The Immune System Recovery Plan
INTRODUCTION Getting Started: A New Partnership
There’s a growing epidemic in our country. It doesn’t grab newspaper headlines or make the evening news, but it’s there and it is debilitating and potentially deadly. It is the epidemic of autoimmune disease. Autoimmune diseases are among the most prevalent forms of chronic illness in this country, now affecting an estimated 23.5 million Americans. More people suffer from this group of chronic illnesses than from cancer or heart disease, yet most people don’t even know what these conditions are. This lack of awareness is killing us—literally. It’s causing severe pain, disability, and even death. Worse yet, many people with autoimmune conditions suffer with their symptoms because conventional doctors either can’t figure out what’s wrong or can’t get to the root of the problem.
The answer is functional medicine, a medical specialty that has come of age in the past ten years and focuses on reversing these chronic conditions. Hope is here. You’re holding it in your hands.
WHY A BOOK ON AUTOIMMUNE DISEASE?
There are more than one hundred different autoimmune conditions, and they are all serious chronic diseases caused by an underlying problem in the immune system. This book is a call to alarm: these diseases are reversible and curable if caught early, before they progress and cause severe pain, disability, and even death. The first symptoms might be vague feelings of fatigue, muscle or joint pain, or a nagging feeling that something isn’t right. With simple blood tests, you can be diagnosed at this early stage, and then, by following the steps in this book, your immune system can be brought back into balance before irreversible damage is done to your brain, joints, thyroid, blood vessels, and other vital organs. If you have been suffering from an autoimmune condition for some time and you have already experienced some tissue damage, this book will help
you feel better in general, show how you can actually reverse the effects of the disease, and help prevent your specific tissue damage from getting worse. As a doctor, I have long been aware of autoimmune conditions such as Graves’ disease, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, lupus, multiple sclerosis (MS), Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, psoriasis, alopecia areata, vitiligo, Sjögren’s syndrome, and scleroderma, among others. But when I was diagnosed with one of these illnesses, it changed both my personal and professional lives forever.
Before I go any further, let me introduce myself the way I would if you were one of the patients in my office. I’m Dr. Susan Blum, a board-certified physician in preventive medicine and an assistant clinical professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. I am also the founder of Blum Center for Health in Rye Brook, New York.
In medical school, I started down the road of traditional medicine. Then during my internal medicine residency, I quickly realized that I didn’t want to focus just on illness or disease; I wanted to focus on preventing those conditions in the first place. But back then preventive medicine consisted mostly of screening tests and public health programs. It wasn’t part of a doctor’s everyday practice. Physicians just weren’t given the tools in medical school to help their patients change their behavior, such as how to get people to eat healthfully or reduce stress. I knew I had to take a different route as a doctor, so I sought training from institutions that were considered “outside the box” at the time. In particular, I was interested in the relationship between stress, nutrition, and illness.
I moved off the beaten path of traditional medicine toward a more holistic approach and into an emerging field called functional medicine. First I completed a program at the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C., where I learned tools for stress management and methods to reverse the effects of stress on the body. Then, at the Institute for Functional Medicine, I learned how food affects these processes, either promoting health or causing diseases. When I started applying what I had learned about stress management and nutrition in my own practice, I saw firsthand how these methods helped people to prevent and actually reverse chronic diseases. These two ideas—prevention and reversal of chronic disease—became my passions and are at the core of
my medical practice today. But there is one area where these techniques are truly life-changing: autoimmune diseases.
I know this not only because I have seen the benefits for my patients who suffer from autoimmune diseases but also because I saw the impact on myself when I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.
I discovered it more than a decade ago when a friend asked me why my hands were so yellow. I actually hadn’t noticed this before, but she was right, so I immediately had blood work done to find out why.
“You have hypothyroidism,” my doctor told me after the lab results came back. Me? A thyroid problem? I couldn’t believe it. Hypothyroidism is a condition in which the thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone. This hormone is necessary to help the body convert beta-carotene, a nutrient found in yellow and orange fruits and vegetables, into vitamin A. Because this conversion wasn’t happening, all the beta-carotene from my healthful diet wasn’t being properly processed. Instead, these nutrients were building up in my body, and one symptom of this was my yellow hands. In retrospect, I realized that this wasn’t the only one. Another was the fact that I had to work really hard to keep from gaining weight, and a third was that I was often very tired. But at the time I didn’t realize these were signs of a problem. They had been part of my life for so long that I considered them “normal.”
