A functional medicine approach to MS has the possibility of reversing the disease process by enabling your body to heal itself.
As with any disorder or illness, the functional medicine approach is not as concerned with the symptoms of a particular disease as much as it is with the underlying cause of the disease. When the body functions properly, symptoms diminish, and illness is no longer present.
Spectrum of Autoimmune Disorders
MS is one of many autoimmune disorders. An autoimmune disorder, by definition, is when your immune system mistakes healthy cells as a threat and responds by attacking them. In the case of MS, the immune system is attacking the protective covering of nerves (myelin). This creates scar tissue on the nerves and interrupts messages sent along the nerves to the brain and spinal cord.
The symptoms of MS are varied and can range from mild to severe. According to the National MS Society, common symptoms include fatigue, difficulty walking, numbness or tingling, involuntary muscle spasms, weakness, vision problems, dizziness and vertigo, bladder and bowel problems, pain, cognitive and emotional changes, and sexual problems. Less common symptoms include speech issues, swallowing problems, tremors, seizures, breathing issues, headaches, and hearing loss.
While traditional medicine may treat different autoimmune disorders as separate and distinct, the functional medicine approach views them on a continuum. Hashimoto’s disease, for example, is an autoimmune condition in which the immune system attacks the thyroid. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a condition in which the immune system attacks the joints. These are all conditions where the immune system is attacking otherwise healthy cells.
A functional medicine practitioner isn’t as concerned with what’s being attacked as much as why the attack is occurring.
Shift from Traditional to Functional Medicine Mindset
Functional medicine and traditional medicine might seem to be at odds with one another. But the reality is, they do not need to be. Traditional medicine tends to focus on treating symptoms. In the case of MS, that may be accomplished by depressing the immune system to stop an attack or reducing inflammation. This is necessary, can provide symptom relief to patients, and when other approaches fail, may be the only recourse the remains.
The distinction is that these treatments are occurring after the fact. They focus on stopping attacks in progress and relieving the symptoms of the attack. However, if you want restore true health, then you need to figure out why the immune system went from functioning normally to attacking itself. This did not occur in a vacuum. Something happened to cause your body to go into this abnormal state of hyperimmunity. That is the focus of functional medicine.
Underlying Causes of MS
This section should probably be entitled “underlying causes of hyperimmunity” rather than “underlying causes of MS.” Semantics aside, there are a handful of common reasons why your body may go into a hyper immune state.
Food Sensitivities and Leaky Gut
If you read my articles, you’ll recognize that that food sensitivities and GI tract health are a common theme. Why is that? It’s because 80% of your immune system lives in your gut. Digest that for a moment (yes, pun intended). 80% of what keeps us healthy -- or makes us sick -- is in our gut. That sheds new light on the phrase “you are what you eat."
There is a myriad of reasons why you may develop sensitivities to particular foods, and it can be difficult to know which foods cause problems for you. (To better understand this, read my article, “Food Sensitivities: A Common and Misunderstood Reason for GI Issues”). When your body is constantly reacting to a food to which you have a sensitivity, you are damaging your GI tract.
A properly functioning GI tract, or gut, must be somewhat permeable in order to absorb the nutrients from our food. However, when the gut is exposed to certain foods, infections, toxins, and stress, it can become “leaky” allowing toxins, microorganisms (including bacteria), and undigested foods to leak into your blood stream. It can also prevent the absorption of essential vitamins and minerals. This can cause inflammation within the body which, in turn, can result in autoimmune disease.
Chronic Viral Infections
Throughout your life, you’ve been exposed to a variety of viral infections including, the flu, chickenpox, HPV (human papillomavirus), and mononucleosis, to name a few. Once contracted, they can stay with you for the rest of your life, going in and out of dormant states. Chickenpox is a classic example. We get chickenpox, deal with the symptoms, and then it will go dormant and can live within our nerves for decades. As we age, and our immune system’s ability to protect our body decreases, the chickenpox virus can resurface as shingles.
