Autoimmune Disorders and Functional Medicine: The Key to Lasting Relief

Just 20 years ago autoimmune diseases were considered a rare medical condition. Cases are now skyrocketing, especially in the United States and more economically developed countries. Why is this?

If you’re reading this, you or a loved one most likely was recently diagnosed or has been struggling with autoimmune disorder symptoms, and you need answers. Why is this condition impacting you when you should instead be enjoying the prime years of your life?

Well, today I’m giving you hope on how you can overcome your autoimmune disorders and their life-sucking symptoms with the help of Functional Medicine. Once you understand how and why it manifests, you can begin to take the steps to address it at the root cause.

Let’s see the optimistic connection between the successful treatment of Autoimmune Disorders and Functional Medicine.

What is Autoimmunity?

You may be thinking, “what is autoimmunity, anyway?” Autoimmunity is when your body attacks its own healthy tissues.

Depending on which type of cells your body attacks will determine which type of autoimmune disease you have. For example, if your immune system is attacking your thyroid, you have Hashimoto’s. If your immune system is attacking your joints, you have rheumatoid arthritis.

The severity of autoimmune disorders also vary from person to person, making it challenging to get a diagnosis in the first place. You may find your autoimmune symptoms to be non-existent at the beginning, then they may turn to slightly annoying, to even debilitating, impacting your daily life.

While many believe autoimmune disorders occur from an overactive immune system, think of it more as a poorly regulated immune system. There is a dysfunction within your body, causing your immune system to make a mistake in what it views as an “enemy,” signaling it to attack self-antigens instead of threats.

Autoimmune Disease Symptoms

While this list isn’t limited, here are the more common autoimmune disease symptoms. Keep in mind that your symptoms will also depend on what organ your immune system is attacking.

  • Skin issues
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen glands
  • Low-grade fever
  • Anxiety/ depression
  • Digestive issues
  • Weight gain
  • Brain fog/ difficulty thinking
  • Achy joints and muscles
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Insomnia
  • Migraines

Types of Autoimmune Disease

Types of Autoimmune Disease

What Causes Autoimmune Disease?

So what causes autoimmune diseases to manifest? The answer isn’t so simple. Multiple factors could contribute to the manifestation of autoimmunity.


While things like genetics do play a role, other factors contribute to it as well. For example, even if your family passed down “Hashimoto genes,” it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have it too. Your environment and lifestyle can turn those specific genes “on” or “off”(known as epigenetics)

Environmental Triggers

Environmental triggers can also contribute to the manifestation of autoimmune disease. These include:

  • Mold exposure
  • Trauma (emotional or physical)
  • Chronic stress
  • Certain medications
  • Food sensitivities
  • Poor diet choices (processed food, excessive sugar, artificial ingredients, and preservatives)
  • Chemical exposure (through household products, pesticides, and beauty products)
  • Not getting enough quality sleep
  • Heavy metals
  • Undiagnosed infections (ie. Lyme disease)
  • Breast implants (and mold exposure from them)
  • Smoking/ drinking

Exposure to a combination of these can cause systemic inflammation and cause your immune response to become always on alert mode, eventually leading to immune system dysregulation.

Poor Gut Health

There is a close connection between poor gut health and autoimmune disease (more specifically, increased intestinal permeability and microbiota and the risk for autoimmune conditions).

What happens is that poor gut health, from a leaky gut or imbalanced gut microbiome can cause an inflammatory cascade that contributes to immune dysfunction. Harmful microbes can also travel to other parts of the body, triggering systemic inflammation and an autoimmune response.

If your body is dealing with a large toxin burden along with poor gut health, it’s an autoimmune disaster waiting to happen.

Treating Autoimmune Disease with Functional Medicine

The Functional Medicine approach towards autoimmune disorders consists of getting to the root cause of your condition.

By using functional lab testing, we will investigate what is occurring on a cellular level. This way, we can get a clear understanding of what is contributing to your immune system dysregulation.