Further testing revealed even more bad news. I had an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. In other words, my immune system, which is normally the body’s defense in the daily battle against infection and invaders, was no longer protecting or defending me. In fact, my immune cells had turned against my thyroid, attacking it and damaging it to the point where it was struggling unsuccessfully to make enough thyroid hormone. I was shocked. I had become a vegetarian years earlier, I exercised regularly, I practiced yoga and meditation, and I had cultivated a strong, spiritual faith. I had faced my demons in psychotherapy and was finally content with my life. Because I was doing what I thought were all the right things already, being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease was shocking and frightening. I was also a medical doctor, so I just couldn’t believe that something was going on inside my body that I didn’t know about.
But my primary care physician just shrugged off this upsetting news. “It’s no big deal,” he said. “You’ll just take thyroid hormone replacement medication and be fine.” No big deal? Maybe not to him, but my intuition told me something wasn’t right. My body was out of balance, and I wanted answers. Why did I have this disease? And why now? To understand my
illness, I decided to use it as an opportunity to explore all that traditional and nontraditional medicine had to offer me. I didn’t want to take a pill that would only mask the problem and just manage my symptoms. I wanted to know why those symptoms were there in the first place.
HOW FUNCTIONAL MEDICINE HELPED ME
The journey that I began after my diagnosis of Hashimoto’s disease led me deeper into the unique and, at the time, relatively new field of functional medicine, an approach that considers the whole person, not just his or her symptoms. After receiving my diagnosis, I began using the principles I learned at the Institute for Functional Medicine to treat myself. As a result, I discovered that because of a genetic predisposition, I’m at high risk for autoimmune diseases. I also learned that my body has trouble removing mercury from my system. (Mercury is a toxin that’s damaging to tissue in our bodies and a potential cause of autoimmune diseases.) I went on a gluten-free diet and reduced my mercury exposure by no longer eating fish high in this heavy metal (such as tuna, swordfish, eel, and striped bass), and over the course of two years I had my many dental amalgam fillings removed. I began to drink protein shakes that reduce inflammation and enhance the function of the liver. (Since the liver is the body’s main detoxifying organ, this helps it clear mercury and other toxins from the body.) Two years after I learned I had Hashimoto’s and started the journey to treat my autoimmune disease using functional medicine, my antibody levels were normal and my disease was cured. I was taking a small amount of thyroid hormone (called levothyroxine), and I had great energy and my weight was easy to maintain. I was thrilled and excited to share what I had learned with my patients.
That was the first step. Because my thyroid was already damaged when I was first diagnosed, my next goal was healing my thyroid, which can take a variable amount of time for each person, depending on how long it has been under attack by the autoimmune disease. Since my thyroid gland was quite damaged from the Hashimoto’s, I still needed, and continue to need, thyroid hormone replacement. That said, I now take half the dose that I was taking ten years ago. Today I feel healthier and more energetic than I ever have. My health journey has taught me what my body needs, how to ask, and how to listen. Reversing a chronic disease takes time and effort, but it can be done. My story is proof of that. I did it for myself and made the professional decision to help other people living with autoimmune diseases do it, too.
Years ago I gave a lecture to an audience full of health care professionals at the Center for Mind-Body Medicine’s professional training program. During that lecture, I talked about the importance of using food as medicine and how simple things such as breathing and relaxation can work to help heal disease. I was stunned to find that these important, life-changing concepts were new to most of the two hundred people in the audience. And they were health care professionals! I couldn’t believe it. How could these doctors teach these things to their patients if they didn’t understand them and weren’t practicing them themselves? It was then that I realized it was time to get the word out more broadly than simply to my patients and the people who attended that lecture and other talks I continue to give.
HOW FUNCTIONAL MEDICINE CAN HELP YOU
In 2010, after several years of planning (and many more spent dreaming about such an opportunity), I opened Blum Center for Health in Rye Brook, New York, where the focus is on a comprehensive integration of functional medicine, mind-body medicine, and preventive medicine. It includes a cooking school to teach patients and clients how to eat for their health and a mind-body-spirit center that teaches an array of relaxation techniques not only to prevent chronic health conditions but also to reverse them. This, combined with the functional medicine treatment I offer as a medical doctor, has created extraordinary, life-changing results for my patients.
I’m not the only person who has been told to simply pop a few pills and move on. And I’m certainly not the only one who thought that there should be a better way. Today, in my functional medicine practice at Blum Center for Health, patients often share with me what their traditional medical doctors have said after diagnosing them with an autoimmune disease: “Get used to the painkillers. You’ll need them for the rest of your life,” “We don’t know why people get these diseases,” and “Your immune system can’t be treated.” These are just a few examples, but the recurring theme is generally one of hopelessness. The idea is that you should just accept your diagnosis and the inevitable lifelong battle with painkillers, drugs that suppress your immune system, and the side effects of both (some of which can be devastating and long-term). I simply refused to accept that there was nothing I could do for myself or the other 23.5 million Americans currently living with autoimmune diseases. But with the prevalence of autoimmune diseases on the rise, I know that there are
many, many people living with these conditions who will never make it to my office. I wrote this book so I could offer this plan—an effective and healthy approach—to a broader audience.
