An autoimmune disease is when the immune system attacks its own healthy cells. There are more than 80 known types of autoimmune diseases, and they affect approximately 5% of the world’s population [1, 2].
Autoimmune diseases are often difficult to diagnose by a general care physician because symptoms can overlap with multiple conditions. For suspected autoimmune disorder, you’ll want to find an autoimmune specialist with expertise in functional medicine. They can try to find the root cause of your symptoms and develop an effective, holistic treatment plan.
In this article, we’ll explain what an autoimmune specialist is, how they diagnose and treat chronic autoimmune diseases, and the steps you can take to find the right specialist for you.
What Is an Autoimmune Specialist?
An autoimmune specialist is a physician who employs a functional approach to chronic conditions. They believe in treating the whole individual rather than the symptoms, as is the case with many practitioners of traditional medicine.
An autoimmune specialist will develop a treatment plan that includes dietary and lifestyle changes, targeted supplements, and, if needed ,health coaching.
In traditional medicine, patients of autoimmune disease are sent to specialists who solely focus on the area where the disease is settled:
- Gastroenterologists specialize in autoimmune disorders of the digestive tract such as ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, and celiac disease.
- Rheumatologists specialize in joint, bone, and connective tissue diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus), Raynaud’s disease, and scleroderma.
- Endocrinologists specialize in disorders of the endocrine system such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (underactive thyroid) and Graves’ disease (overactive thyroid).
- Nephrologists specialize in autoimmune disorders of the kidneys such as type 1 diabetes (juvenile diabetes), lupus nephritis, and Goodpasture syndrome.
- Neurologists specialize in autoimmune disorders that affect the nerves such as multiple sclerosis (MS) and Sjögren’s syndrome.
- Dermatologists specialize in autoimmune conditions related to the skin, hair, and nails such as psoriasis, dermatomyositis, cutaneous lupus, and scleroderma.
Unlike traditional specialists, autoimmune specialists focus on treating the whole individual. Their focus is on addressing the underlying conditions that drive the autoimmune process, rather than simply treat. An autoimmune specialist can help with an array of autoimmune conditions.
Considering that 25% of autoimmune patients are prone to developing multiple autoimmune diseases, seeing an autoimmune specialist helps eliminate the stress of having to visit numerous health care providers .
When Should You See an Autoimmune Specialist?
Autoimmune diseases share a wide range of symptoms, which can make them difficult to diagnose.
If you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms regularly and often over an extended period, consider being tested for an autoimmune disorder. Note that this is not an all-inclusive list, as every condition has its own set of symptoms:
- Joint pain and swelling
- Gas and bloating
- Swollen glands
- Weight loss or weight gain
- Muscle weakness
- Skin rash
You should also take into consideration the risk factors associated with most autoimmune disorders:
- Family history can increase your chances of developing certain autoimmune diseases, also known as familial autoimmunity [4, 5].
- Women make up 78% of autoimmune patients due to their genetic makeup — X chromosomes, of which women have two, increase the risk of autoimmunity [6, 7].
- Environmental factors such as toxic chemicals, poor diet, gut dysbiosis, and infections can also increase your risk of autoimmunity [8, 9].
How Autoimmune Specialists Diagnose Autoimmune Disease
Upon conducting a wellness exam and receiving a copy of your medical history from your primary care physician, an autoimmune specialist will then run a series of laboratory tests.
Autoimmune Blood Tests
Serologic tests can be used to find signs of an autoimmune disorder. Blood samples are usually the first thing autoimmune specialists check.
Autoantibody blood tests detect the presence of antibodies in the blood and are used to help rule out an infection or other diseases.
A couple of common autoantibody tests include the antinuclear antibody test (ANA test) and the rheumatoid factor test (RF test). They’re used to detect autoimmune conditions such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, and Sjögren syndrome.
Depending on your symptoms, an autoimmune specialist may run a blood test that looks for common inflammation markers such as C-reactive protein (CRP) and erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR).
