Why Autoimmunity Is Keeping You Sick And How To Reverse It

This article originally appeared on Healevate.

Do you feel fatigued even after you get a full night of sleep? Do you have achy muscles and joints, brain fog, an inability to concentrate, or insomnia? Do you get rashes, eczema, hives, or skin irritation? Do you have a hard time tolerating cold or heat? Do you get diarrhea, bloating, constipation, or stomach pain?

If you answered “yes” to several of these, there’s a good chance you have an autoimmune condition. Many people suffer for years with a vague set of symptoms that look like many other conditions but can’t be clearly defined or put in a box. Today we know this previous gray area actually defines the symptoms that precede or are involved in the process of autoimmunity.

This inflammation-based condition is a hot topic receiving lots of press right now in the health world, especially in holistic functional medicine and natural medicine spaces. This is partially because some AI conditions are now easier to diagnose, but much is due to the fact that we now understand the role of the gut and root causes as mediators of autoimmunity, not just a breakdown of immune function. This is a message practitioners, patients, and researchers want to get out, as autoimmune diseases are so prevalent—they affect at least 50 million Americans.1

Until recently, it was standard thinking that AI couldn’t be reversed, but now we know differently. Identifying the root causes and reversing intestinal hyperpermeability (leaky gut) are at the core of reversing the autoimmune process in the body. Doing this, combined with some diet and lifestyle changes, could have you healing and feeling like an elevated version of yourself.

What Exactly is Autoimmunity?

Autoimmunity, at its core, occurs when the immune system attacks healthy tissues that it’s mistaken as a foreign invader.

Previously, science believed that it was purely immune dysfunction or an overactive immune system that caused autoimmune conditions. Knowledge has advanced now, and we know that there are lifestyle triggers that lie at the heart of immune system dysfunction. These triggers, combined with genetics and epigenetics (the environmental influence turning genes on or off) are what regulate the AI process.

There are more than 90 diagnosable autoimmune conditions today.2,6 Some of the more common conditions are ankylosing spondylitis, Addison’s disease, Celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, Graves’ disease, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Lupus (systemic lupus erythematosus or SLE), myasthenia gravis, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjogren’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and Type I diabetes, as well as allergies, asthma, dermatitis, and eczema.

This is only a short list of the conditions that have been described and categorized. In reality, you can have an autoimmune assault on any tissue in your body, and that process may not yet be defined, which can make diagnosis frustrating for you.

Even though there are many different types of AI conditions that are on a vast spectrum, they share one thing in common—that they’re all inflammatory in nature.

Chronic systemic inflammation sets the stage for an upregulated immune system that causes the body to attack itself.

The good news is that getting to the bottom of the root causes and making lifestyle changes can have a profound impact on the course of the autoimmune process, meaning that an AI disease doesn’t necessarily have to be defined to start reversing the process and healing.

How Does Autoimmunity Occur?

Dr. Amy Myers, MD, explains, “Autoimmune diseases are born when your body is working hard to defend itself against something potentially dangerous, such as an allergen, a toxin, an infection, or even a food, and it fails to differentiate between the intruder and parts of your own body. Mistaking certain types of tissues for harmful substances, your body turns these antibodies against itself, wreaking havoc on your organs.”1

The origin of autoimmune conditions is multifactorial and additive, in that it takes a genetically predisposed person in the right environmental circumstances with a leaky gut to develop an improper immune response. Family history accounts for one-third of the risk for developing an AI condition, as certain genes have been identified that directly affect the immune system and play a role in its hyperreactivity.14

Dr. Alessio Fasano, MD, the director of the Center for Celiac Research & Treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children, has spent decades researching autoimmunity and how the immune system malfunctions, which led him to deduce that every autoimmune disease has three basic ingredients: a genetic predisposition, an environmental trigger, and a leaky gut.8,14

He explains that identifying the first two components was easy, since science has long known that AI conditions tend to run in families and that they can be triggered by infections, but the leaky gut component wasn’t identified until 2000, when he and his research team isolated the protein responsible for regulating gut barrier function, zonulin.14

Leaky gut, or increased intestinal permeability, arises when gut barrier function is compromised, allowing large particles that don’t normally enter the bloodstream to pass through. These particles are then triggers, causing the immune system to respond.

The environmental triggers are food sensitivities, allergens, toxins, and stress, which turn on the genes that initiate the AI process. This also generates chronic inflammation that perpetuates leaky gut and immune system activation.

Once the environmental triggers have entered the bloodstream, the immune system becomes primed and ready to defend, launching a biochemical war.

This war creates inflammation that activates certain genes, sustaining the immune response and allowing it to continue. As the war rages on and the immune system is on high alert, some confusion may arise, and the body may begin to attack itself.

One of the mechanisms believed to fool the immune system into thinking your body’s cells are pathogens is molecular mimicry. Molecular mimicry arises because there are specific protein sequences, or antigens, on the surface of certain microbial cells or foods that are similar to certain body cells such as the thyroid, intestinal cells, or nerves, essentially tricking the immune system. It loses its ability to clearly discern between self and non-self.

According to the ‘Thyroid Pharmacist’ Dr. Izabella Wentz, “This inadvertently causes a cross-reaction with our ‘self’ antigens, i.e., our own cells. This case of mistaken identity is thought to trigger the start of autoimmunity.”4

Similarly, another mechanism of autoimmunity occurs when toxins alter DNA and cause gene mutations. These mutations change the structure of tissues, causing the immune system to identify them as foreign and producing an assault on your body.

Triggers of Autoimmunity

The triggers that produce autoimmunity often occur together with the immune system responding to multiple ‘insults’ at the same time, since chronic inflammation mediates this process. Identifying the triggers and eliminating them is the key to reversing inflammation, calming the immune system, and shutting down the AI process. Common triggers of autoimmunity are:

  • Leaky gut
  • Dysbiosis and infection
  • Food sensitivity
  • Toxins
  • Stress

Trigger of Autoimmunity: Leaky Gut

Intestinal hyperpermeability, or leaky gut, starts when a trigger such as toxins, dysbiosis, stress, or food sensitivity creates inflammation, causing a dysfunction in zonulin, which regulates gut barrier function.

Fasano states, “Zonulin works like the traffic cop of our bodies’ tissues. It opens the spaces between cells, allowing some substances to pass through while keeping harmful substances out.” 6,8

Intestinal hyperpermeability occurs when there’s a breakdown in the function of zonulin, allowing larger particles such as bacteria, toxins, and partially-digested food particles through the intestinal walls to the bloodstream, where the immune system generates a reaction to clear them out. In genetically-susceptible individuals, these substances can eventually elicit an exaggerated or erroneous response, and the body can begin to assault its own tissue.

Leaky gut provides an easy access gateway to the immune system, when normally these particles would be kept out of the bloodstream. Under normal circumstances, when you encounter a typical foreign invader, such as a virus, bacteria, parasite, fungus (mold and yeast), or toxin, your immune system should answer by generating a response to anything it perceives to be a threat to your survival. In the case of autoimmunity, these large particles that have entered the bloodstream through a leaky gut cause an immune response that produces antibodies to the particles themselves and to the tissues of your body.

The causes of leaky gut must be eliminated and intestinal barrier function properly restored in order to reverse autoimmunity.

Trigger of Autoimmunity: Dysbiosis and Infection

Dysbiosis is the product of an imbalance between the beneficial and harmful organisms in your body, especially the gut. Healthy individuals have lots of the good guys within the GI tract that assist with digesting food, producing nutrients, and protecting from harmful organisms and inflammation.

When there’s a general imbalance between the good and bad flora, or when there’s an infection present, such as SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth), Candida (yeast), parasites, or mold, dysbiosis will arise. This imbalance allows for leaky gut to occur, since chronic inflammation develops as a byproduct, and it contributes to the deterioration of the intestinal barrier.

Native (commensal) and infectious organisms, like large particles leaked from the gut, can also trigger autoimmunity through molecular mimicry. Your body mounts an immune response, which is great when it zeroes in on a cold virus that shouldn’t be there, but it’s a problem when it mistakenly assaults your thyroid while it’s attacking H. pylori.4

There are many organisms implicated in the molecular mimicry process of autoimmunity, such as H. pylori (causes stomach ulcers and GI infections), Yersinia enterocolitica (causes GI infections), and Borrelia burgdorferi (causes Lyme disease), which may trigger Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.4

When the immune system sees Klebsiella pneumoniae, Shigella, Chlamydia trachomatis, and several other gram-negative bacteria, it ‘recognizes’ the self protein HLA B27 and attacks, inducing spondyloarthropathies, which are inflammatory conditions that include ankylosing spondylitis, psoriatic arthritis, and reactive arthritis (Reiter’s Syndrome).5 Viruses can also be triggers, as with multiple sclerosis and lupus, as well as the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV).5

Many other AI conditions can have a molecular mimicry component as well.