Many traditional doctors have an attitude of “just give in to your illness,” which only leads you to feel utterly powerless. It also makes your disease worse because it undermines the body’s natural healing process. The mind-body connection is real and powerful. There are many studies that show that the more control a person feels he or she has over a situation, the higher the rate of healing. People do better, feel better, and live better with various health conditions if they have a sense that there is something they can do for themselves. And there is! That is one of the core principles of functional medicine, and as an expert in the field, I’m here to show you how much control you can have over your own health and well-being.
So what exactly is a functional medicine expert? First, let me tell you what it is not. Most traditional doctors take note of your symptoms and figure out what diagnosis they can bundle those symptoms into. This usually dictates your treatment. Therefore, if you and a friend have the same symptoms, you often get the same diagnosis and then the same treatment. This works for trauma and for health issues such as appendicitis or a broken leg, where certain things such as surgery can remedy an immediate problem or symptom. Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t work when you’re trying to treat and prevent complex, chronic illnesses such as autoimmune diseases.
A functional medicine expert is like a medical detective gathering all the clues of your past (where you grew up, your family situation, traumatic events, health history, etc.) and your present (potential toxins in your environment, social life, stress level, relationships, diet, workout regimen, sleep habits, symptoms, etc.). Armed with this information, a functional medicine expert tries to uncover how and why your body is not functioning well. This type of detective work is what I offer all of my patients at Blum Center for Health and what I used to cure myself of the serious autoimmune condition that I had. It is exactly what I will offer you with the interactive elements that run throughout this book.
Sidney Baker, M.D., a well-known preventive medicine specialist who is often called the father of functional medicine, once said, “If you are sitting on a tack, the answer is not to treat the pain. The solution is to find the tack and remove it.” The Immune System Recovery Plan will help you find the “tacks” that are causing your immune system to malfunction and remove them one by one. It will take you through the four critical steps
that will remove things from the body that are bad for the immune system and then make sure the body has exactly what it needs to function properly.
THE IMMUNE SYSTEM RECOVERY PLAN
I wrote The Immune System Recovery Plan to share an important message of hope and healing. Shockingly, there is no other book on the market that tells the average person how the immune system works and shows how to fix it. And that’s exactly what I’ll detail in these pages. I will explain how I have helped hundreds of people with autoimmune diseases such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjögren’s syndrome, Hashimoto’s disease, and Graves’ disease, among others, reverse their symptoms and reduce their antibodies.
Antibodies are molecules normally made by your immune cells to attack and destroy foreign invaders, but in autoimmune diseases, these antibodies are misdirected and attack and damage your own tissue. Many of these conditions are chronic, debilitating, and potentially life-threatening. In fact, autoimmune diseases are one of the top ten leading causes of death in girls and in women up to sixty-four years of age.
The Immune System Recovery Plan will help you figure out what you’re feeling, why you’re experiencing certain symptoms, and how you can treat the underlying causes of those symptoms so you can reverse your autoimmune disease. How can one book address whatever autoimmune condition you have? Because most of these conditions have similar underlying imbalances. Through the interactive aspects in The Immune System Recovery Plan, which include checklists, questionnaires, and self-assessments, you will be able to do with this book what my patients do with me in my office. Naturally, you won’t be doing your own blood work or stool tests (since those require a health care professional), but by using the four steps in this book, you will learn how to treat whatever autoimmune condition you have. The four steps to healing and preventing autoimmune disease are:
• Step 1: Using food as medicine
• Step 2: Understanding the stress connection
• Step 3: Healing your gut
• Step 4: Supporting your liver
I suggest you do the four steps in order, which will help you reap the most benefit from this book. However, each one can also stand alone, so you
can target one area at a time if you prefer. The Immune System Recovery Plan is divided into four parts, corresponding to the four steps. Each part is divided into three chapters:
• The first chapter in each part offers a clear explanation about how the immune system is affected by the topic at hand—for example, how the immune system responds to stress or how digestive health influences the immune system.
• The second chapter is a workbook with self-assessments. Using the results of these assessments, I will help you personalize your own treatment plan. This chapter will provide all the information you need to implement the plan, including specific instructions on how to integrate these tools into daily life and how to make permanent lifestyle changes.
• The third chapter provides recipes that show you how to use food as part of your personalized treatment plan. Each recipe includes foods specifically targeted to each of the four steps.
As we move through the four steps, I will explain why each is important and show you how quickly you can begin to feel better. By following each of the four steps, either alone or together, you will begin to improve your immune system immediately. These steps are the foundation that I use in the treatment plan I create for every one of my patients and are the simplest and most effective “medicine.”
The Immune System Recovery Plan will answer the following questions and many more:
• How the five A’s (antacids, antibiotics, Advil, alcohol, and animal foods) make you sick
• Why the most common foods in the standard American diet are commonly mistaken by your body as invaders, causing your immune system to attack your own body
• How exposure to mercury and other toxins changes the composition of your tissues, causing your immune system to attack your own body
• How common viruses—such as the Epstein-Barr virus, which causes mono—can provoke an ongoing immune reaction that causes you to feel chronically swollen, stiff, puffy, and tired
• How conventional treatments, which shut off the body’s immune response, have serious side effects including insomnia, weight gain, muscle pain, increased blood pressure, and depression
• How the functional medicine approach can be used in conjunction with traditional treatments to offer big benefits and very little risk
• How every virus you’ve ever had—including cold sores, chicken pox, shingles, hepatitis, Epstein-Barr, and more—leaves residual particles in your body that can develop into autoimmune disease, and how to make sure that those conditions aren’t created in your body
• How 70 percent of your immune system lives in your gut, and why balancing the good and bad bacteria in your digestive tract can lead to optimal immune function
• How having the right amount of bacteria in your gut reduces the incidence of allergies and autoimmune disease
HELP FOR US ALL
One thing I’d like to note is that although this book highlights autoimmune conditions/diseases, The Immune System Recovery Plan will help anyone wishing to have a healthier, more balanced immune system. The steps outlined here have helped my patients who suffer from asthma and allergies, as well as people who feel they catch every flu or cold bug that they encounter.
More people today than ever before have autoimmune diseases, and this epidemic is partially the result of an environment that bombards us with toxic food, stress, chemicals, and heavy metals. And while we cannot live in a bubble, we can protect our health by becoming more aware and changing what comes into our homes, into our families, and into our bodies. Every single one of us has both a choice and a responsibility to care for ourselves.
What’s most important to know is that we do have control over what happens to us. Yes, being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease is something to take seriously. But it is not a life sentence and should not be treated as one. You don’t have to live in pain or take debilitating medication for the rest of your life. You can heal your own immune system. I know this not only because I’ve experienced this with many of my patients but also because I have lived it.
The Immune System Recovery Plan gives you tools for treating and even reversing your autoimmune conditions as well as the tools for preventing them in the first place. My goal for you while reading this book is to see that autoimmune disorders are treatable and that permanent solutions do exist beyond a lifetime of taking pills. There is hope and so much that you—yes, you—can do to be the facilitator of your own healing. And you are not alone. I am here to guide you on this journey, so let’s get started!
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “Research discoveries of the last decade have made autoimmune research one of the most promising new areas of discovery.”
BEFORE YOU BEGIN
I realize that this book contains technical information that can sometimes feel overwhelming and treatment plans that are asking you to make many changes in your diet and your life. But as you read through it all, take a deep breath and look past the trees. I want you to see the forest. I want you to know that there are options that don’t involve medication—options that can actually help you heal your immune system. While you do need to focus on the trees, which are the details of each of the four steps in this book, keep your eye on the big picture of what we are trying to accomplish: healing your body on the deepest level.
My goals for this book are threefold. First, I want you to realize that an enormous body of scientific literature supports this approach to healing and balancing the immune system. You may come up against physicians who are unfamiliar with functional medicine and unfamiliar with some of the studies I share with you in this book. But just because your doctor doesn’t know about this information doesn’t mean it is wrong. My goal in this book is to empower you to take charge of your own health. I also want you to have the confidence to share this information with others.
My second goal is to offer you treatment like what you might get at my office. There are millions of you and only one of me. This is why I created a workbook. It is broken up into sections so that you can put it down and pick it up later, working through at your own pace. It is a lot to do at once, and you don’t have to do it all in one week or even one month. Don’t get overwhelmed. You can do it. And remember, help is always close by: you can get help from our website, or you can find a functional medicine doctor to help you figure some of this out if it is too much for you. (See the appendix for resources.)
My third goal for this book is to offer a message of hope. My heart sings at the opportunity to let you know that you don’t need to give up and give in to a life of chronic suffering and medication. I sincerely wish each of you a healing journey as you make these changes that I know will help you feel better.