Autoimmune Conditions

Including: Psoriasis, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Polymyalgia, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Grave's disease, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Sjogren's syndrome, Vasculitis & others

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Out in front

I want to get it right out in front that I understand how difficult autoimmune problems can be and I say this because presumably you, or someone you care for, has one of the conditions that are listed in the A-Z and that link has taken you to this page, where it has obviously been lumped in together with a raft of other hard autoimmune problems.

I really am sorry about that, the reason is that I think if you get caught up in treating the condition, and don't see the common ground, the terrain, behind what can be causing it, you can end up on a hiding to nowhere...

I've had some very positive experiences with some very difficult autoimmune conditions and begin by sharing two of my earliest cases by way of examples, but what works for one person can do nothing for another. To have a legitimate hope of success with this kind of medicine, you must treat the person behind the problem, not get caught up in x, y or z treatment protocol for x, y or z condition

To see the person behind the condition, an individualised approach is essential, something you cannot provide without seeing someone in person so, hopefully, you will be able to find a person near to you who has a holistic, open-minded approach, and plenty of experience with treating autoimmune conditions. There's a short write-up with some suggestions on how you might go about finding such a person here

What follows is to share what I have learned about treating autoimmune conditions from actual practice with actual people. I hope it will be of some benefit to you too


First Cases

If you have 12 follow up visits in a day and 11 of them are perfectly happy with how they are doing and only 1 of them is no better then, if you think about anyone later on, it will be that 1 out of 12 that stays on your mind.

It is a poor practitioner that blames his patients when they are not getting better. Although it might turn out that they are not taking medicine or doing 'the work' as they need to, even so, you must first consider your own part in it with an open mind until you have at least honestly examined your conscience... 'what did I miss, what else could I have done?'

So, it is not common practice for me to think much about my successful cases, let alone talk about them but, because autoimmunity is such a tricky area, and you need to know that what is presented here is based on practice, not theory, I have been thinking back and want to begin by sharing some memorable cases that happened very early on in my practice.

One of my earliest cases back in 1989 was also the first autoimmune condition I ever worked with, and that was Connor. He was a University student at the time, a bright, warm-hearted young man with a great future who had just been told that he was going to have to lose a large part of his bowel to a major surgery within the next three months because it was so badly inflamed and ulcerated.

Whilst I had no mentor in those days, and no internet to ask around, I did have some good books, some good herbs, and a strong desire to help. We used the following treatment program

Chamomile 50mls
Cramp Bark 30mls
Yarrow 40mls
Calendula 50mls
Licorice root 40mls

to make 210mls, 5mls two-three times daily, along with

Slippery Elm powder

1 heaped tsp, slurried into warm water and drunk 1-3 times daily (taking it more or less as needed)

For such a simple treatment, Connor's response was extraordinarily good. His symptoms rapidly improved and his condition eventually went into remission. He never needed the surgery and I lost track of him some years later but trust that he would have got back in touch with me if things went bad again.

As it happens, Connor was closely involved in the Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) support group in Christchurch and, on the strength of his own experience, invited me to present a talk to this group some months after we first met.

It was my first ever public talk, I was understandably nervous but prepared for it as best as I could and at least was only expecting what I thought a support group would look like, namely a small handful of people sitting in a circle of chairs in some dusty room. Imagine my surprise when I walked into a large auditorium of nearly a hundred people, including several nurses and doctors who specialised in this area. It was probably lucky I had no idea what I was walking into beforehand as I might have bailed out but, as it happened, the talk went very well, the professionals asked friendly questions and everyone there was very receptive.

I recount this because, as a direct result of this talk, I had many patients with serious IBD come to see me and, whilst we did get some excellent results in some cases, there were many failures too. I learned first-hand the vital lesson that no two people are the same and that you must treat the person first and foremost, not the condition.

I met Brenda in around 1990 and still occasionally hear from her till this day. Brenda had an especially brutal form of psoriasis called plantar and palmar psoriasis. Meaning that the skin on the palms of her hands and the soles of her feet would be affected and, when we first met, it looked like she has suffered from severe burns on both her hands and feet; they were red, raw and sore.

Brenda was unable to walk or work and, while I would have tried to appear calm and confident, the severity of her condition was really a shock to me. I'd never seen anything like it and really had no idea if I could be of any help, but she told me I was her last resort, a phrase I was to hear often in subsequent years.

People always came to see me because someone they knew had recommended them. In those days, whilst I saw much less people, the ones that did come were often in a very bad way, they had tried every possible treatment that was available through conventional medicine and were desperate for help.