Elevated levels of these makers often indicate certain autoimmune diseases including inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatic diseases, and lupus.
If your symptoms are associated with your thyroid, a thyroid peroxidase test (TPO test) will detect if you have autoimmune thyroid disease.
This test looks for traces of TPO antibodies in your blood, which usually indicate the presence of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis or Grave’s disease.
Other Ways To Test for Autoimmune Disease
Autoimmune blood tests may be prone to false-negative and false-positive results, especially since otherwise healthy people may show positive ANA or other antibodies associated with autoimmune disease. Therefore, autoimmune specialists can run additional tests for a more comprehensive look at the probable cause .
Autoimmunity can be rooted in poor gut health such as a bacterial imbalance and leaky gut. A -functional medicine stool test measures gastrointestinal microbiota in a stool sample.
A stool test will indicate specific organisms that may be associated with autoimmune disorders. For example, an overgrowth of E. gallinarum is associated with lupus and other autoimmune diseases. It can lead to inflammation and antibody production once it enters the bloodstream due to a weak gut barrier .
How Autoimmune Specialists Treat Autoimmune Disease
Once an autoimmune condition has been identified through test results, an autoimmune specialist will create an individualized plan that will focus on treating the whole person rather than the symptoms.
This is usually the first and easiest step towards stabilizing the symptoms of autoimmune disease. Along with a health coach, an autoimmune specialist will create a diet plan that will help to manage the dysbiosis and inflammation that are so often at the root of autoimmune disease..
If your diet currently includes a lot of carbs, sugars and processed foods, the first step may be to create a diet plan that includes more healthy, whole foods.
For other, an elimination diet can help you to identify and remove foods that trigger flare ups. Elimination diets that may help you manage the symptoms of autoimmune disease include:
- Autoimmune protocol diet (AIP diet)
- Low-FODMAP diet
- Paleo diet
These diets are not meant to be followed long-term, as they may deprive you of other key nutrients. Once symptoms plateau, you can start slowly reintroducing eliminated foods into your diet, working to identify those foods that are problematic for you.
However, Celiac patients will have to adhere to a gluten-free diet for the rest of their lives to avoid the protein that contributes to their flare-ups.
An autoimmune specialist might recommend high-quality probiotic supplements since probiotic-rich foods alone aren’t enough to restore unbalanced gut bacteria.
Research shows that probiotics are effective against the following gut conditions that contribute to inflammation and other autoimmune symptoms:
- SIBO [15, 16, 17]
- H. Pylori, fungus, protozoa, and parasitic infections [18, 19, 20, 21]
- Leaky gut [22, 23, 24, 25]
In addition to probiotics, an autoimmune specialist may also suggest nutrient supplements to help reduce inflammation and other symptoms. This will likely go hand-in-hand with following an elimination diet, as it can cause you to miss out on key nutrients.
Research suggests that the following nutrient supplements may aid in reducing inflammation and some autoimmune symptoms:
Changing your diet and taking daily supplements is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to effective treatment for autoimmune diseases.
An autoimmune specialist will work with you in creating a healthier lifestyle that includes the right diet, proper exercise, quality sleep, and self-care. Environmental factors play a significant role in symptom flare-ups. The healthier your lifestyle, the more manageable your condition will be.
Autoimmune Patients: Start Feeling Better Today
Autoimmune diseases can’t be “cured” with a prescription or surgery.. However, that’s no reason to despair. Like many chronic conditions, autoimmune disease can be managed if properly diagnosed and treated by an autoimmune specialist. Some patients experience complete remission of their symptoms.
Our professionals treat your body as a whole system and work to get to the root cause of your symptoms.The team at Austin Functional Medicine is very experienced in treating autoimmune patients, especially those with Hashimoto’s disease, Graves’ disease, and Celiac disease. Whether you feel you have an undiagnosed autoimmune disorder or want to know how to lead a healthier life with an existing diagnosis, book an appointment with Austin FM today.