By diving into your health history, symptoms, and lab results, it can help us create personalized protocols containing gut health and healing support, enhanced nutrient intake and absorption, or diet/ lifestyle changes.

Here are some of the main areas of focus for treating autoimmune disorders.

1. Address The Gut and Autoimmune Disorder Connection + Reduce Environmental Toxins

Healing the gut is one of the biggest steps you can take in managing your autoimmune condition symptoms. You might have heard the saying, “all disease stems from the gut,” well, autoimmune disease is no exception.

When you begin to heal your gut, you can also begin to reduce inflammation and calm your immune system. Healing your gut means that you are fixing your gut barrier so the big unwanted molecules can’t travel from the gut into your bloodstream anymore, reducing immune system chaos.

But now you might be wondering, “how do I heal my gut exactly?”

Depending on your lab results your protocol may look like this:
  • Taking a specific probiotic recommended by your provider
  • Eating more fermented foods
  • Ditching toxic household products and swapping them with non-toxic alternatives (hand soap, laundry detergent, shampoo, conditioner, air fresheners, candles)
  • Avoiding processed foods, especially with extra added sugar, artificial flavoring, and preservatives
  • Avoiding frequent use of antibiotics
  • Taking gut-supporting supplements and herbs
  • Reducing your stress by implementing stress management techniques (yoga, meditation, breathing exercises)

2. Address Nutrient Deficiencies

Some autoimmune diseases can manifest from not having adequate nutrients for processes to function. While your nutrient deficiencies could stem from not eating enough through your diet, nutrient deficiencies could also manifest from a reduced ability to absorb the nutrients you are ingesting.

To address nutrient deficiencies, your protocol may include increasing your intake of nutrient-rich foods, taking high-quality vitamins that are easily absorbed, and or may include healing the gut as well to help enhance absorption.

3. Avoid Food Sensitivities

Many people are unaware that food sensitivities (not to be confused with food allergies) can contribute to leaky gut, inflammation, annoying symptoms, and even chronic conditions (like autoimmune conditions).

You may be unaware of food sensitivities because symptoms can appear hours or even days after you ingest a certain type of food. Plus, certain types of foods or food additives could be contributing to your underlying inflammation without you even knowing.

This heightened inflammation from food sensitivities can contribute to worsened autoimmune disorder symptoms.

The best way to uncover if food sensitivities contribute to your autoimmune disorder is to get a high-quality food sensitivity test performed by a functional medicine provider.

You may have to avoid certain foods or food groups for three to six months to see if your lab results improve along with your symptoms. The most common food sensitivities are wheat-gluten, dairy, eggs, and sugar, but it’s not uncommon to have odd sensitivities to even “healthy” foods like kale, spinach, or apples! It’s best to test, not guess!

4. Heal Autoimmunity with Anti-inflammatory Diet

Anyone with an autoimmune disease needs to focus on consuming an anti-inflammatory diet. This is because autoimmune diseases consist of underlying inflammation. The most studied anti-inflammatory diet is the Mediterranean diet, however, focusing on eating organic whole nutrient-rich foods with an abundance of fiber, healthy fats, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory properties is highly recommended.

An anti-inflammatory diet consists of:

  • Berries
  • Turmeric
  • Nuts (walnuts, Brazil nuts, almonds)
  • Olive oil (not heated)
  • Vegetables
  • Dark leafy greens
  • Chia seeds/flax seeds
  • Salmon (or fatty fish)

Address your Autoimmune Disease with an Arizona Functional Medicine Doctor, Cheri Dersam, MD

Do you want to experience lasting relief from your autoimmune disorder? Book a consultation with Dr. Dersam today. Please know there are answers even if you’ve been told you’d have to live with these autoimmune symptoms forever. Let’s get to the root cause of your autoimmune disorder together.

Dr. Cheri Dersam

Dr. Dersam is board certified in both Integrative and Emergency Medicine and fellowship trained in Functional Medicine. Dr. Dersam focuses on a personalized approach that empowers each patient to achieve optimal health in mind, body and spirit.

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