Marked signs of congestion on Brenda's tongue (the fascinating subject of tongue diagnosis is talked about here), plus evidence of a sluggish bowel, plus the little I knew about psoriasis back then, made me think that I should try to help her liver work better with herbs such as Celandine, Dandelion root, Barberry and Burdock.

We made a formula that combined all these herbs and used large doses of them from day one. I didn't give her anything to put on her skin and still usually don't till this day when I treat people with chronic skin problems. i think the skin can sort itself out if we help the internal imbalance and that many of the things we put on the skin just end up making it dependent on the product or more imbalanced.

It was slow, but Brenda also had an excellent response to the treatment. So much so that, all these years later, whenever her condition starts to return, she calls to get a repeat of her formula and takes it for as long as she needs to see things clear up enough to stop worrying about them. It's not a cure, she still has the psoriasis, but it is a hundred times better than it was.

I still have no hesitation to work hard on the health of the liver anytime i meet someone with psoriasis with any signs of liver stagnation (more about that under 'essential housekeeping' below) but there have plenty of times that this has made no appreciable difference to the psoriasis whatsoever, and there are also plenty of times that it appears to do a great deal of good...


Do no harm

There have been hundreds and hundreds of other people that have come in with different autoimmune conditions since those early cases. Part of the reason there have been so many is that it is especially when conventional medicine can't help that, of course, people go looking for alternatives.

All those names listed above are problems I have met many times. The thyroid diseases alone account for a great many cases, polymyalgia increasingly more often, many, many tough cases of rheumatoid arthritis, some of them making marvellous progress, some just nothing no matter what we did. Cases of IBD and psoriasis like the two described above just too many times to count.

I wonder if that last paragraph reads like I am an old practitioner who's been too long on the trenches! I don't feel that way at all, I love the work more than ever, I just want to make it abundantly clear that I know this territory well and how much I recognise that autoimmune problems are really tough.

The reason for this is because I know that there are plenty of authors, including natural medicine ones, who make out like they have the answers or that there are simple answers to autoimmune conditions.

I really wish they wouldn't do that. Hope is a precious commodity, once it's gone then people fall into despair and inertia. You must be very careful not to break the first rule of 'do no harm' and that includes not leading people up the garden path of false expectations.

Again, you must treat the person who has the condition, not the other way around. You do that by looking at, and understanding, the 'ground' of their health, their terrain.


The Terrain

Much of the research into autoimmune conditions has looked for the causative organism that sets off the disordered immune response. It would certainly make sense that some kind of chronic, as yet undetectable, stealth virus was the root of the issue, and maybe, at least in some cases, it really is, maybe.

Even so, it is 'the terrain', the underlying condition of the person, that is the key determinant of whether they get better or they get worse. Whether their immune system fights its battles and retreats from the field or, for whatever reason, stays 'up in arms', even to the point of turning on the tissues of its own body.

Many practitioners that work closely with people, in all branches of medicine, come to a similar understanding about this, because it is what they consistently see in their day to day practice. That the people with the healthy 'terrain'; good genes, good lifestyle, good diet etc, soon shrug of their illnesses whereas people with unhealthy terrain; rough family histories, bad diet, poor self-care, injurious levels of stress etc. can get sick but might not get better and, in some cases get worse, even to the point of developing a disease.

However, by the time we get to the point of giving the disease a name, much or any thinking about the history of what was happening in the last year or two prior to getting sick tends to get swept aside.

Symptoms are overwhelming things to experience. Most of us react to them with fear and, if someone says they are happening because of x or y disease and that these drugs (usually some kind of steroids or immunosuppressants in autoimmune conditions) will make them go away then we have little hesitation to get started and hope that the storm will quickly pass.

The storms do pass with steroids, etc. for at least some people but equally, clearly, it seems that they only help much in the beginning and then give diminishing returns from then on out, often with the price of some very worrying side-effects.

To treat autoimmunity from a holistic perspective, you must understand that with most health conditions, the self-healing intelligence in all its parts, including the immune system, is making a concerted effort to correct whatever has gone wrong. Illness is an invader, whether from external factors of from whatever else is going on internally, and the organism recognises this and does all that it can to restore health and balance.

However, autoimmunity is different, if the body was a country and the 'army' of the immune system usually robustly defended itself against microbes, toxins, mutated cells etc. then an autoimmune condition is like a civil war where some part of the army has turned against some part of 'self'.

