are reversible and curable if caught early, before they progress and cause severe pain, disability, and even death. The first symptoms might be vague feelings of fatigue, muscle or joint pain, or a nagging feeling that something isn’t right. With simple blood tests, you can be diagnosed at this early stage, and then, by following the steps in this book, your immune system can be brought back into balance before irreversible damage is done to your brain, joints, thyroid, blood vessels, and other vital organs. If you have been suffering from an autoimmune condition for some time and you have already experienced some tissue damage, this book will help you feel better in general, show how you can actually reverse the effects of the disease, and help prevent your specific tissue damage from getting worse. As a doctor, I have long been aware of autoimmune conditions such as Graves’ disease, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, lupus, multiple sclerosis (MS), Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, psoriasis, alopecia areata, vitiligo, Sjögren’s syndrome, and scleroderma, among others. But when I was diagnosed with one of these illnesses, it changed both my personal and professional lives forever.

My Story

Before I go any further, let me introduce myself the way I would if you were one of the patients in my office. I’m Dr. Susan Blum, a board-certified physician in preventive medicine and an assistant clinical professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. I am also the founder of Blum Center for Health in Rye Brook, New York.

In medical school, I started down the road of traditional medicine. Then during my internal medicine residency, I quickly realized that I didn’t want to focus just on illness or disease; I wanted to focus on preventing those conditions in the first place. But back then preventive medicine consisted mostly of screening tests and public health programs. It wasn’t part of a doctor’s everyday practice. Physicians just weren’t given the tools in medical school to help their patients change their behavior, such as how to get people to eat healthfully or reduce stress. I knew I had to take a different route as a doctor, so I sought training from institutions that were considered “outside the box” at the time. In particular, I was interested in the relationship between stress, nutrition, and illness.

I moved off the beaten path of traditional medicine toward a more holistic approach and into an emerging field called functional medicine. First I completed a program at the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C., where I learned tools for stress management and methods to reverse the effects of stress on the body. Then, at the Institute for Functional Medicine, I learned how food affects these processes, either promoting health or causing diseases. When I started applying what I had learned about stress management and nutrition in my own practice, I saw firsthand how these methods helped people to prevent and actually reverse chronic diseases. These two ideas—prevention and reversal of chronic disease—became my passions and are at the core of my medical practice today. But there is one area where these techniques are truly life-changing: autoimmune diseases.

I know this not only because I have seen the benefits for my patients who suffer from autoimmune diseases but also because I saw the impact on myself when I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.

I discovered it more than a decade ago when a friend asked me why my hands were so yellow. I actually hadn’t noticed this before, but she was right, so I immediately had blood work done to find out why.

“You have hypothyroidism,” my doctor told me after the lab results came back. Me? A thyroid problem? I couldn’t believe it. Hypothyroidism is a condition in which the thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone. This hormone is necessary to help the body convert beta-carotene, a nutrient found in yellow and orange fruits and vegetables, into vitamin A. Because this conversion wasn’t happening, all the beta-carotene from my healthful diet wasn’t being properly processed. Instead, these nutrients were building up in my body, and one symptom of this was my yellow hands. In retrospect, I realized that this wasn’t the only one. Another was the fact that I had to work really hard to keep from gaining weight, and a third was that I was often very tired. But at the time I didn’t realize these were signs of a problem. They had been part of my life for so long that I considered them “normal.”

Further testing revealed even more bad news. I had an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. In other words, my immune system, which is normally the body’s defense in the daily battle against infection and invaders, was no longer protecting or defending me. In fact, my immune cells had turned against my thyroid, attacking it and damaging it to the point where it was struggling unsuccessfully to make enough thyroid hormone. I was shocked. I had become a vegetarian years earlier, I exercised regularly, I practiced yoga and meditation, and I had cultivated a strong, spiritual faith. I had faced my demons in psychotherapy and was finally content with my life. Because I was doing what I thought were all the right things already, being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease was shocking and frightening. I was also a medical doctor, so I just couldn’t believe that something was going on inside my body that I didn’t know about.

But my primary care physician just shrugged off this upsetting news. “It’s no big deal,” he said. “You’ll just take thyroid hormone replacement medication and be fine.” No big deal? Maybe not to him, but my intuition told me something wasn’t right. My body was out of balance, and I wanted answers. Why did I have this disease? And why now? To understand my illness, I decided to use it as an opportunity to explore all that traditional and nontraditional medicine had to offer me. I didn’t want to take a pill that would only mask the problem and just manage my symptoms. I wanted to know why those symptoms were there in the first place.

How Functional Medicine Helped Me

The journey that I began after my diagnosis of Hashimoto’s disease led me deeper into the unique and, at the time, relatively new field of functional medicine, an approach that considers the whole person, not just his or her symptoms. After receiving my diagnosis, I began using the principles I learned at the Institute for Functional Medicine to treat myself. As a result, I discovered that because of a genetic predisposition, I’m at high risk for autoimmune diseases. I also learned that my body has trouble removing mercury from my system. (Mercury is a toxin that’s damaging to tissue in our bodies and a potential cause of autoimmune diseases.) I went on a gluten-free diet and reduced my mercury exposure by no longer eating fish high in this heavy metal (such as tuna, swordfish, eel, and striped bass), and over the course of two years I had my many dental amalgam fillings removed. I began to drink protein shakes that reduce inflammation and enhance the function of the liver. (Since the liver is the body’s main detoxifying organ, this helps it clear mercury and other toxins from the body.) Two years after I learned I had Hashimoto’s and started the journey to treat my autoimmune disease using functional medicine, my antibody levels were normal and my disease was cured. I was taking a small amount of thyroid hormone (called levothyroxine), and I had great energy and my weight was easy to maintain. I was thrilled and excited to share what I had learned with my patients.