If you have an AI condition, it’s worth investigating to see if you have dysbiosis or an infection that may be perpetuating the process.

Trigger of Autoimmunity: Food Sensitivities

Food sensitivities are very common in those with autoimmunity. The usual suspects are gluten, dairy, eggs, nuts, soy, and corn, although you can have a reaction to any food you eat, especially those you consume frequently. Lectins, which are proteins found in legumes and grains, also activate the immune system and are implicated in autoimmunity.

These sensitivities generally arise when the partially-digested food particles enter the bloodstream through a leaky gut. Additionally, under the right circumstances, a cross-reactive process may ensue as well.

In another case of mistaken identity, foods produce a cross-reactive response through the same antigen-antibody-mediated process that the microorganisms produce.

According to PhD scientist Sarah Ballantyne, aka The Paleo Mom, “For those 20% of us with Celiac disease or gluten-intolerance/sensitivity (whether diagnosed or not), it’s critical to understand the concept of gluten cross-reactivity. Essentially, when your body creates antibodies against gluten, those same antibodies also recognize proteins in other foods. When you eat those foods, even though they don’t contain gluten, your body reacts as though they do. You can do a fantastic job of remaining completely gluten-free but still suffer all of the symptoms of gluten consumption—because your body still thinks you’re eating gluten.”7

Gluten is one of the most sensitizing substances we consume, and eating the cross-reactive foods can be just as bad, since they elicit the same response. Common cross-reactive foods are rye, barley, spelt, Polish wheat, oats, buckwheat, millet, sorghum, amaranth, quinoa, corn, rice, potato, hemp, soy, teff, milk, chocolate, yeast, coffee, sesame, tapioca, and eggs.7

When you have an autoimmune condition, you’re best served by eliminating gluten completely and any cross-reactives that are triggers for you. There’s no middle ground here—it’s all or nothing, because even one little bite will provoke a potentially hazardous flare-up.

Trigger of Autoimmunity: Toxins

When it comes to autoimmunity, you need to be concerned with the toxins inside and outside the body.

Toxins are all around us in the air, water, soil, and our food supply. We’re exposed to astounding amounts of pollution. Over 80,000 chemicals have been introduced into our society since 1900, and only 550 have been tested for safety.9

Dr. Donna Nakazawa, MD and author of The Autoimmune Epidemic, calls these environmental toxins “autogens,” since they create a reaction against the self.9

The toxins we take in can alter our DNA, producing gene mutations that change tissues. The immune system can attack these tissues since they’re not identical to your healthy tissues. Furthermore, the toxins can alter gene expression by turning on genes that promote inflammation, which can then produce autoimmunity and leaky gut. These are some of the more common toxins:

Heavy metals: Mercury, lead, cadmium, bismuth, arsenic, tin, and aluminum

Plastics: BPA, BPS, BPF, and phthalates

Food: Pesticides, herbicides, BT toxin (from GMOs), preservatives, additives, colorings, Teflon (non-stick cookware), and aflatoxins on peanuts and grains

Environmental chemicals: Chlorine, fluoride, bromine, xylene, dioxin, toluene, and PCBs

The organisms that normally reside within us, as well as the pathogenic invaders, can also produce toxins. Mold produces mycotoxins. Bacteria have two toxic mechanisms—the excretion of toxins called exotoxins and the endotoxins on the cell membrane of gram-negative bacteria. These toxins activate the immune system and produce inflammation.

Trigger of Autoimmunity: Stress

Chronic stress has many negative impacts on health, especially with regard to autoimmunity.

Chronic stress produces constant activation of the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and increases levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Over time, constant cortisol elevation leads to cortisol resistance, where the body has to produce more and more to achieve the same response. When this happens for prolonged periods of time, cortisol levels become chronically low, and adrenal fatigue develops. Cortisol is the primary anti-inflammatory hormone in your body, and when levels are chronically low, low-grade inflammation rages, paving the way for autoimmunity.

Additionally, chronic stress alters immune function over time, causing some aspects to be amplified and others to be diminished, producing dysregulation.

A 2009 study on autoimmunity revealed that “most interestingly, the release of endogenous glucocorticoids [cortisol] is critical in regulating the severity of disease activity in patients with inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Blocking of cortisol production results in a flare-up in disease activity in RA patients, while surgical removal of the adrenals in patients with Cushing’s disease has been reported to exacerbate autoimmune disease.” This clearly illustrates cortisol’s critical role in immune function and inflammation.10

Chronic stress produces physiological changes such as decreased blood flow, oxygenation, motility, enzyme output, and nutrient absorption that directly impact the intestinal flora and gut function.11 Since 70-80% of the immune system is within the gut, this means decreased gut and immune function, which can impact autoimmunity. Further, stress diminishes immunity by depleting the antibody secretory IgA (sIgA) as well as essential hormones, and it promotes inflammation, which can all result in a leaky gut.12

Symptoms of Autoimmunity

Autoimmune conditions are characterized by a myriad of symptoms that can be vague and varied, waxing and waning, making diagnosis difficult. Inflammation, being central in the AI process, is the root of many of these symptoms.

Immune: Allergies, asthma, chronic or recurrent infections that won’t resolve, or yeast infections

Skin/hair/nails: Dermatitis, eczema, acne, rashes, scaly skin patches, hives, photosensitivity (sun sensitivity), hair loss, nail pitting, or dry eyes, skin, and mouth

Gastrointestinal: Food sensitivities, food allergies, stomach pain, GERD (acid reflux), IBS, gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, or gastroparesis (delayed stomach emptying)

Brain and mood: Headaches, brain fog, inability to focus or concentrate, double vision, blurred vision, poor memory, depression, anxiety, irritability, fatigue, lethargy, dementia, or insomnia

Nerves: Tingling, pins and needles, numbness, or paresthesia

Hormones: Poor blood sugar regulation (high or low blood sugar), weight gain or loss, cold intolerance, imbalanced female and male hormone systems, poor sleep quality, thyroid imbalances, adrenal imbalances, or multiple miscarriages

Cardiovascular: Palpitations, hypertension (high blood pressure), high cholesterol, anemia, or blood clots

Musculoskeletal: Joint and muscle pain, muscle weakness, or fibromyalgia

Liver: Poor detoxification, elevated liver enzymes, or chemical sensitivity

Lab Testing for Autoimmunity

Lab testing for autoimmunity can be exhausting and broad, since there are so many options. It’s best to start with the basics first and consider general blood tests.

General AI Tests:

ANA (anti-nuclear antibody)
ESR (erythrocyte sedimentation rate)
CBC (complete blood count)
CRP (C-reactive protein)
APA (antiphospholipid antibodies)
RF (rheumatoid factor)

GI Infections:

Stool analysis (general)
CDSA (comprehensive digestive stool analysis—looks at organisms, inflammation, and leaky gut)

Food Sensitivities/Allergies:

IgE test for allergies
IgG or IgA test for sensitivities/intolerance
Mediator release testing

Once you’ve pursued these avenues, testing for specific conditions may be in order, such as TPA (thyroperoxidase antibody) and TGA (thyroglobulin antibody) for Hashimoto’s. Cyrex labs has several tests specifically designed for autoimmunity, food intolerances, and intestinal permeability. The Array 5: Multiple Autoimmune Reactivity Screen tests twenty-four different tissues for AI activity.13

Treatment of Autoimmunity

Treating autoimmunity can be easier than you think. Many people get some level of resolution with lifestyle changes and even further resolution when specific lab testing uncovers hidden infections, toxicity, or low cortisol levels that can be treated.

The easiest way to work your way through treatment is to take a systematic approach so you can more easily see what’s working and what isn’t.

Diet: This is the best place to start, since you’ll need some time to identify which foods you should be avoiding; making permanent dietary changes can yield massive benefits when it comes to autoimmunity.

The first step is to begin a 30-day elimination diet. You can make this basic and eliminate the usual suspects that trigger reactions like gluten, dairy, corn, soy, and nuts, but you’d be better off eliminating known AI triggers as well. These include seeds, eggs, legumes and grains (because of the lectins), and nightshades (all varieties of peppers, potatoes, eggplants, etc). You may even choose to stop eating gluten cross-reactive foods as well if you know you have issues with gluten. After 30 days, you can begin the re-introduction phase to see if you have any reaction to each food.