In most health conditions, if you can work out what is obstructing a person's life force, their vitality, then you can see a speedy return to health. When the person feels better they get better.

It is sometimes like that with autoimmunity but sometimes it is much trickier to get the shift because it may not at all be a lack of vitality behind the errant immunity.

I heard the analogy some time ago and I think it is a useful one that, instead of thinking of an autoimmune condition coming from an immune system that has become hyperactive, it can be better to understand it as being like a tired and grumpy person who has gone past being reasonable and is now just snapping, or lashing out, in all the wrong directions. It becomes reactive against self because it was already feeling stressed and intolerant to begin with.

People intuitively understand this analogy when it's about themselves or someone they care for, it makes sense to them and they can relate to it in the story of their own life.

Unless they are very superstitious, it makes much better sense that they have not been struck by the lightening of a potentially life-long condition for no other reason than bad luck. Their 'terrain' with all it entails, has set the stage and the civil war has come, but not for no reason.

If all this makes sense to you who are reading this, then the next question is 'what can we do to help?'

The cases above were unusual in how simple it was to get such good results. It is more complex for most people.
Not to say that one shouldn't attempt to use a 'remedy', but the expectation of any significant or lasting change if this is all that is done must be kept low.

For most, some much deeper work into their 'terrain' the ground stuff of their everyday health, is required and in this matter, perhaps the most important area, and at least one that must always be carefully considered, is the diet.


Diet Matters

Diet can matter in terms of whether a cleansing process or a more nourishing diet is required, and both of these are talked about in different sections further below, but these days one of the first questions in my mind when I meet anyone with an autoimmune condition is, 'do they have an undiagnosed food intolerance? Because this may be exactly what has been steadily driving the immune system into becoming irritable and reactive against some part of its own body.

There is already a detailed, and still growing, scientific basis for this in the medical literature. The theory of molecular mimicry includes the possibility that substances from gluten, to name one of the most common examples, can closely mimic compounds that the immune system has learned to recognise as foreign.

Let me also be clear that an autoimmune condition may have nothing whatsoever to do with food allergy or intolerance, but it is at least essential to keep an open mind that it might do too.

For example, if a person has any history of eczema or asthma, then it must be considered as an especially distinct possibility. Likewise, if they suffer from symptoms such as frequent abdominal bloating, disturbed digestion or fluid retention (maybe shown by bags under the eyes) then it also should be at least carefully considered.

Sometimes the only way to know for sure is to remove a suspected food group, see how the health responds, then deliberately re-introduce the excluded foods to see how the system responds when that food or foods come back.

Detailed instructions on how to do this with the two most common causes of food intolerance are written up with Gluten here and Dairy products here

The next step may be to do some food intolerance blood testing with a reputable method. This process, along with other important information, is written up in the article on allergy and intolerance found here


Mind & Body

After diet, the next biggest subject in the terrain that may need to be carefully looked at is the health of the nerves and how they may have been affecting the health of the immune system.

This is the connection between the mind and body, and I cannot say that it is so important because I have any special insights into what really causes autoimmune conditions, I say it because of what so many patients have told me themselves.

Many have said that that they believe it was a significant period of stress in their lives that they have come to see as directly responsible for how they then got sick with an autoimmune condition. Many also say that they can pinpoint excess stress being behind each and every time they have a relapse or worsening of their condition. People know their own experience, you cannot ignore such feedback.

You who are reading this, or the person for whom you are caring, are the only ones who can answer the question 'do you honestly believe that stress is a root cause to your condition?'

If the answer is yes, then there are two things you must now come to terms with. Firstly, it is entirely possible that there are other matters, other causes, that also need your awareness, and that you still have to keep thinking and looking at what else in your 'terrain' may need attention.

Secondly, whatever else you do, you must also work on your stress to have a legitimate hope of becoming truly well. That said, the subject of how to treat and resolve stress is another huge one in itself and again, what works for one person is not the same as what works for another!

I want to encourage you rather than make you think it is too hard, but you must not underestimate how deeply wound-up a person can become and how much it can take to unwind the spring to the point that they can recover their health. Nevertheless, there are, I hope, some useful resources on this site to help a person in this matter.

Firstly, and perhaps foremostly, chronic worry and anxiety is one of the biggest drivers for stress related conditions that there is. A detailed article outlining the best of what I know to legitimately help in this area is found here

Further to that, the big, messy and difficult subject of our emotional health has an extensive chapter written on it that is dedicated to sharing an understanding and an approach that, whilst very counter-intuitive on first impression (you seek to embrace difficult feelings as 'dark friends' rather than try to get rid of them) it is shared for the simple reason that it works, it's here


Essential Housekeeping

As I shared above about Brenda, one my first cases of autoimmunity, helping a necessary internal cleansing to take place can be a transformative intervention.