Scientists have long suspected that viruses may be linked to the development of autoimmune disorders. Some people are simply better able to tolerate the low-level viruses than others. If you’re a person who is not able to tolerate the viruses, or if your immune system is otherwise compromised, it can trigger the hyper immune state that leads to autoimmune dysfunction.
Toxicity is another common problem in today’s world. Whether we realize it or not, toxicity levels in our environment and within our bodies are on the rise. We are exposed to toxins in the air we breathe, water we drink, and on the foods that we drink. Additionally, many of the products in our home are made from chemicals whose health impact has not been fully tested and may be negatively impacting our health.
In some instances, toxic exposure can damage or alter your body on the cellular level. These changes can make it such that your body mistakes these cells as foreign tissue and goes on the attack. In other cases, the effect is less direct, causing chronic inflammation which, in turn, leads to hyperimmunity.
Certain nutrient deficiencies also play a role in MS. The one with the most evidence is vitamin D. The best source of vitamin D is from sunlight. For years, physicians have referred to the Midwest as the “MS belt” because our incidence rates are so much higher than in other parts of the country. It’s believed that the lack of sun exposure during the winter months contributes to higher-than-average levels of MS. Conversely, in tropical areas of the world, MS is rare.
When tested, evidence suggests that 50-90% of people who live in the Midwest are vitamin D deficient. My own clinical experience leads me to believe the number is closer to 80-90%.
There’s another factor to consider here, and that’s the difference between “normal” and “optimal” levels of any nutrient. When testing a population for vitamin D levels, for example, the results of thousands of individuals are charted. Researchers will use that data to determine the “normal” vitamin D level. These results indicate that vitamin D concentrations in the low 30’s would be “normal”. However, research shows that the “optimal” level of vitamin D is actually between 50-75. This can lead to many patients believing that their “normal” levels of vitamin D are sufficient, when in fact, they are not.
As I stated earlier, the functional medicine treatment approach to MS doesn’t actually look at the MS itself. The goal is to fix the function of the immune system. There’s a reason why the immune system is not functioning properly -- our goal is to uncover and correct those reasons. Sometimes you can identify and correct them, other times you cannot. But there’s always an underlying reason for the dysfunction.
The approach we take will differ for each patient, but the first step is always to take a detailed health history. What we learn about that individual patient’s history will point us in the direction of detailed testing necessary to uncover the root of the problem.
After testing is complete, we move on to working to correct the problems that we have found. This is a multi-faceted approach that includes dietary adjustments, lifestyle changes, and nutraceutical supplementation.
You might be asking yourself, “Why didn’t my doctor tell me any of this?” And that brings us back to the shift in focus from symptoms to causes.
In today’s world, medicine is focused on symptom relief. Upon diagnosis, the doctor-patient conversation focuses on “living with MS” or managing the symptoms of the condition. It’s a foregone conclusion that you have the disorder and your only option is to figure out how to live with it.
Pharmaceutical companies exist because of a desire to relieve symptoms. There are brilliant minds working very hard to improve muscle function, for example, in MS patients. Great strides have been made on the symptomatic front, and patients have benefitted from these discoveries.
But managing the symptoms of MS is not the same as getting better.
Equally great strides are being made on the functional medicine front in uncovering the root causes of MS and understanding how to reverse them. In fact, it’s been said that we’ve learned more about the gut in the past 5 years than was known in the previous 50 years.
And that’s the key to true health -- a better understanding of bodily function combined with newer, more advanced tools to uncover biochemical imbalances that lead to dysfunction.
Functional medicine has been called the future of medicine. But, that future is here in the offices of functional medicine practitioners across the country. To learn if Functional Medicine could help you, call 715-355-4224 to schedule a no-charge consultation at our Weston clinic.
Dr. Kevin Ritzenthaler, DC, DCBCN
Draeger Chiropractic & Laser Center
2114 Schofield Ave, Weston, WI 54476