If you want to jump right into a diet change, Paleo can be a good place to start, since it naturally eliminates many of the AI triggers. The first study ever completed on autoimmunity and the Paleo diet was published in 2014 by Dr. Terry Wahls, MD and author of The Wahls Protocol. Although it was a small study, it illustrated the beneficial effects of adopting a Paleo diet in relation to AI disease—especially a reduction in fatigue.3,15

The Autoimmune Paleo diet takes it one step further and eliminates all food triggers of AI. Dr. Ballantyne has the Paleo Approach, and Dr. Datis Kharrazian both have versions of this that are great resources. Dr. Kharrazian’s AI diet focuses on gut healing and is a simple version that includes many meats, vegetables, fermented foods, coconut, certain herbs and spices, low glycemic fruit, and some condiments.16

With all of the diet information out there, knowing what to eat can be very confusing, but with some work you can do it. As with any diet, you need to tailor it to your own specific biochemical needs. This means that some of the foods on the “avoid” list might be okay for you, and some acceptable foods may not be.

You need to figure this out to optimize your diet and health. Find your “you” diet.

Nutrients and Supplements: There are so many different nutrients necessary for treating autoimmunity and inflammation. The following are some examples of anti-inflammatory and gut-healing nutrients you can start with:

Magnesium, vitamin D, and EPA/DHA (omega-3 fatty acids) are recommended by Sarah Ballantyne for their important anti-inflammatory and immune-modulating effects.3,17

Vitamins C and E, zinc, and selenium function as antioxidants and protect against oxidative stress.17

Glutathione is a critical nutrient, as it’s the master antioxidant in the body, and there’s a significant breakdown with its function in AI. Taking supplemental glutathione (or its precursor, NAC (n-acetyl cysteine)) with alpha lipoic acid (ALA) and glutamine will help recycle glutathione efficiently. ALA also functions as an antioxidant and supports healthy mitochondrial function. Glutamine is an essential nutrient for intestinal cells and helps repair leaky gut (along with glutathione).18

Probiotics (“good bacteria”) increase the levels of healthy bacteria in your gut, which reduces inflammation and combats leaky gut.17

Digestive enzymes and betaine HCL are often necessary, since nutrient malabsorption plays a role in leaky gut and AI.17

Clean up your life: Eat organic foods, avoid GMOs, and choose more natural cleaning and personal care products to reduce the toxic burden on your body.

Reduce your stress levels: Stress is one of the main contributors to inflammation and poor immune function. Identify and manage your stressors. Reduce stress by creating boundaries, honoring your feelings, and organizing your life.

Relax: Take time-outs during the day to unplug and rest. Schedule downtime to give your body a rest by journaling, yoga, or meditation. Do what speaks to you.

Get into nature: Nature has significant healing benefits, so try to get out and enjoy it at least once per week.

Sleep: Getting adequate sleep is essential to healing. Avoid blue light stimulation from TVs, phones, and tablets for at least 2 hours before bed. Aim for a minimum of 8 to 9 hours per night, and try to get to bed by 10 PM. Sleep in a dark, cool, and quiet room for the most restful results.

Exercise: Moving your body is important to maintaining health and the healing process, but know your limits. Pushing too hard or too fast can delay your recovery. Give yourself adequate rest time, and only do what your body is telling you it can handle. In general, long-duration endurance exercises deplete cortisol and promote inflammation, so it may be best to avoid this and opt for walking, hiking, yoga, pilates, or weight lifting.

Empower yourself: Knowledge is power, so educating yourself on your condition makes you your best advocate. This knowledge will equip you with the best opportunity to manage your AI condition to give you the best quality of life.

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How Gut Dysbiosis is Making You Sick

Article originally published on Healevate.

Bacteria and your microbiome are an integral part of who you are—think of yourself as a bacterial hotel.

In fact, the bacteria living in and on your body outnumber your body cells by 10 times!

While there are 10 trillion cells in your body, there are 100 trillion bacteria that comprise an estimated 400-1,000 different species that coexist within you.2

The vast majority of them reside within your GI tract, weighing in at about 3-4 pounds.2,3,6

These bacteria have coexisted with us for millennia and are beneficial, helping us thrive by assisting in digesting and absorbing foods, producing vitamins and short-chain fatty acids, killing potential pathogens, maintaining a healthy weight, and supporting detoxification, inflammatory, immune, and hormone functions.6

The good bacteria and even a small amount of yeast are vital to your survival. Studies show that people with poor bacterial colonization after c-section birth and/or lack of breastfeeding have more health problems.3

While most of these organisms are helpful and essential, some are harmful and cause significant damage to the delicate balance of the ecosystem that exists in your gut.

What Exactly is Dysbiosis and How Does it Occur?

Dysbiosis occurs when harmful organisms, such as bacteria, fungi (yeast and mold), viruses, and parasites take over the gut environment and change your physiology such that it favors their survival (and that of other pathogens) to the detriment of your health.

What constitutes a healthy microbiome is constantly being redefined as more research is done. Recent research suggests that we may need to consider viruses, in addition to bacteria, as part of our commensal microbiome. “There have been suggestions that every individual harbors approximately 8-12 chronic viral infections at any given time, and these may be harmful only in the limited percentage of the population that has a certain genetic predisposition.”

The good bacteria collectively act as the Chief Operating Officer in your gut, keeping vital day-to-day functions occurring effortlessly without you even knowing it.

They help maintain immune and hormone function, modulate inflammation, protect you from pathogens, and metabolize and produce nutrients.

The primary reason this harmonious equilibrium of organisms can be maintained is that there’s a system of checks and balances so that one group can’t take control; however, when this balance is disrupted by stress, diet, medications, or toxins, dysbiosis is the result.

Dr. Leo Galland, M.D. simply states, “Dysbiosis is an unfavorable imbalance of the bacteria resulting in an intestinal flora that has harmful effects. The principal factors that regulate the composition and distribution of the GI flora are diet, motility, the nature of GI secretions, immune function, and the ingestion of antibiotic or probiotic substances.”8

Over time, the change in the intestinal ecosystem causes considerable chronic local and systemic effects. Dr. Gerard Mullin, M.D. asserts that, “Dysbiosis is not so much about the microbe as it’s about the effect of that microbe on a susceptible host; it’s about the relationship between the host and the microbe.”14

For example, people with inflammatory or autoimmune conditions often present with a pathogenic inflammatory response to a non-inflammatory microbe due to the activation of the immune system and the inflammatory chemicals produced in that interaction.12

If it’s caught and reversed quickly, you may not have too many ill effects. However, if this condition is allowed to progress, it can lead to serious health problems ranging from gas, diarrhea, constipation, and acne to joint pain, chronic fatigue, and autoimmunity.

Further, intestinal dysbiosis can lead to dysbiosis of other mucosal areas such as the mouth, nose, lungs, skin, eyes, and vaginal and urinary tracts, making you more vulnerable to other infections.

Triggers of Dysbiosis

Triggers for the development of dysbiosis are usually multiple and cumulative—meaning that the more you experience these as a part of your lifestyle, the more likely you are not only to have dysbiosis but also to have many of the symptoms associated with it. The main primary contributors to dysbiosis are:

  • Poor bacterial colonization
  • Medications
  • Stress
  • Diet
  • Environmental toxins
  • Infections

Trigger of Dysbiosis: Poor Colonization

The first step toward dysbiosis can actually occur during your birth. The process of vaginal birth naturally initiates the critical event of bacterial colonization.

Infants born this way have a microbiota that reflects their mother’s fecal and vaginal flora, where those born via cesarean section have a flora reflective of the hospital environment and the health care workers.3,12

Children born through c-section are also at risk of delayed access to breast milk, which can be an additional detriment to the development of a healthy flora.3

Research by Giacomo Biasucci et al. in the September 2008 issue of the Journal of Nutrition showed that the gut microbiota after c-section was characterized by a lack of Bifidobacteria species, which are thought to be important to the postnatal development of the immune system, whereas vaginally delivered neonates showed a predominance of these species.3,12

It’s also important that women who want to conceive are aware of the health of their intestinal flora, as infants born to women with dysbiosis also have dysbiosis. Taking care of GI infections and imbalances, as well as supplementing with specific probiotics, will help impart a healthy flora to the baby.

Trigger of Dysbiosis: Medications

Several categories of medications can directly impact the health of the GI flora. The most significant ones include:

Antibiotics: This class of medications is the most common and significant cause of major alterations in normal GI tract flora.6

Depending upon the scope of antimicrobial activity, antibiotics can wipe out multiple categories of beneficial organisms, leading to dysbiosis—the antibiotics don’t differentiate between the good guys and bad guys

If this impact is significant, beyond general dysbiosis it can produce an overgrowth of existing flora such as yeast (Candida) and Clostridium difficile, resulting in potentially severe and life-threatening (in the case of C. difficile) systemic effects.