Cleansing, the liver through the bowel, the kidneys through the bladder, the lymph through the blood, is part of the body's essential housekeeping and, when it's needed, can be pivotal to recovering health.

Bizarrely, conventional medicine has completely side-lined the need for supporting internal clenasing, whilst every other culture and tradition of medicine continues to give it the greatest importance. Were all those practitioners throughout history all wrong? Did they never see genuine healing happen as a result of helping a process of internal detoxification?

Let me be clear that, in some cases, I am sure it would be completely wrong to assume that a need for cleansing is any part of the cause of an autoimmune condition however, equally, in some cases it would be just as dangerously wrong to assume it wasn't a core part of the cause!

How a person might know whether it was likely to be an issue is by learning to listen to their body. Many people already know it, their skin or bowel or bladder or eyes or tongue are showing them, they feel congested. People like to get clean on the outside, sometimes they just know that they need to get clean on the inside too.

Also, if they have an honest look, they may see that the time leading up to their getting sick was one where they were not eating well, or drinking too much, or using some sort of pharmaceutical drugs, all of which are frankly toxic to some extent.

Sometimes, based on what evidence there is, the right action is to simply go through a cleansing process for a few weeks, using certain well-known herbs and a special cleansing diet.

Even if nothing dramatically improves the person will likely benefit from it anyway, and if it really was what they needed to do, then there may be great benefit to them, as this practitioner has seen innumerable times. Further details on this important subject are found here


Activating Immunity

As briefly mentioned earlier, and you will come across this subject many times if you read about autoimmune conditions from other sources, there are many who believe that it must be a kind of stealth infection, a virus or other pathogen, that has triggered an immune response that then starts misfiring against some part of self and doesn't know when to stop. It's a compelling hypothesis and there may be a lot of truth in it, we just don't know.

Let's say it was true and that this was what was the main cause of the autoimmune condition, what could we do about it? Taking steroids or other immunosuppressants to try to sedate the army seems rather short-sighted because, if it still thinks there is an invader that it needs to get rid of, then it will keep trying anyway and as soon as you stop blocking its efforts it will be back to where it was, which is why many people find themselves on seemingly endless regimens of some very heavy drugs indeed.

What would happen if we worked with the immune system instead of against it? What if we encouraged it to fight even harder for a short while, with the understanding that in the normal course of events, once the battle has been fought and won, the whole immune system settles back by itself.

This is the rationale behind using 'sweating therapy'. In a nutshell you put the body into a temporary state of fever by using baths or saunas and drinking a special 'diaphoretic tea' that makes you sweat even more. It's an uncomfortable process to be sure, but it has been seen to work and therefore must at least be considered as an option in some cases.

In no way will sweating therapy work for everyone, nothing does, but it should definitely be considered as an option and, if you will try it or recommend it, carefully read the article on the steps to take found here

About 5 or 6 years ago, at the time of writing, I met a woman called Agnes who had rheumatoid arthritis. It was particularly bad in her hands, but like most people with RA, she would repeatedly get systemic bouts of general inflammation and she said she had pain and aches to some extent nearly all the time.

Agnes did not have any signs of food intolerance or any signs that she might need help with cleansing, likewise her life was about as stress-free as you could get, except for her illness itself.

I always give some nourishing herbal medicines before doing sweating therapy and will talk about them next, but even though Agnes went through the whole process of taking the bath, wrapping up in a blanket and drinking the tea etc. she just could not get a sweat going in the no less than three times she gave it a go.

On the 2nd visit, when I heard about her 3 unsuccessful attempts to get a sweat going, I did a full review with the mindset that maybe I had missed something else that needed attention but again, the only thing that stood out from her history is that she was initially sub-febrile when she first got sick, in other words she did have a mild fever but it never really got going and just lingered on for weeks in the beginning of her illness. It was as if a fire had taken hold in her and then never been able to properly burn itself out.

Agnes promised to redouble her efforts with the sweating therapy, because she said she maybe could have made the bath even hotter, and we arranged to meet again sooner this time to assess how things went.

On her 3rd visit she reported that again, she just could not get a sweat going so this time, even though she was no 'spring chicken' and was not so comfortable with going out in public in a bathing suit, she agreed to go to an intensely hot public sauna and to take her tea in a thermos to drink afterwards.

