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Living a fulfilled life with autoimmune disease

Written by Casey Hersch, MSW, LCSW
February 24, 2019
Davis Enterprise

It was my acknowledgement of my UNIQUENESS that helped me begin to heal.

I will never forget the day my physician told me I had an autoimmune disease --Crohn's disease. Overcome with fear, I wondered how I could live with an "incurable" condition. But now I realize after many decades later, that it is possible to live a fulfilled life with autoimmune disease(s). There are key ingredients to taking ownership of autoimmune disease: It involves an integration of many aspects of healing--there is no one-size-fits all solution for each of us. 

Johns Hopkins Medicine Autoimmune Disease Research Center describes how the body is equipped with a set of "tools" to protect itself from invaders. Sometimes, in the case of autoimmunity, these tools go awry and attack the body which results in inflammation. The National Institutes of Health estimates there are at least 80 diseases caused by an autoimmune response, impacting 23.5 million Americans. Autoimmune disease has been found in every organ system of the body and includes type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease, multiple sclerosis, and fibromyalgia to name a few.

According to University of Virginia rheumatologist, Angela Crowley, MD, autoimmune disease can "mimic" many other diseases, and common symptoms are shared among autoimmune conditions. This makes obtaining a diagnosis difficult. For decades, physicians from many specialties examined me with no explanations for my common symptom--abdominal pain; I was prescribed hundreds of antibiotics resulting in devastating side effects. Not only did I become more sick, but I felt hopeless.

Dr. Crowley says, when treating autoimmune disease, "Everyone is different." It was my acknowledgement of my UNIQUENESS that helped me begin to heal. During a life-threatening phase, I was introduced to holistic healing and I began to understand that every part of my mind-body-spirit influenced one another. No wonder I wasn't getting better--traditional medical models were trying to fit "me" into a mold that wasn't mine. Until then, I approached my physical symptoms as separate from my lifestyle and emotions. My new focus became how to help all of me--physical and emotional-- work together.

My new focus was a result of my fragmented treatment plan. I needed a physician to help me explore the unique needs of my whole body. Physicians specializing in functional medicine focus on the body as a whole system; this contrasts with conventional medical treatments which focus on one organ or symptom at a time. Amy Myers, M.D., renowned leader in functional medicine and author of The Autoimmune Solution, describes how functional medicine supports and strengthens the immune system "by getting to the root of why the immune system went rogue in the first place." Getting to the "root" of the body's imbalances includes prioritizing the role of the gut. "The gut is the gateway to health, says Dr Myers, it houses 80% of your immune system, and you can’t have a healthy immune system without a healthy gut."

Stanford Medicine investigates the gut microbiome-immune connection at its Center for Human Microbiome Studies. Justin Sonnenburg, Phd., Associate professor of Microbiology and Immunology and co-director of the Center for Human Microbiome Studies, acknowledges that the gut microbiome is intricately intertwined with the immune system. Stanford Medicine's Center for Human Microbiome Studies claims, "It is both the profound connection between the microbiome and the immune system and the malleability of the microbiome that makes it a prime target for regulating inflammation, the core characteristic of the immune system that drives many Western diseases." In The Good Gut (2015), Drs. Justin and Erica Sonnenburg, recommend diet and lifestyle choices to positively influence the gut microbiome.

empowerThis is the basis for my healing: Focusing on my diet in order to have a positive influence on my health. When first diagnosed with autoimmunity, I eliminated gluten, refined sugar, dairy, artificial ingredients, and began a program of nutritional supplements. As I listened to my body and observed my responses, I was able to further customize a diet that was unique to my body's needs. My confidence increased as I saw my changes positively impacting my symptoms. But there was more to do...

I thought I had a healthy lifestyle--but did I? I had a lot of stress. My perceptions of stress were programmed from years of childhood trauma and well into my adult years, this stress compounded and compromised my immune system. Inflammation, a common denominator among autoimmune diseases is increased by stress. Emeran Mayer, MD, UCLA's executive director of the Oppenheimer Center for Stress and resilience, and codirector of the Digestive Disease Research Center, states "The brain is tied to the gut like no other organ...the gut is in fact a theater in which the drama of emotions play out...your gut mirrors every emotion that arises in your brain." I had to take an honest look at my life and the ways my history, lifestyle, and emotions contributed to inflammation in my body.

As I changed my diet and lifestyle, I began to build my life around supportive physicians and healers who invited my input and empowered me as an expert in my own body--after all, I live with it every day. No aspects of my mind-body-spirit were ignored. Living with autoimmune disease required a balance of physical and emotional interventions but also prioritizing my passion--in my case ballroom dance. Even learning to love myself and find joy was essential.

Today, I am pleased to say that I have found a balance between traditional medicine and holistic and alternative medicine--and I give myself permission to say "no" to recommendations that are not consistent with what I know to be true about my body. When people ask me how I manage to devote so much to my health, the answer is simple: There is no price for my life, and I have hope knowing there are many solutions to healing, some new, and some that were in my life all along.

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Written by Casey Hersch, MSW, LCSW
February 24, 2019
Davis Enterprise