PPIs: Proton pump inhibitors that block stomach acid (HCl) production provide a gateway for dysbiosis to develop, as HCl is critical to the normal process of digestion and acts as defense against pathogens. PPIs are known to directly alter the gut flora as well.

NSAIDs: Chronic use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen, naproxen sodium, aspirin, and indomethacin can inhibit the growth of good bacteria and alter the gut flora, resulting in leaky gut, which further perpetuates dysbiosis.

Hormone-Based Medications: According to Gut and Psychology Syndrome author Dr. Natasha Campbell- McBride, M.D., “The use of birth control pills and immune system-altering steroidal hormones change the gut flora by harming the beneficial bacteria.” Widespread use of hormone-based medication isn’t often mentioned yet is a significant contributor to dysbiosis.

Trigger of Dysbiosis: Stress

Stress is one of the most important triggers of dysbiosis, as it’s something most of us have plenty of in our lives, and we don’t do much to counterbalance its effects.

The biochemical effects of stress, such as decreased blood flow, oxygenation, motility, enzyme output, and nutrient absorption directly impact the intestinal flora.18

Dr. Gerard Mullin, M.D. explains that “stress directly suppresses the beneficial bacteria Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria, which are critical to GI health.”14

Further, chronic stress diminishes immunity by depleting the antibody secretory IgA (sIgA), as well as essential hormones, and promotes inflammation, which can all result in a leaky gut. 6,14

The catecholamine hormones (adrenaline and noradrenaline) stimulate growth of gram-negative organisms such as E.coli, Yersinia, and Pseudomonas, which promote inflammation and immune system activation by producing the endotoxin LPS (lipopolysaccharide).3,6,14

Many of these gram-negative bacteria are normal inhabitants of the large intestine; however, when the good flora are diminished, they can’t keep growth of these opportunistic organisms in check. This leads to dysbiosis and inflammation.

All of this culminates in a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle when you’re chronically stressed.

Trigger of Dysbiosis: Diet

Diet, along with stress, exerts the most impact on the balance and health of the gut flora.

“The composition of the diet has been shown to have a significant impact on the content and metabolic activities of the human fecal flora. Some diets promote the growth of beneficial microorganisms, while others promote activity that can be harmful to the host,” according to Hawrelak and Myers in their 2004 review study. 6 The following categories are major contributors to dysbiosis:

  • Sulfates: Consumption of foods high in sulfates promotes the growth of bacteria that produce a toxic gas called hydrogen sulfide (think stinky egg smell), which results in depletion of colonic nutrients and leaky gut. Foods high in sulfates include eggs, cruciferous vegetables, dairy, dried fruit, alcohol, meat, baked goods, and processed foods.6
  • High Protein: Excessive consumption of protein, especially in the presence of enzyme deficiency, allows bacteria to ferment the undigested protein particles and produce toxic metabolites such as ammonia, indoles, phenols, and sulfides, which are carcinogenic and promote migraines and mood disorders.6,7 High protein diets can also promote inflammation and hormone imbalance through the action of some bacterial enzymes such as beta-glucuronidase.6,7
  • High Sugar and Carbohydrates: Diets high in sugars and simple carbohydrates are characterized by increased bacterial fermentation and decreased intestinal transit speed, allowing for toxic metabolites to sit in the intestines longer and potentiate inflammation.6,7
  • Bad Fats: Eating a diet high in trans fats and certain chemically processed or genetically modified fats inhibits the growth of protective bacteria.7 These fats include any trans fat labeled “partially hydrogenated,” shortening and margarine, as well as oils including canola, corn, soybean, peanut, sunflower, and safflower.
  • Processed Foods: Preservatives, dyes, emulsifiers, surfactants, additives, and flavoring all negatively impact the health of the gut flora, as they’re toxins. When you read a label, generally if you can’t pronounce it or don’t know what it is, you shouldn’t eat it.

Food sensitivities and allergies represent a potent trigger for dysbiosis, as the immune system reacts to the protein peptides of the offending foods by producing pro-inflammatory chemicals called cytokines that damage the intestinal mucosa, not only leading to a leaky gut but also making the environment inhospitable to the good flora.

In conditions such as Celiac, where the immune system is reacting to the family of gluten-related peptides, it’s been discovered that the gut microbiota plays a significant role in the development and progression of the illness.

Research has found that levels of beneficial flora such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria in Celiac patients is much lower than in healthy individuals.7

Overall, higher incidence of gram-negative and pro-inflammatory bacteria present in the microbiota is linked to the symptoms associated with the disease by favoring the pathological progress of the disorder.7

Studies have also noted that a similar profile of decreased good bacteria and higher levels of bad bacteria are seen in the development of food sensitivities and allergies to milk, eggs, and nuts.7

It’s important to note that you can develop a food sensitivity or allergy at any time in your life to any food, not just the common ones (gluten, dairy, soy, corn, eggs, shellfish, and nuts).

GMO (genetically modified organism) or hybridized foods also represent a potent source for dysbiosis and the development of food sensitivities, as they aren’t as recognizable to your immune system as the original food form. This can trigger an inflammatory and immune response in the gut, potentiating dysbiosis.

Trigger of Dysbiosis: Environmental Toxins

Environmental toxins are everywhere—metals, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and chemicals are found in the air, water, soil, industry, and products used on your body and in the home.

Food can also be a significant source of toxins depending upon where and how it’s grown, as well as if it’s processed.

If you’re a fan of grilling your food, you are adding yet another layer of toxins from the heterocyclic amines (HCAs) that are produced in the tasty charred portions. The cumulative effect of exposure to these substances over time can have a profound impact on the health of your intestinal microbiome, potentially leading to dysbiosis.

A 2008 study found that the volatile derivatives from metals such as mercury, arsenic, bismuth, and antimony exert their toxic effects on human health not only by direct interaction with host cells but also by disturbing the physiological gut microflora.18

The metals not only alter the composition of the organisms in the gut, but the bacteria themselves can transform the toxic metals into even more toxic compounds. Toxins of all kinds shift the balance of the flora into supporting the harmful organisms over the favorable ones.

Trigger of Dysbiosis: Infections

Toxins are not only acquired from the external environment but can also be prevalent internally, because they’re produced from infectious organisms such as certain bacteria, mold, yeast, viruses, and parasites. These organisms contribute to dysbiosis because they produce toxins that are detrimental to your body by:

Altering normal GI function: The organisms exert their damaging effects by decreasing gut motility, decreasing the amount of stomach acid and digestive enzymes, and altering bile production. These mechanisms help ensure their survival.16

Promoting inflammation: GI infections promote inflammation through the production of toxins such as lipopolysaccharides (LPS) in certain gram-negative bacteria and mycotoxins from mold. They also generate several different types of immune responses, which promote inflammation and also produce autoimmunity.16

Altering the GI flora: The gut microflora is often already compromised to some extent when a GI infection occurs. The infective organisms increase dysbiosis by their mere presence and by making the intestinal environment more hospitable to other pathogens and opportunistic commensal organisms (organisms that are normally found in the intestines of healthy individuals that take advantage of your compromised physiology).

After infectious organisms take hold, you may experience gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, or even no gut-related symptoms at all.

Brain fog, fatigue, sleeplessness, joint pain, depressed mood, and anxiety are often related to these infections. Some of the most common organisms include:

SIBO: Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth occurs when organisms from the colon inhabit the small intestine, where fewer bacteria reside.

Escherichia coli, Streptococcus, Staphylococcus, and Klebsiella are species frequently associated with SIBO. SIBO is complex, because the constituent organisms vary widely from person to person, as do symptoms, which can include constipation, diarrhea, gas, bloating, belching, stomach pain, malabsorption, brain fog, mood disorders, headaches, fatigue, and rashes, among others.

Parasites: Giardia lamblia, Blastocystis hominis, Entamoeba histolytica, Dientamoeba Fragilis, and Endolimax nana cause a majority of the parasitic infections the U.S.8,20

Acute parasitic illness manifests with symptoms of diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain, bloating, fever, and malaise, while chronic infections range from asymptomatic to severe, resulting in bloody and mucus-filled stools, profuse diarrhea, and malnutrition. Parasitic infections are also related to interrupted sleep patterns and tooth grinding during sleep.

H. pylori: Helicobacter pylori is a spiral-shaped bacteria that is estimated to inhabit two-thirds of the world’s population. Some people happily coexist with it while others develop chronic conditions, because it can become opportunistic.

It alters immune function and stomach acid production to aid its survival while you experience reflux, indigestion, gas, bloating, and stomach pain.

Candida: Candida (yeast) is a fungus that lives in your mouth and intestines to aid with digestion and nutrient absorption.19 It can become pathogenic and rapidly increase in numbers if your immune system is compromised from stress or illness.