Some people can get much hotter in a bath than a sauna but for Agnes it was the other way round and finally, the sauna could do what the bath couldn't and she broke through and sweated profusely for the first time in many years.

What happened next was most challenging for her, but she had been warned it could happen and she was prepared for it. Her whole system went into a kind of febrile state for two days after the sauna. She repeatedly went hot and cold and even sweated profusely again in bed on the first night. Her body and hands hurt badly but she told me that it was a different kind of pain, much sharper rather than the usual dull ache and it would come and go and move around a lot more than usual.

She kept up her fluids as directed and weathered the storm, which eventually passed and then, for the first time in many years, she felt her body moving freely and without pain.

I've re-read her notes to get the details right, but Agnes initially came to mind when writing this because I met her by chance about a week ago in the waiting room when she came in to get a repeat herbal prescription for her husband. I told her I was glad I hadn't seen her in years and asked her how she was whereupon she gave me a big smile and a positive report. She's not perfect but she's much better, her words were 'it hardly bothers me anymore'

In a similar manner, another potential break-through treatment for an autoimmune condition is to help the body rid itself of a chronic infection of unhealthy organisms in the bowel.

If you put the terms 'autoimmunity + microbiome' into your search engine you will find many scientific articles showing how researchers are establishing close links between the state and function of the immune system and the health of the flora that live inside our gut.

Abdominal bloating and excess wind are the primary symptoms of what is called 'dysbiosis' meaning infection in the gut and in some cases a detailed history shows that a person got a particularly bad gut infection in the year or two before they became sick with an autoimmune condition.

Sometimes, if this is an area that looks like it might be wise to explore, we just take a herbal protocol that can be relied upon to rid the body of the bad bugs, put plenty of good ones back in, and see what happens. The details of all this are written up here


Nourish back to health

The last main area that I would carefully consider as where to potentially direct the treatment of the terrain can be summarised in the word 'nourishment'.

If you recall the analogy of the immune system becoming like a tired, grumpy and reactive person who just starts lashing out in the wrong directions, this is an intuitive approach to provide care; good food and rest, so that perhaps slowly, but gradually, the immune system becomes more settled, less intolerant. It moves towards peace and away from war...

This area is where I do a great deal of my work with my patients with autoimmune conditions. We have hopefully dealt with or ruled out the other areas described above and are now trying to patiently nurture the immune system back to health. A healthy diet, certain key herbs, and some simple lifestyle interventions usually form the cornerstones.

General and widely accepted guidelines for what construes a healthy diet are written up in an article called excellent nutrition found here

There are many others, but at least two herbs that can be relied on to safely support and nourish a reactive, stressed immune system are Reishi mushroom, notes on it here and Astragalus, more here.

I also want to mention here that I absolutely love and use a great deal of Echinacea, but I am wary about using it when a person has an autoimmune condition, especially in the early stages. Echinacea is such a potent immune tonic, it can be a great nourisher but can also be too stimulating if a person isn't ready for it. Echinacea may be best to carefully try in the later stages, when some of the causes are being dealt with and the immune system is clearly starting to improve and settle down naturally.

What does the person need to get better balance in their life and to feel that they are living in a healthier way? The lifestyle interventions could be anything. Don't have a preconception of the 'right' answer, just ask the right questions. For example is it more exercise or more relaxation that is needed, more time with friends or more time alone, more time learning and using their brain or more time unwinding with something that is utterly untaxing? Wherever is the biggest imbalance, the greatest need, start there.


Final Thoughts

There is nothing worse than being sick. Our body is our home, where we live, we have nowhere else to go and, especially with autoimmune conditions, it is deeply distressing to realise that one part of us is doing harm to another.

Everything has its place. If the symptoms are unbearably strong, then emergency medicine and powerful immunosuppressive drugs may be the only appropriate intervention and should be used without hesitation and gratitude for their existence. But don't stop there if the condition is chronic, look for causes and ways to treat those causes. If you can treat the cause, then there is every chance that you will heal.

Many of these subjects have now already been introduced or discussed to some extent in this article but, if you would like to read further on the subject of health and healing in general, then it may be of value to work with your constitution as introduced here and to read about the cycle of healing, found here

Good luck, don't give up on yourself, people can get better from just about anything if they do what they can to treat the cause and work with the healing power of Nature.

Please understand that I cannot personally advise you without seeing you in my clinic.
This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!



© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd