17 Mar Am I Broken? The blessing and curse of autoimmunity
Have you heard the story of “the canary in a coal mine”? It’s a metaphor that comes from the mining industry. Coal mining is actually a very dangerous job. At the turn of the century when the coal industry was booming, they didn’t have the technology to measure the toxins and poisonous gases that were down in the mines. So they would put the canary in a cage and take it down into the mines with them. When the birds stopped singing, fell ill, or even dropped dead, the miners knew that the environment had changed, taken a turn for the worst, and they needed to get out of there as soon as possible.
Nobody ever looks at a canary and says, “Dang, that bird is too sensitive.” Or, “There’s something wrong with that bird.” The canary has its own gifts. It wasn’t meant to be in a coal mine.
In my personal healing journey, and now as a doctor who primarily works with chronically ill and autoimmune people, I see the sensitive nature as a very autoimmune quality. Our stories are all so similar, and we’ve often been told that there’s something wrong with us. That we’re broken.
One of the biggest turning points in my healing journey was when I realized that I was a canary…and I was living in a coal mine.
What is autoimmunity?
For those of you who aren’t familiar with autoimmunity, it’s a group of conditions characterized by an aberrant and overactive immune system. Instead of attacking foreign invaders, your body’s immune system mistakenly attacks itself, which results in a long list of progressive symptoms. The different autoimmune disorders are often named by the “target tissue” that is compromised during immune activation. You may be familiar with some of the names and the “target tissue”: Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis (thyroid), Rheumatoid Arthritis (joints), Celiac Disease (gut lining), Type 1 Diabetes (pancreas), Multiple Sclerosis (brain and nerves), and many more.
It seems like a scary disorder. And sometimes scary isn’t even the most appropriate word; your body is literally attacking itself and you have no idea why.
But the thing with autoimmunity that people don’t understand—and medical professionals don’t tell you—is that some people are just predisposed to these sorts of conditions due to genetics, lifestyle, and personality type. Like the canary in the coal mine, we are sensitive creatures living in a toxic world. We are very attuned to our environment. We are intuitive, powerful, and we pick up on subtle cues that most others don’t.
So, you’re left wondering why such a disease chooses to attack the sensitive ones.
Sensitive people feel others’ emotions, stress, and pain as if it was their own. This means that everyday life can feel rather overwhelming and even exhausting. Even the smallest stressors can add up and cause overwhelm for such sensitive people. Because of this, it seems like we’re almost at a disadvantage. The more stress we experience, the more susceptible we leave ourselves to conditions such as these.
There’s a plethora of research available showing the link between stress and the development or progression of disease states. The body is equipped with systems that handle acute stressful situations; it sends out a cascade of hormones that enable you to fight the threat. Once the stressor has passed, our internal state goes back to normal. But when your stress systems are chronically in the ON position, it sets up a cascading inflammatory response. This maladaptive stress response is implicated in a number of chronic conditions.
When the stress response is activated, it triggers the immune system to send out an army of pro-inflammatory cytokines (IL-1, IL-6, TNFα, CRP, IL-1β and, NF-κB) to attack the invaders. And in normal situations, these cytokines disappear once the threat is gone. But when stress becomes chronic, these cytokines don’t disappear—they’re actually upregulated, which means the cycle of stress and inflammation gets habituated in the body.
And while we’re still not completely sure why these diseases happen—there are many mechanisms that contribute—what many of these conditions have in common is chronic, low-level inflammation.
Basically, the more inflamed your body is, the higher the risk of developing autoimmunity.
The emotion behind the diagnosis
I’ve been there. Those immediate feelings of when you’re told you have an autoimmune condition. Devastation, fear, anger, shame, sadness, hopelessness, defeat. It’s like this massive tsunami of feelings infiltrates every part of your body and you have no idea what to think.
You’re scared. You’re confused. You’re upset. Your mind is scattered into a million different directions with no semblance of clarity.
The medical community makes you feel as if you’re broken, as if something is inherently wrong with you. They use words like progressive, degenerative, irreversible, incurable.
Why me? Why am I the one that this has to happen to? What did I do wrong that has made my body feel like it needs to hurt itself? It’s a difficult concept to wrap your head around.
For me, I’ve always been told that I’m too sensitive like it’s some sort of problem. And I’m sure some of you have experienced the same. But whenever I hear this, I don’t feel hurt or embarrassed or angry—I feel confused. Confused about how someone can be ‘too sensitive,’ too aware, too empathetic, too caring. Are these not qualities that make us human?
Throughout my autoimmune healing journey, I have learned to love my sensitivity. My intuition. My highly attuned nature. I see the world in subtle cues and I love to listen for the whispers.
Sensitivity is what makes us susceptible to autoimmunity, and despite what a lot of people believe, sensitivity doesn’t make us weak. It makes up unique, powerful, aware, and different.
Defining what a sensitive person is
Sensitivity has always been shamed in our culture. I believe that being sensitive is one of the greatest gifts you can receive—but have to learn to accept that quality of yourself and see it as a gift, too.
- You’re sensitive to both yourself and other people.
- Others feel comfortable opening up to you.
- You notice subtle cues and differences that most people don’t.
- You are intense. Spiritual. Intuitive. Compassionate.
What about that seems so wrong or problematic to you?
Being a sensitive person does leave you susceptible to certain things. You take on the weight of the world, quite literally—which means you may often feel overwhelmed, overworked, and stressed out.
The Western approach vs. the Holistic approach
I want to dig into the differences in views on autoimmunity for a minute to help you understand why we typically see autoimmunity as a curse, when really, it’s anything but.