The infection can be almost anywhere in your body, from the mouth and stomach to the urinary tract, skin, and lungs. Some symptoms associated with Candida include sugar cravings, depression, anxiety, gas, bloating, headaches, rashes, and skin discoloration.

While the previously-mentioned infections are commonly related to dysbiosis, some important and often overlooked sources of infection include:

Mold: Mold is a fungus like Candida, and both are ubiquitous. Some common types of mold associated with dysbiosis include Aspergillus, Penicillium, Stachybotrys, and Alternaria.

The toxins produced from mold can be very harmful to the good gut bacteria and the host (you). These toxins produce symptoms ranging from mild to severe fatigue, sore throats, nosebleeds, headaches, diarrhea, brain fog, food sensitivities, and memory loss.

Tick-borne Illness: Tick-borne illnesses are prevalent primary infections or co-infections that can result in dysbiosis through several mechanisms.

First-line treatment of these infections often involves the use of antibiotics for weeks in acute cases and for months for chronic infections, killing off the good bacteria and promoting yeast overgrowth according to Dr. Leo Galland.21

These infections also result in “Bell’s Palsy of the gut,” ranging from paralysis of the gut to decreased GI motility, allowing dysbiosis to occur. 21,22

Lyme disease, an infection acquired through the bite of a tick infected with the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi, is the most commonly-known infection. Babesia, Rickettsia (Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever), Ehrlichia, and Bartonella are also frequently identified as infectious bacteria from tick bites. Symptoms include rash, fatigue (often chronic), fever, aches, stiffness, brain fog, and constipation.

Viruses: Chronic viral infection is a common but often ignored cause of dysbiosis. Enteric (GI) viruses play an important role in the microflora of the gut, as they’re present in all of us and affect not only our gene expression but also the composition of the gut microbiota.

A 2014 study notes, “Viruses may act directly on the host epithelium and immune system to induce inflammation, or may alter luminal bacterial composition that then provokes disease.” 23

A further complication is that some viruses such as cytomegalovirus (CMV) and Epstein-Barr virus can remain latent after initial infection and only become active again under stress or immunosuppression, producing inflammation and GI symptoms that don’t appear to be related to the current pathological process.23

Symptoms and Effects of Dysbiosis

Alteration of the gut microbiome can have wide-ranging consequences on a person systemically—these effects aren’t limited to the gut.

The inflammatory process generated by dysbiosis is one of the primary root causes in many conditions.

The inflammation produces chemical changes in the body that activate the immune system, and it also increases or decreases the expression of certain genes, enabling the disease process to evolve.

What began as smoldering embers becomes a systemic wildfire when there’s no intervention or lifestyle change, allowing a simple process to potentially become a complex condition that is difficult to manage.

Symptoms of an unstable gut microbiome include:

  • GI: Gas, bloating, belching, stomach pain, constipation, diarrhea, undigested food particles or fat in stool, gurgling in stomach, acid reflux, malabsorption, altered motility or gastroparesis, and food sensitivities or allergies
  • Immune: Allergies, asthma, chronic sinus infections, frequent infections such as respiratory or urinary tract infections, Candida overgrowth, and autoimmune conditions
  • Liver: Poor detoxification, recirculation of toxins and hormones from bacterial deconjugation, increased or decreased bile production, and pain under the lower right ribs
  • Skin: Itching, hives, acne, rosacea, rashes, eczema, psoriasis, and dermatitis
  • Musculoskeletal: Joint pain, muscle pain, and fibromyalgia
  • Brain and Mood: Headache, fatigue, neuropathy, brain fog, inability to focus, irritability, anxiety, depression, ADD/ADHD, lack of coordination or balance, and poor memory
  • Hormone: Fatigue, poor temperature control, weight gain or weight loss, poor sleep quality, food cravings, poor blood sugar regulation, and hormone imbalances

Treatment of Dysbiosis

Treatment of dysbiosis can be as basic as using probiotics and gut-supporting nutrients in the most simple cases, or it can escalate to treating multiple infections and addressing autoimmunity in more complex cases.

Identifying and resolving all triggers and making appropriate lifelong lifestyle changes are key to reversing dysbiosis and eliminating inflammation.

The process of addressing triggers should begin with identification and elimination of all potential pathogenic GI infections through testing. Non-pathogenic bacterial overgrowth must also be identified and treated. This should be the first step of a comprehensive 5R program that includes these components:

1. Remove sources of irritation and inflammation:

  • Remove all sources of parasitic, fungal, and bacterial infections in the gut (from mouth to anus). If you take care of these without resolution of symptoms, look into viruses, mold, and other infections like tick-borne illnesses. Infections of the jaw from root canals and dental work are sometimes a source of hidden infection that should be investigated as well.
  • Eliminate foods that contribute to inflammation and all known food allergies. An anti-inflammatory, whole foods-based diet is best.
  • Try to eliminate the use of medications known to contribute to dysbiosis and irritation of the intestinal lining.
  • Refrain from alcohol consumption, as you’re trying to restore bacterial balance in the gut.
  • Reduce toxin exposure by eating organic when possible, using cleaner personal care and home products, and filtering your home air and water. Many green plants provide natural toxin filtration.
  • Prepare foods so that there are no charred areas produced. Marinating foods with lemon, garlic, and rosemary for several hours before cooking will help buffer the effects of any char that is produced.

2. Replace the nutrients your body needs to heal:

  • Beginning a meal with digestive enzymes and betaine hydrochloride will allow for proper breakdown and absorption of nutrients.
  • Prebiotic fiber such as FOS and inulin from onions, garlic, blueberries, asparagus, bananas, chicory, and artichoke promote the growth of beneficial bacteria and discourage harmful ones. Since these fibers are non-digestible by humans, the good flora can use them as a nutrient source. They also help prevent constipation and diarrhea by maintaining colonic balance.12
  • Fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, and some varieties of pickled vegetables are cultured with bacteria and yeast strains that help maintain intestinal flora.
  • Resistant starches, or starches that resist digestion until they reach the colon, can be found in raw potatoes, green bananas, green plantains, parboiled rice, lightly-cooked and cooled potatoes, or legumes (that have been soaked and sprouted). Once the resistant starches reach the colon, the bacteria digest or ferment them, producing short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that support bacteria and intestinal cell health and modulate inflammation. Added benefits are that they help improve insulin sensitivity, as well as blood sugar and body composition.
  • Soluble (completely fermentable) and insoluble fibers (little to no fermentation) like grains, fruits, vegetables, and psyllium also provide nutrients to the beneficial bacteria and help prevent constipation.12 They keep your bowels moving.

3. Re-inoculate with good bacteria to restore the flora:

  • Using a high-quality probiotic with at least 50 billion CFU twice daily will help restore the gut flora. Lactobacillus and Bifidobacter species are best in most cases; however, there are other beneficial strains that can be used. Start off using them slowly and work up to the recommended doses.
  • Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha, as well as kefir and yogurt (you can use dairy or non-dairy based), contain live, active cultures that will help the good bacteria stick around.
  • Fecal Microbiota Transplant (FMT) may be necessary for some people who‘ve had severe infections such as C. difficile or other resistant bacterial infections who need to go further than just a probiotic. It’s used to treat a variety of intestinal diseases associated with pathological imbalances within the microbiota. The process involves having a fecal transplant from a donor that has been screened for the correct bacterial balance in order to restore the flora.10

4. Repair the gut lining and normal physiological functions:

  • Dysbiosis often involves leaky gut as well as disruption of normal physiological processes of digestion, which all need to be addressed in order to maintain a healthy flora and GI function. This includes using betaine HCl to increase stomach acid, digestive enzymes to assist the pancreas, intestines, and liver until they produce adequate levels on their own, and sometimes ox bile to assist the liver in the digestion of fats.
  • Additionally, motility—the ability to keep waste and toxins moving through the GI tract—often needs to be repaired and restored. Ginger and d-limonene are good agents to stimulate GI motility. Exercise or movement and proper hydration are also great ways to keep the bowels moving.

5. Rebalance your body to heal faster and maintain vibrant health moving forward:

  • Calming the nervous system and decreasing stress through breathing techniques, meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, or walks in nature are great ways to achieve this. Stress for most people is unavoidable, so learning to manage it through creating boundaries, learning to say no, or having a proper outlet to release it is key.
  • Exercise and movement are also essential in decreasing stress and maintaining the balance of the body and the brain.
  • One of the most important measures you can take is to fall asleep at a reasonable hour (10 pm is ideal), as well as get at least eight hours of high quality, uninterrupted sleep. Sleep is crucial to the healing process, as well as the maintenance of overall good health.

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Is Your Favorite Morning Beverage Causing Eczema

(Spoiler: There’s a healing swap-out suggestion with an Eczema Healing Tea recipe included)

Does Caffeine Cause Eczema

Who doesn’t love their morning cup of caffeine? Coffee and tea consumption have become a significant part of American society. The cafe culture is a multi-billion dollar industry. This isn’t anything new…many civilizations for centuries have worshiped them too. But do these beloved brews contribute to eczema?

This is a question I’ve had to tackle for years in my practice with patients and for myself. Like any issues related to food or root causes of eczema- it’s a matter of individuality and how it’s affecting the inflammatory process in your body.

Personally, I love both tea and coffee for different reasons- I’ve been a lifelong tea drinker (thanks Grandma), but in my early 30’s I discovered coffee. I’d always loved the smell, but didn’t care for the taste. But as I began changing my diet to be cleaner and gravitated to Paleo/Primal, my taste buds changed.

Suddenly, I really liked coffee. I enjoyed the slight bitterness, dark chocolate, and fruity notes, much like a good wine. I hear this from patients too- they report liking bitter things such as coffee and really dark chocolate as they lose the taste for sugar.

I can drink it black, but I really love a warm cup of joe with grassfed butter and coconut oil in the morning. That’s heavenly for me!

So when the question of caffeine consumption and elimination arises, the reaction is similar for most of my patients- complete horror (even for a short duration). I’m often met with comments like: “there’s no way I can do that!” Or else, “you want me to do what!! And, for how long???”

I get it. The thought of giving up my tasty, warm beverages (especially considering that I live in Minnesota) gave me slight panic too.

Caffeine is America’s number one drug of choice. Some of us like it for the taste, mental boost, or the purely for the energy surge. But sadly, your favorite pick-me-up can be counterproductive if you have a condition like eczema that has roots in inflammation.

I don’t ask patients to drop the mug to torture them (although some may strongly disagree). I do it because I understand the many ways caffeine alters the immune and inflammatory response.

How do Coffee and Tea Cause Eczema

At first thought it may seem crazy to consider coffee and tea as causes of eczema, but they can alter the inflammatory response in ways that play a role in the process of developing eczema. Once you have eczema, they can contribute to the vicious cycle of exposures (foods, infections, toxins, etc.) that perpetuate the condition until they’re removed.

Here are the most significant ways that coffee and tea promote eczema:

1. It spikes adrenal hormones just as stress does. I generally suggest stopping if someone has HPA axis dysfunction (also know as adrenal fatigue) because of caffeine’s effects on the inflammatory process. Caffeine sends a signal to the brain which sends a signal to the adrenal glands to pump out cortisol and adrenaline (epinephrine), effectively putting your body in constant fight-or-flight mode. Not good if you have eczema and need your cortisol for its anti-inflammatory effects.

2. Elevated cortisol contributes to Leaky Gut. The chemicals secreted during the stress response are linked to intestinal permeability (leaky gut), inflammation, overgrowth in bad bacteria, and decreased microbial diversity that can alter immune function. These are significant root causes of eczema that need to be addressed to completely heal it.

3. You can react to the mycotoxins found in coffee. Mycotoxins are toxins produced by fungi and the 2 commonly found in coffee are ochratoxin A and aflatoxin B1. These compounds are known to be immunosuppressive, carcinogenic, and brain damaging among other health problems. Chronic, low level exposure can build up in your system causing an immune response that can promote inflammation.

Swap Your Caffeine with a Warm Drink That Will Help Heal Eczema

I hate to tell patients that they must avoid something forever. In some cases this is necessary, like a Celiac sufferer avoiding gluten, but generally, most people can handle some caffeinated beverages once they’ve healed their eczema and gut.

But until that joyous day when you can imbibe again, here’s an alternative that’s equally as tasty and will help heal your eczema and gut.

Eczema Healing Tea

I enjoy this drink because it’s reminiscent of my favorite morning coffee, but it also incorporates the spiciness of ginger and turmeric that I love. It’s also warming and soothing on cold days. Prep is quick and easy too- usually 5 minutes from start to finish.

Ingredients

  • 1-2 inches peeled, fresh turmeric
  • 2 inches peeled, fresh ginger
  • 1 garlic clove peeled- don’t worry, the other flavors mask the garlic 😉
  • 2 tablespoons coconut oil
  • 1 tablespoon raw honey
  • 1 serving collagen powder
  • 8-12 ounces hot water

Tip: If you want to have a speedy process, peel and portion out the turmeric, ginger, and garlic for several days. I keep mine in a mini mason jar or glass container in the refrigerator. If you prep too much it can start to dry out, so placing a small damp towel or cloth on top can help prevent that.

Instructions

1. Get your water heating up before you start prepping so that you can pull if off and let it cool if necessary before you pour it into the mixture. I like to use a kettle to warm mine up.
2. Remove the skin from you turmeric, ginger and garlic. You can use a knife or spoon (scraping down the sides) to get rid of the skin. Note: spoon scraping gives a slightly better yield but is more time consuming than using a knife. Place them in the blender.
3. Add in the coconut oil and honey.
4. Pour the water over the mixture. Warning: don’t blend it up if it’s too hot and steaming because the pressure could build up and burn you when the lid is removed.
5. Add the collagen in last (truthfully, it probably doesn’t matter when it’s added, but I try to keep the collagen from clumping or sticking to the sides of the blender cup or carafe).
6. Blend up until all ingredients are fully incorporated. It should take 15-30 seconds for most high speed blenders.
7. Pour into a mug and enjoy!

The beauty of this recipe is that it can be adjusted to taste and needs. Don’t like turmeric- don’t add it. Have a sensitivity to collagen powder? Leave it out. Got Candida or a fungal issue? You may want to adjust or eliminate the raw honey. You can customize this as you wish.

I actually make variations on this recipe often. I’m a ginger lover so I’ll add a huge 3-4 inch piece in sometimes. I’ll bump up the collagen if I feel more stressed. I don’t always have raw turmeric on hand, so I make it without it. If I’m feeling congested or sick from a cold, I’ll decrease the water by 2-4 ounces and add in the juice of one lemon and/or raw apple cider vinegar (ACV). Be careful using this variation if you’re in an eczema flare as the histamines in lemon and ACV can make symptoms worse.

Eczema Healing Tea is a Healing Bomb and Inflammation Buster

The elixir is packed with several anti-inflammatory, immune boosting, antimicrobial, and skin supporting ingredients. Coffee and tea definitely can’t claim that. Here’s a breakdown of the benefits:

1. Turmeric is a member of the ginger family which is why they share similar characteristics. However, the curcuminoids are what give turmeric it’s superior inflammation fighting power. The journal Oncogene published a study that found turmeric to be one of the most potent anti-inflammatories in the world, even beating out NSAIDs. It can also help heal the lining of the intestines which is critical for resolving eczema.

2. Ginger, like turmeric, supports immune and anti-inflammatory pathways in the body. Ginger is a great antimicrobial too, acting against a wide range of bacteria and fungi like Candida. It’s widely supports the gut too- relieving nausea, bloating, constipation, and acid reflux which are symptoms that often accompany eczema root causes like dysbiosis, GI infections, and food sensitivities.

3. Coconut oil is considered to be the “motherlode” of healing foods. One of best features is the broad antimicrobial activity of lauric acid- helpful for addressing bacterial, fungal, and viral infection, but also maintaining daily health. The antioxidants in coconut oil are well documented to combat inflammation. It also has pain relieving (analgesic) capabilities. The same properties that make it amazing for internal use also apply to the skin. Externally it can be used as a cleanser, moisturizer, and as an ingredient in a healing salve or ointment.

4. Garlic in its raw form is a close second to coconut oil in it’s ability to protect against the “bad bugs,” having potent antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal properties. The sulfur containing compound allicin is effective against the opportunistic staphylococcus (staph) bacteria which is thought to play a role in eczema for many individuals. Personal note- when I did stool testing on myself during the peak of my symptoms I had a slight overgrowth of staph that had to be treated.

5. Raw honey is an antioxidant powerhouse. It contains several classes of polyphenols and flavonoids that support the immune system. In addition, it contains 22 amino acids, many of the B complex vitamins, and 27 minerals including magnesium, potassium, iron, zinc, selenium, calcium, and phosphorous.

6. Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body and a critical building block of the skin. Using supplemental collagen powder has been shown to improve skin quality by increasing the barrier function meaning better elasticity, moisture, and texture. Good news if your skin is damaged from eczema! Another reason collagen is great is that it heals leaky gut, which is a primary root cause in eczema. It’s benefits are similar to what’s seen on the skin externally- it “seals and heals” the intestinal barrier breakdown that’s the hallmark of leaky gut.

