Sarah’s Silent Struggle
Sarah experienced unusual symptoms but had learned to live with them. She assumed that her busy lifestyle with two young kids and her stressful job explained her tiredness—a deep exhaustion, actually. No matter what she ate, her digestion seemed to be all over the place, and she kept on putting on weight, regardless of her constant dieting efforts. Her moods fluctuated, and the once-happy person she used to be had been replaced by a miserable woman teetering on the brink of depression. On the outside, however, she pretended everything was fine. Her blood tests in regular check-ups showed that everything was in order, so Sarah kept on pushing herself even though she was getting more and more tired and feeling increasingly desperate.
Unbeknownst to her, Sarah was suffering from Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune condition. It took an alert doctor in Paris to diagnose her with a blood test, based on her symptoms. At first, she was upset to hear the news, but later she also admitted feeling a sense of relief: all these years she wasn’t going crazy, there was actually a medical reason for her frustrating symptoms.
Sarah is just one of the countless individuals who silently endure the burden of autoimmune diseases for years before receiving a diagnosis, a trend that appears to be on the rise.
Varied Effects of Autoimmune Diseases
Autoimmune disease is an illness in which the body’s immune system, whose natural job is to protect us from disease and infections, gets somehow “confused” and instead attacks the healthy tissues in our body.
The exact mechanisms causing these changes are not completely understood: bacteria, viruses, toxins, and some drugs may play a role in triggering an autoimmune response in someone who already has a genetic (inherited) predisposition to develop such a disorder. Mental and physical stress seem to be important factors in the equation. In some rare cases, vaccines have also been reported to trigger autoimmune reactions. What we do know, however, is that more than 75% of the people diagnosed with autoimmune disease are women.
Some autoimmune diseases affect specific organs. In Sarah’s case, her immune system was gradually damaging the thyroid gland, responsible for controlling many functions in the body, including heart rate, body weight, breathing, and muscle strength. Another well-known example is type 1 diabetes, in which the function of the pancreas (and the production of insulin) is impaired. Contrary to what most people assume, type 1 diabetes does not develop as a result of a poor diet or high alcohol consumption but rather due to an autoimmune response.
Systemic autoimmune diseases affect the entire body, making them more challenging to control. Examples of such diseases include rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and systemic lupus erythematous (SLE) or lupus. Many of these diseases can overlap with each other, and it is quite common to find someone suffering from, for instance, lupus and Sjögren’s syndrome – an autoimmune disease that affects some secreting glands – simultaneously.
(If you’d like to learn more about autoimmune diseases and their symptoms, the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA) offers a comprehensive and detailed website.)
How to Diagnose?
The diagnosis of these types of illnesses often takes time and is not straightforward. In some cases, your doctor may detect antibodies in your blood, indicating some form of autoimmune response, but it may not be clear which type or types you have until the symptoms have fully manifested. This can be incredibly frustrating and distressing.
Once there is a clear diagnosis, you’ll be referred to the appropriate specialist – whether it’s a rheumatologist, dermatologist, endocrinologist, or another specialist – who will prescribe medication to alleviate specific symptoms and slow down the progression of the disease.
Functional medicine and other less conventional approaches in complementary medicine also focus on identifying and eliminating potential causes of the autoimmune reaction, such as allergens, toxic substances, gut bacteria, and sources of stress. Based on my experience with clients, I have observed more pronounced symptom reduction in those who combine conventional medicine with lifestyle changes supported by a skilled complementary therapist.
Is it Curable or Preventable?
There is much controversy about whether autoimmune diseases are curable or preventable. High levels of stress have been associated with triggering a dysfunctional autoimmune response. Some interesting theories suggest that we “attack our own bodies” when we subject ourselves to a constant state of stress, especially when we don’t enjoy what we do. The idea is that if you keep pushing yourself, the body will eventually turn against you.
Returning to Sarah’s situation, she had been trapped in an unhappy environment, working long hours in a job she disliked. She felt guilty every time she had to go on a business trip, striving to keep her bosses satisfied by achieving top sales despite her inner resentment. Yet she still managed to attend school parent meetings, entertain guests on weekends, organise family vacations, and bake the best brownies in town for charity events. This went on for years, burdened by a heavy sense of duty and responsibility that left no room for enjoyment. Eventually, something had to give.
Implementing changes in an overly demanding lifestyle is perhaps the most effective form of prevention. It may also be a reflection of our times why autoimmune diseases primarily affect women, given the increasing work, family, and social pressures that push individuals to their limits.
Sarah found support from an excellent endocrine specialist in Paris. She now practices yoga regularly and bid farewell to her job. She discovered a lovely home in the countryside and relocated her entire family. She spends most of her time working hard in her garden, cultivating vegetables that she supplies to local businesses. She is exceptionally busy and successful, but she is pursuing something she loves. Her blood tests indicate a reduction in antibodies, and these days, she feels significantly better. In Sarah’s words, “I like who I am now, and I get the feeling my body is no longer working against me”.
Isn’t that what we all aspire to feel?
This article is dedicated with love to all the superwomen out there.
If you’re interested in learning how Yoga Therapy can be beneficial for individuals with autoimmune diseases, consider exploring our intensive training course: Yoga Therapy for Endocrine & Immune System Disorders.