What to Do When Your Immune System Turns On You

By David Blyweiss, M.D., Advanced Natural Wellness

October 29, 2012

  • The rash that isn’t a rash at all
  • Why the cause matters more than the symptoms
  • Psoriasis cures your doctor won’t think to try

Growing up, it seemed like one kid every year always bore the brunt of teasing – usually for being noticeably different in some way. In third grade, it was the girl with scaly skin. Who always wore turtlenecks and long sleeves, in every kind of weather. And who was still tugging at her sleeves so they would cover her red, scaly wrists and hands.

The kids were brutal to her. She ate lunch alone every day. I felt bad for her – even though she was a girl, which at that age simply meant she was already the enemy and would have been considered to have “cooties” no matter what her skin looked like.

One day, I worked up the courage to ask her why her skin was so scaly. “It’s just a rash,” she told me, shyly. “You can’t catch it, you know.”

Every time I treat a patient with psoriasis today, I flash back on her. Of course, I know now that what she had was most definitely not “just a rash” – it was a terrible case of psoriasis.

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And while I wish I could say that no kids – or adults for that matter – have to suffer through what she did… I can’t.

Today happens to be World Psoriasis Day – so it seems like a good day to give you some good news about psoriasis to either try, or pass along to someone you might know who suffers with the condition…

We now know a little more about psoriasis than we did then, medically speaking. But too many conventional medical docs are still treating it like a very bad rash – and not like the autoimmune disorder it is.

That’s right, psoriasis is one of the many results of an immune system gone awry.

On the surface, skin cells begin to multiply at an accelerated rate. Like all immune disorders, inflammation plays a significant role. It also increases production of T cells – a type of white blood cell that fights against biological invaders – and yet, the invader is nothing more than your own cells.

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While many researchers have suggested there is a genetic component to psoriasis, it doesn’t fall along any easily discernible genetic pattern. There are common triggers – such as stress, certain foods, changes in temperature – but nothing that is common enough across all cases to constitute a cause or a cure.

Like all autoimmune disorders, the standard approach to treating psoriasis is symptom relief. Anti-inflammatories or steroids to reduce inflammation. Or worse, drugs to suppress the immune system.

Neither is very successful, and both come with negative side effects, especially when used over long periods of time. As a result, most people deal with psoriasis their entire lives. Depending on how long they have had their symptoms, they often don’t even know how much better they could feel.

Even the World Psoriasis Day website says, “psoriasis is a life-long skin disorder…” – as if there is no hope.

But it’s not as hopeless as it may seem. That is, if you look for the root cause, rather than focus on the symptoms. This is where the practice of Functional Medicine can make such a big difference.

Patients who land in my office with autoimmune disorders, like psoriasis, are generally at the end of their rope. They are often baffled when I start asking them questions about all aspects of their health, not just the symptoms that brought them. But after years of frustration, they are willing to try something new.

Functional Medicine physicians like myself take on autoimmune system challenges all the time – and regularly, we win.

Here’s where we start:

1) Check for undetected infections: There are plenty of pathogens that like to hide out and cause trouble, but aren’t easy to detect. Especially not if you don’t know to look for them! These might include yeast, non-specific viruses or bacteria, Lyme Disease, and more.

2) Find out if you have food allergies: Next, we assess food allergies, including wheat, dairy – and others that might be less common.

3) Fix your gut: Most of us have taken too many antibiotics in our lifetimes. Even if you’ve had psoriasis since you were a child, it could be that your gut flora has been wiped out for that long! Taking steps to re-populate your gut with healthy flora is one of the number one ways to reverse inflammation, and start to get autoimmune disorders under control.

4) Strengthen your immune system: Rather than suppress the immune system, you want to take steps to both quiet it, and strengthen it. Vitamins C and D, fish oil, and probiotics are all helpful. Plus, avoiding processed foods, and increasing the antioxidants in your diet. Green tea, red wine, berries – all excellent additions to an anti-inflammatory, immune-boosting diet.

5) Reduce stress: Most people with psoriasis, or any autoimmune disorder can attest that stress is one of the biggest enemies of your immune system. Exercise, meditation, or even just a few simple breathing exercises a day can be helpful for some. While others may need to re-assess career and home life and make bigger changes to reduce stress.

Even if genetics does prove to play a role in psoriasis, by attending to these five crucial areas of your health, you have a good shot at finding and resolving the underlying cause or trigger – and eliminating this painful hyper-rash from your body.

And in cases where psoriasis attacks the joints, it’s even more important that you find a physician who is knowledgeable about Functional Medicine, and is willing to try new approaches…

Between 10-30% of people with psoriasis will develop a debilitating condition called psoriatic arthritis. In most patients, the psoriasis will appear first in the skin before escalating to the joints. But while psoriasis doesn’t cause long-term harm to the skin, it can destroy the joints… permanently.

Even though all psoriasis sufferers won’t escalate to this point, it is a very good reason not to put off resolving your psoriasis before it gets to the joints.

Unfortunately, the same approaches used in regular psoriasis and all other autoimmune diseases are just as ineffective in cases of psoriatic arthritis. Which makes getting to the root cause that much more urgent.

Supplements that offer some relief include glucosamine and chondroitin – often found together. These are used regularly by people with osteoarthritis, knee and other joint pain from athletics, and other forms of arthritis. And also, MSM (methylsulfonylmethane), a natural sulfur compound that promotes joint function. However, avoid this one if you are allergic to sulfates.

Other holistic approaches – such as massage therapy and acupuncture – can help reduce pain, swelling and other symptoms. But it is the destruction of the joints that is the most worrisome about this form of psoriasis. And it is the main reason why you shouldn’t give up and simply manage your psoriasis, but rather, try to eliminate it before it escalates – and robs you of your joint health.

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