Doesn’t all this goodness make you want to brew up a batch right now?? You may not ever want to go back to coffee or tea! Maybe….. 🙂

Leave a comment below about your caffeine swaps!

Eczema: The Autoimmune Disease Everyone Seems To Be Overlooking

The No Cause, No Cure Paradigm for Eczema is Wrong

I’ve always been a questioner. This is why I believe eczema can be healed and reversed (and new science backs this). When I was a little kid, I asked lots of questions because I wanted to know how and why things worked. Conversations I’d frequently have with my parents would go something like this:

Me: “Why does my tummy hurt?””

Parent: “Probably because you just swallowed your gum.”

Me: “Why would gum make my tummy hurt?”

Parent: “When you swallow your gum it can stick to your insides.”

Me: “Why would it stick to my insides?”

Parent (frustrated): “Oh, I don’t know, it just does!”

At this point I usually stopped the dialogue because I was clearly annoying my parents and I was frustrated that I didn’t get the answers I desired. Even as little kid I couldn’t understand why gum wouldn’t be digested like the rest of my food?? It also didn’t make sense to me that it would stick to my insides. There is always a reason why (even if not everyone know the answer).

Those same feelings of frustration and disbelief came to the surface for me when I was told I had Eczema. I was instantly transported back to my childhood when I heard the words “there is no known cause or cure.” It was so infuriating and disheartening.

No cause. No cure. Yet, you’re still miserable, with a very real rash that makes you crazy because you want to keep scratching it incessantly and your doctor hasn’t provided you with any help at all. This is exactly how I felt.

The majority of conventional medicine still clings to the old idea that eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, is purely a topical rash that makes your skin red and itchy, causes lesions, and is related to allergies.

And if you’ve ever had an eczema breakout you know that this isn’t just something to brush off, or something you should have to live with-  it’s a problem that affects the way you look and feel too.

I’ve never accepted the no cause, no cure paradigm- there’s always a reason why something is happening. Your body just doesn’t start to malfunction- it’s way too smart for that. There are complex physiological processes that occur over time that culminate in conditions like eczema. We’ll get into the details of that later.

Those of us in the functional medicine community, as well as many researchers, are redefining what eczema actually is. In December 2014, this groundbreaking study published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology confirmed what many of us suspected all along- that eczema is indeed an autoimmune condition. The study showed that by blocking 2 key proteins involved in the body’s ability to fight off bacteria and viruses, the eczema was reversed. In the process of eczema, these proteins mistakenly target the body’s own tissues, causing an autoimmune reaction which can result in the body attacking the skin. That sounds like a cause to me!

But before we get into the details of how eczema develops as as autoimmune (AI) condition, let’s review what eczema is and briefly discuss the types.

What is Eczema?

As an inquisitive and frustrated kid, I’d reach for the encyclopedia when I got one of those “it just is” answers from an adult. Encyclopedias helped, but were still limited in information on many topics.

Now we have an overabundance of information coming at us 24/7 thanks to the internet, but it’s hard to digest and make sense of it all. So, let’s break eczema down.

Eczema is more commonly referred to as Atopic Dermatitis (AD) clinically. That term is very telling since atopy or atopic is Greek for “being out of place” and dermatitis is “inflammation of the skin”. What’s interesting is that in my graduate training (which was conventional medical clinical pathology) we learned that atopy refers to an allergic reaction or hypersensitivity occurring in a part of the body NOT in contact with the allergen. Based on this definition you’d think that conventional medicine would’ve realized the cause of eczema isn’t occurring on the skin level, but that hasn’t been the case.

Eczema or Atopic Dermatitis (AD) is defined by the Mayo Clinic as “a condition that makes your skin red and itchy. AD is long lasting (chronic) and tends to flare periodically and then subside.” It’s the most common type of eczema and research suggests that a family history of atopic conditions such as eczema, allergies, asthma, and hay fever is a predisposing factor in developing it. The data compiled from my research analyzing over 7,000 patients shows that 1 in 5 people with a family history of eczema have eczema. 20% is significant.

Eczema: The Autoimmune Disease Everyone Seems To Be Overlooking

Typical symptoms include:

  • Itching, which may be mild to severe, especially at night
  • Raw, sensitive, swollen skin from scratching
  • Small, raised bumps, which may leak fluid and crust over when scratched
  • Weeping wounds
  • Thickened, cracked, dry, scaly skin
  • Red to brownish-gray patches, especially on the hands, feet, ankles, wrists, neck, upper chest, eyelids, inside the bend of the elbows and knees

Eczema symptoms and appearance differs from person to person. A mild form might look like red, irritated, and slightly speckled skin, to more severe forms where the skin is significantly inflamed, with lesions that are bloody and weeping. Discolorations often occur during the outbreaks and as the skin heals.

7 Types of Eczema (Yes, …there’s actually more than one)

There are many different types of eczema according to various sources. You could go a little crazy researching them all on Dr. Google, so we’ll cover the most common ones here.

Most varieties of eczema are named for where they occur or because they look slightly different than your typical atopic dermatitis. Regardless of where it located or how it looks, it’s still eczema.

  • Contact Dermatitis occurs when an irritant or allergen contacts the skin causing redness, burning, swelling and sometimes blisters. It can be caused by things such as frequent hand washing, solvents, chemicals, foods, metals, animals, pollen, and plants like poison ivy. For the record, I don’t believe contact dermatitis should be classified with these other forms of eczema as the cause is external contact and can happen to anyone regardless of health conditions and family history. It doesn’t appear to be AI in nature.
  • Dishydrotic Eczema occurs on the palm side of fingers, palms of hands, bottom of toes, and soles of feet. It presents as red spots, bumps, or blisters. Scaly patches, flaking, and deep cracks can form from damage to the skin. This type is 2 times more common in women. I can vouch for that since this one type that I had in a very classic presentation which makes it easier to distinguish from some of the other types.
  • Hand Eczema is different from dishydrotic in that it occurs on the back of your hand and fingers, as well as the webbing between fingers. It visually looks more like typical atopic dermatitis.
  • Neurodermatitis, also called Lichen Simplex Chronicus, which is similar to AD in that there’s significant itching but differs in that the surrounding skin is healthy. It occurs in isolated patches that look thick, discolored, dry, scaly or flaky and can be mistaken for psoriasis. There can be underlying dysfunction of the nerves in this area.
  • Nummular Eczema, also known as Discoid Eczema is characterized by coin or circular shaped lesions that can be raised. Inflammatory reactions occurring in the body and dry skin are thought to play roles in developing this type of eczema. It can look like ringworm which is a fungal infection so it’s worth ruling that out.   
  • Seborrheic Dermatitis, Scalp Eczema, or Cradle Cap typically occurs in areas where there are high concentrations of oil producing sweat glands including the scalp, face, neck, upper back, shoulders, and chest. Individuals with immune system dysfunction are at increased risk for seborrheic dermatitis. It can have an oily or greasy appearance, unlike the other types of eczema, with white to yellow flakes.
  • Stasis Eczema/Dermatitis, also called venous stasis dermatitis, is a special type of eczema that occurs in areas where there’s decreased venous blood flow resulting in pressure build up causing fluid leakage from veins. Red, swollen, flaky, itchy skin occurs initially and if not taken care of can progress to ulceration, infection, and/or permanent thickening or scarring of the skin.

What Causes Eczema

If you type in ‘causes of eczema’ in Google, you’ll get a variety of answers like:

  • No true known cause
  • Dry or irritable skin
  • Genetic variant that affects the skin’s barrier function
  • Stress
  • Immune system dysfunction
  • Hormone Fluctuations
  • Bacterial or viral infections or imbalances
  • Environmental conditions such as cold, dry weather or humid, hot weather
  • Allergens

Unfortunately, while many of the above are absolutely true, most conventional doctors still treat it like it’s a condition that only occurs on the surface and don’t address most of that list. They’re likely to suggest topical treatments and possibly tell you to avoid a couple of foods, allergens, and hot or cold weather. They neglect the impact of the true root causes beneath the surface.

The worst fact of all is that some doctors are still of the old school thinking that there is no cause or cure for eczema.

Thankfully, research is evolving and know we know otherwise.

Given that eczema is now considered an autoimmune condition, we know the conditions need to be ‘just right’ for one to manifest.

These are the 3 key factors that come together to initiate autoimmunity:

  1. A genetic predisposition/family history
  2. Intestinal permeability (leaky gut)
  3. Environmental triggers such as stress, infection, gut or skin dysbiosis (imbalance between the good and bad bugs), food sensitivities or allergies, trauma, hormone imbalances, toxins, and nutrient imbalances.

