THE BLOG

Naturopathic Medicine and Autoimmune Disease

02/08/2013 01:15 pm ET | Updated Apr 10, 2013
  • Amy Rothenberg, ND Licensed naturopathic doctor, author,president of the Massachusetts Society of Naturopathic Doctors, former board member of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians

The New York Times Magazine published a compelling piece this week, "The Boy With a Thorn in His Joints" by Susannah Meadows, written by a mother of little boy who had been diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA). After pursuing appropriate diagnostic workups and trying the conventional medical approaches to no avail, Ms. Meadows and her family decided to pursue less conventional approaches, including looking at diet, natural supplements and botanical medicines. Their story has a guardedly happy ending, the boy remains mostly symptom-free past the one-year mark. His only setbacks occurred after taking antibiotics and after eating gluten. Juvenile idiopathic arthritis does sometimes spontaneously remit, though less commonly when many joints are involved, as in his case. Meadows makes a compelling case for at least looking into some less conventional approaches.

Such approaches to chronic ailments are the cornerstone of naturopathic medicine and have been used by naturopathic doctors (NDs) for decades. Addressing a leaky gut -- where GI permeability impacts health -- looking in to food allergies, applying a number of natural anti-inflammatory approaches and supplements all work to help even the difficult to treat autoimmune ailments like JIA. And important to note, such natural medicine approaches do not carry the side-effect profile of many of the pharmaceutical products often recommended. In the opening paragraphs to the article, when I read about the child's cousin having severe asthma and serious food allergies, I had an inkling about this child's own proclivities to developing an immune system issue. Add to that predisposition antibiotic prescriptions for routine childhood ailments, and there was a setup for a perfect storm.

Our health is a product of our genetic inheritance and our environmental exposures. Some of us are more susceptible to falling ill, whether with an acute ailment or chronic disease. It is nearly impossible to escape our genes (though may be less the case in the not-too-distant future!). So creating the healthiest possible environment, eating the right foods, liming stress, finding stress outlets, and sidestepping conventional medications when possible are all things we can do to optimize our genetic predispositions.

I have a patient in my own practice, now in her 30s, who as a 6-year-old presented with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA). (Nomenclature of childhood arthritis is a bit of a changing field, but suffice it to say, there is much overlap between a JRA and JIA diagnosis.) With similar approaches used as the boy in this article, she has remained largely symptom-free all these years. I write similar approaches, not exactly the same, as naturopathic medicine, above all is always individualized to the patient at hand, not the diagnosis per se. Sure, there are recommended protocols, but like with all medicine, prescriptions must be meted out specifically to the patient at a point in time. My patient returns to the office every few years or so. She comes in for what she calls a "tune-up" to address other symptoms that may have arisen, to pose questions about diet and exercise, to tweak her short supplement list. A mother herself now, she is adamant about her child's proper diet, sidestepping antibiotics if possible, and consciously works to do things that help to create a balance and healthy gut flora, which she knows is so essential to a proper immune system function -- one that is works well enough but does not go overboard!

If you are looking for an expert in the field of natural medicine, if you are searching for answers to difficult questions about autoimmune phenomenon and other challenging medical conditions, find a naturopathic doctor in your area. Trained at post-graduate, four year, in-residence naturopathic medical schools -- there are currently seven accredited ND medical schools in North America -- all NDs sit for, and must pass, national basic science and clinical board exams in order to be licensed. Click here for a listing of schools and further information. There are NDs in all 50 states and in many countries around the world. It might just be time to add an ND to your medical team.

For more by Amy Rothenberg, ND, click here.

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