That was the first step. Because my thyroid was already damaged when I was first diagnosed, my next goal was healing my thyroid, which can take a variable amount of time for each person, depending on how long it has been under attack by the autoimmune disease. Since my thyroid gland was quite damaged from the Hashimoto’s, I still needed, and continue to need, thyroid hormone replacement. That said, I now take half the dose that I was taking ten years ago. Today I feel healthier and more energetic than I ever have. My health journey has taught me what my body needs, how to ask, and how to listen. Reversing a chronic disease takes time and effort, but it can be done. My story is proof of that. I did it for myself and made the professional decision to help other people living with autoimmune diseases do it, too.

Years ago I gave a lecture to an audience full of health care professionals at the Center for Mind-Body Medicine’s professional training program. During that lecture, I talked about the importance of using food as medicine and how simple things such as breathing and relaxation can work to help heal disease. I was stunned to find that these important, life-changing concepts were new to most of the two hundred people in the audience. And they were health care professionals! I couldn’t believe it. How could these doctors teach these things to their patients if they didn’t understand them and weren’t practicing them themselves? It was then that I realized it was time to get the word out more broadly than simply to my patients and the people who attended that lecture and other talks I continue to give.

How Functional Medicine Can Help You

In 2010, after several years of planning (and many more spent dreaming about such an opportunity), I opened Blum Center for Health in Rye Brook, New York, where the focus is on a comprehensive integration of functional medicine, mind-body medicine, and preventive medicine. It includes a cooking school to teach patients and clients how to eat for their health and a mind-body-spirit center that teaches an array of relaxation techniques not only to prevent chronic health conditions but also to reverse them. This, combined with the functional medicine treatment I offer as a medical doctor, has created extraordinary, life-changing results for my patients.

I’m not the only person who has been told to simply pop a few pills and move on. And I’m certainly not the only one who thought that there should be a better way. Today, in my functional medicine practice at Blum Center for Health, patients often share with me what their traditional medical doctors have said after diagnosing them with an autoimmune disease: “Get used to the painkillers. You’ll need them for the rest of your life,” “We don’t know why people get these diseases,” and “Your immune system can’t be treated.” These are just a few examples, but the recurring theme is generally one of hopelessness. The idea is that you should just accept your diagnosis and the inevitable lifelong battle with painkillers, drugs that suppress your immune system, and the side effects of both (some of which can be devastating and long-term). I simply refused to accept that there was nothing I could do for myself or the other 23.5 million Americans currently living with autoimmune diseases. But with the prevalence of autoimmune diseases on the rise, I know that there are many, many people living with these conditions who will never make it to my office. I wrote this book so I could offer this plan—an effective and healthy approach—to a broader audience.

Many traditional doctors have an attitude of “just give in to your illness,” which only leads you to feel utterly powerless. It also makes your disease worse because it undermines the body’s natural healing process. The mind-body connection is real and powerful. There are many studies that show that the more control a person feels he or she has over a situation, the higher the rate of healing. People do better, feel better, and live better with various health conditions if they have a sense that there is something they can do for themselves. And there is! That is one of the core principles of functional medicine, and as an expert in the field, I’m here to show you how much control you can have over your own health and well-being.

So what exactly is a functional medicine expert? First, let me tell you what it is not. Most traditional doctors take note of your symptoms and figure out what diagnosis they can bundle those symptoms into. This usually dictates your treatment. Therefore, if you and a friend have the same symptoms, you often get the same diagnosis and then the same treatment. This works for trauma and for health issues such as appendicitis or a broken leg, where certain things such as surgery can remedy an immediate problem or symptom. Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t work when you’re trying to treat and prevent complex, chronic illnesses such as autoimmune diseases.

A functional medicine expert is like a medical detective gathering all the clues of your past (where you grew up, your family situation, traumatic events, health history, etc.) and your present (potential toxins in your environment, social life, stress level, relationships, diet, workout regimen, sleep habits, symptoms, etc.). Armed with this information, a functional medicine expert tries to uncover how and why your body is not functioning well. This type of detective work is what I offer all of my patients at Blum Center for Health and what I used to cure myself of the serious autoimmune condition that I had. It is exactly what I will offer you with the interactive elements that run throughout this book.

Sidney Baker, M.D., a well-known preventive medicine specialist who is often called the father of functional medicine, once said, “If you are sitting on a tack, the answer is not to treat the pain. The solution is to find the tack and remove it.” The Immune System Recovery Plan will help you find the “tacks” that are causing your immune system to malfunction and remove them one by one. It will take you through the four critical steps that will remove things from the body that are bad for the immune system and then make sure the body has exactly what it needs to function properly.


Excerpted with permission from from The Immune System Recovery Plan by Susan Blum, M.D., M.P.H. Copyright © 2013 by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.