With autoimmunity, the immune system mistakenly targets a body tissue and tries to attack it like it’s a foreign invader. If you have eczema, this means that the autoimmune process is attacking your skin. And to get rid of eczema, you need to address each of your root causes, which are covered in numbers 2 and 3 above.

For me, the perfect storm for eczema flares was high stress levels, hormone imbalances, GI infections and dysbiosis, leaky gut, and food sensitivities. Histamine containing foods, exercise, and hot showers made it even worse. This scenario is very similar for most of my clients as well.

A New Paradigm for Eczema

Just like when I was a kid, I wasn’t satisfied with the explanation of what causes eczema, so I developed my own process to explain the cycle of how it occurs.

Stage 1: Flare Up

You know when a flare up is coming because your body send you little signals in the form of tingle, slight itchiness or a burning sensation. On the inside the panic begins to set in and you’re thinking, “Oh no, not again!” These are the subtle hints that you’re body is unhappy and it’s trying to tell you. The flames have been stoked and a fire is beginning to burn inside.

From a physiological standpoint, your immune system is activated from one or more triggers like foods, chemicals, toxins, or microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, parasites, viruses) and has begun attacking your body tissues. Having a genetic predisposition toward eczema or autoimmunity, and a leaky gut make this the perfect storm.

At this point, trying to stop or slow the flare is a good idea as it will help begin to reverse the inflammatory process. Start with your diet as many significant triggers for eczema are food related. At a minimum go gluten and dairy free, but likely you’ll find other foods that need to be avoided while you heal.

Getting stress under control right now is key as it’s often what pushes you over the edge into a flare. It’s hard to eliminate it, but try to manage stressors by maintaining boundaries, saying no, or asking for help. If you can completely eliminate a stressor (like avoiding a toxic person or situation) even better! Also, finding an outlet like journaling, deep breathing, meditation, or walks in nature can profoundly reduce the stress response.

Stage 2: Outbreak

Your flare up transitions to a full blown outbreak when the tingle, burn or minor itch escalates to constant itching causing red, inflamed skin with welts, wounds, and/or blisters. At this point it can appear to be treatment resistant since all of the root causes likely haven’t been addressed.

The outbreak occurs when the inflammatory process mediated by the immune system goes unchecked. The inflammatory chemicals have kicked up and are peaking resulting in your extreme discomfort and many symptoms. During this phase eczema can interfere with life, making social gatherings, work, sleep, and sanity difficult due to the incessant itching. There’s a full blown inflammatory fire raging inside.

Getting to the bottom of all of your triggers and root causes is essential now so you can heal.  Addressing diet and stress may do the trick for some, but others may require deeper digging or testing which is easiest with assistance of a trained professional. Even though I do this for a living, I call upon my friends and colleagues to make sure I’m not missing anything. We can all use some help now and then!

If you haven’t begun dialing in your diet- there isn’t a better time. You need to focus on taming the fire burning within. Anti-inflammatory supplements and foods are super important now. This blog article I wrote provides a recipe, as well as 6 healing foods and supplements to help put out the flames.

Topically, some people may benefit simply from coconut oil, but I personally didn’t and many of my patients echo that sentiment. The same can be said of shea butter. However, by combining these an easy and wonderful healing salve can be made.

Eczema Healing Salve Recipe

  • ½ cup unrefined, organic coconut oil
  • ½ cup unrefined, organic shea butter
  • 10 drops calendula essential oil
  • 10 drops yarrow essential oil
  • 10 drops rosemary essential oil
  • 5-10 drops frankincense essential oil

Mix these together in a bowl by hand or with a mixer. It will be hard and clumpy at first, but eventually will soften and everything will come together. Note: you can play with the essential oils as some people respond better to certain ones than others. If you can’t some of these, that’s fine too. These all have healing, calming or anti-inflammatory properties.

The most important thing to remember in the outbreak phase is the root causes. If you don’t identify and address them all, your eczema is likely to return at some point.

Stage 3: Healing

Relief is in sight!  This is when you start to feel better and symptoms are less severe, but still present. You may or may not be itchy. Your skin still shows signs of irritation, but no open wounds and blisters. It may also appear thick, leathery, scaly, dark, or ashy now. The fire within is now just smoldering embers.

Your immune system is now ramping down and under control, but in physiological time things go slow which is why there are still visible signs (think of how long it takes to completely heal a cut or broken bone).

Steering clear of dietary triggers or any other triggers you’ve identified through self investigation or testing is still a must to maintain healing. Continue use of natural topicals to protect the skin and help rebuild integrity. Nutrients like vitamins A,C, D, and E, biotin, zinc, selenium, and collagen support healing and skin structure.

Stage 4: Clear Skin

Hooray!! When you’re suffering through an eczema flare you often don’t think this day will come, but it is possible to completely reverse eczema and have clear skin again. You’re skin is fully healed and looks great again. No more hiding in long sleeves or gloves!

Think of this stage as maintenance or dormancy. You immune system is finally calmed down and balanced so the attack on skin is over. The fire is out completely!

Maintaining a healthy diet, stress levels, and getting adequate sleep will help keep you here in your happy place.

Common Treatments for Eczema

Again, if you look eczema treatments up in Google, you’ll get a list that looks like this:

  • Over-the-counter medications such cortisone cream, Benadryl cream, or antihistamines (Benadryl, Claritin, and Allegra)
  • Prescription medications topical corticosteroids, oral steroids, and oral antihistamines.  
  • Moisturizers that contain petroleum jelly, mineral oil, or synthetic emollients like lanolin or glycerin
  • Special baths with bleach, salt (sea salt or table salt), baking soda, epsoms salts, oatmeal, or apple cider vinegar.  
  • UV Light/Phototherapy
  • Wet Dressings
  • Stress Reduction

While the medications may be helpful at first for managing symptoms, they don’t address the root causes and the eczema returns. Long term, the topical creams can damage the integrity of the skin and the topical steroids and oral medications shut off the body’s natural inflammatory response which is counterproductive to healing the body.

The moisturizers typically suggested sometimes work and other times cause more irritation due to the ingredients. Unfortunately, if they do work it’s only addressing issues at the skin level and not what’s beneath the surface.

Special baths can definitely be helpful in managing symptoms, but some need to be use with caution. I am personally not a fan of the bleach baths, ever. Sea salt, table salt and apple cider vinegar can be great, however should be tested first since they could irritate open wounds. Oatmeal baths are also very soothing as long as you know you don’t have Celiac or it’s skin variant called Dermatitis Herpetiformis. If you do, you should probably avoid oatmeal completely as it’s often contaminated with gluten.

Phototherapy from the sun is my preferred use. While using phototherapy lamps that emit UV light definitely have benefit, there are a few more risks associated with them due to broader spectrum of the light rays, such a burning, blistering, accelerated aging/breakdown of the skin, and skin cancer. More recently narrow band UVB therapy, which uses a smaller spectrum and thus less radiation, is a better option for artificial light therapy.

Wet dressings can be very helpful in healing eczema when used with natural moisturizers. However, topical corticosteroids are often used and I believe they’re a bad long term strategy for the reasons given above.

My Methodology for Healing Eczema

While some of the commonly used treatments listed above can be helpful at soothing or even resolving some symptoms, they’re all missing the most important factor: addressing the ROOT CAUSES.

Even if you’re in remission and asymptomatic, you’re still at risk for a flare up because you haven’t addressed the important factors lingering beneath the surface. You’re trigger might be work, family, or financial stress, a stomach virus or infection, passing of a loved one or pet, a divorce or separation, moving to a new town or job, or even injuring yourself exercising.

My major trigger was always work related stress (or not addressing it) as it is for so many that suffer from eczema.

The good news is that I healed my eczema and we, together, can heal yours too.

My process starts with a detailed history, from birth until now, that identifies all of the contributing factors to your eczema and what potential root causes need to be investigated.

Next we order the appropriate tests to identify your specific and individual underlying causes.

From there, I design a comprehensive program based on your results and history that addresses all of your root causes in a systematic way. We don’t throw the kitchen sink at you all at once and hope it works. Instead, the plan is outlined in a step-by-step manner that makes it easy for you to follow and allows your body to heal.

If you’re tired of living in the eczema cycle of remissions and flare ups, or have an active, raging outbreak that itches so bad and looks so horrible it’s affecting every aspect of your life and you don’t think it will ever end, I invite you to work with me and my team to heal your eczema for good.

We’ll work together to put the pieces of your health puzzle in place. We’ll guide you at every step with a plan of action to get your body healing and skin happy again.

If you’d like 1-on-1 support troubleshooting which root causes are contributing to your Eczema, and get a specific plan to reverse it, the first step is to book a 1-hour “Eczema Root Cause Troubleshooting Session”.