The basis of how autoimmune develops isn’t all that different between the Western and allopathic approaches.
Toxins, infections, dysfunctions of immune homeostasis, and diet all have an impact on the body’s delicate immune recognition system, and when it becomes overwhelmed and is constantly bombarded with all of these different factors, it starts to break down.
But here is where the difference lies: it’s not just these obvious tangible factors that contribute to a weakened immune state. As sensitive people, we’re naturally predisposed to certain conditions. We are more attuned to everything that’s going on around us and pick up on a lot more than most people. We are impacted by these external factors—toxins, pathogens, diet—but we are also impacted by a lot of internal factors—energy, emotional stress, physical stress.
It’s like carrying six people on your own back. It’s not just your life you experience; you’re also experiencing everyone else that’s around you.
It’s hard, exhausting, and overwhelming, which makes you more susceptible to stress. When you become stressed, it sets off a cascade of hormones and inflammation throughout the body, which leads to greater biochemical stress, more inflammation, and results in compromises to your physical barrier systems. The gut, lungs, and blood-brain barrier experience this pressure and stress just as much as you do, and they start to get exhausted.
Stress is now recognized as an important risk factor in the pathology of autoimmune diseases. The fact that numerous studies show that any form of stress—psychological, emotional, physical—can activate an acute phase response (a part of the innate immune inflammatory response) is evidence that the inflammatory response is contained within the stress response, and stress is capable of inducing an inflammatory response. It’s this interrelationship between the HPA axis, the sympathetic nervous system, and the immune system that creates autoimmunity.
So, just as you start to lose productivity and optimal function when you’re stressed, your physical barriers do, too. They’re more susceptible to things that can harm them and it is grounds for the development of autoimmunity.
But here’s where we need to draw the line.
In the traditional Western medicine view, being diagnosed with autoimmunity eludes to you essentially being broken; something in you isn’t working as it was meant to. Your body is incapable of distinguishing self from non-self like most other bodies can. You’re inherently different. An outcast.
Western medicine views autoimmune conditions rather blankly on a spectrum. They’re labeled as progressive conditions; degenerative, incurable, and definitive. Your disease is now what defines you. You are given a label as whatever condition you have and that’s all. Nothing more than a label that no one wants to understand how to remove.
There are very little efforts to actually “fix” whatever is “wrong” with you—and I use these terms rather loosely because there is nothing actually wrong with you. They are how the medical community sees disease states.
But the labels of Hashimoto’s, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, MS, and any other disease is not what defines you. You are not that. You are you and you just so happen to be struggling with that. And this is what modern medicine fails to realize.
They make you feel disempowered, deflated, and like there’s nothing you can do about your diagnosis.
Understanding the condition and having compassion towards those who are struggling with it is key to progression.
That’s where holistic medicine has the upper hand. In seeking to address the root causes of the disease, we acknowledge where people are at and we meet them there. We’re not sticking you in some club for people with autoimmunity and telling you that’s your final destination.
We’re empowering you to embrace your condition, your nature as a sensitive person, and all the qualities that make you unique. Holistic medicine gives you the tools to uncover what’s drawn you to autoimmunity in the first place to enable you to take charge of your health; to move forward, be progressive, rebalance, shift, and expand your body to return to a balanced state whereby no disease can defeat you.
There’s a big difference in how medical systems view autoimmunity, and it’s the key to unlocking your potential to overcome it. Use it to fuel your growth.
Seeing the silver lining: Shifting your mind frame
Think about all of the thoughts that you had when you were told you had autoimmunity—they’re not real. They’re a construct and by-product of living in a world that isn’t designed for sensitive souls. A world that values speed and efficiency and profit, data, and evidence. A world that looks down on slowness, subtly, magic, intuition, feelings. A world that tells you that you are lesser than the people surrounding you. Weak. Inferior. Broken.
But I’ll tell you something—you are amazing just as you are.
You are different. You are sensitive. You are wise, understanding, empathetic, and emotional. You are in tune with a different reality. You are not broken and there is no need to lose trust in your body and its ability to regain balance.
You have a gift. A Superpower of Sensitivity. The world you live in may not be designed for you, but you are designed to navigate and transform it with your superpowers.
To be sensitive is to be powerful. When you learn to trust your mind, body, and spirit, you can access your deepest potential.
In conquering your autoimmunity, it’s important to shift away from the “why me” mindset that can only exacerbate the feelings of anger, upset, defeat, shame, and guilt. Instead, learn to accept your condition as a condition. Conditions can change, but only when you change the factors that lead to that condition. Autoimmunity doesn’t define you and it never will.
Learn to love and trust every part of your MindBodySpirit. Understand that you did not do anything to cause autoimmunity and you are not to blame for the condition, nor should you feel ashamed that it can happen.
Instead, channel those thoughts and look for a different perspective. What possible benefits or gifts has autoimmunity brought into your life? Have you harnessed your sensitive superpowers? Have you learned new ways to care for your mind, body, or spirit? Have you deepened your relationship with yourself or someone else? Have you learned new recipes? Swapped out toxic things for non-toxic alternatives? Have you helped someone else navigate a similar challenge?
If we can see ourselves as the lovely canary songbirds and understand that our sensitivity is a gift, we would finally see that the things that are affecting us adversely, will, down the line, affect everyone and everything else. We are here to feel the world within us and around us. We are here to move and inspire others. We are here to share our stories and sing out songs.
I focus on teaching people how to honor this sensitivity in themselves. We are the sensitive canaries, and the world can be a messy coal mine. If we could reframe autoimmunity as a gift, imagine how much our intuition could contribute to this world.