For many women with autoimmune disease and chronic illness, it takes time to get correctly diagnosed. Check that. It takes a long time to get correctly diagnosed. For some of us it happens more quickly than others, but for so, so many of us it can take years. Maybe you are reading this right now still waiting for a diagnosis.
Receiving the correct diagnosis is the first step in a long battle to regain your health. Unfortunately, treating autoimmune disease and chronic illness is not as simple as taking a round of antibiotics and feeling better in a couple of weeks. It is a process. Without a proper diagnosis, you cannot know what you actually need to treat. While treating symptoms (especially the painful ones) is important, getting to and treating the root cause of your autoimmune disease and/or chronic illness is more so important in addressing your long term goals of getting healthy and feeling better again.
During the month of May, Autoimmune Sisters is focusing on community. Today I am going to focus on a very specific part of your community; your community of health care providers.
As you likely already know, treating autoimmune disease relies on a team of individuals who have expertise in different areas. Your family doctor isn’t enough to address all the areas you need to be looking at. Below I will discuss several different avenues you can take towards a well-rounded approach to your health as a whole.
Primary Care Doctor
Your primary care doctor is the person you see for annual checkups and whenever you have a health concern. Your primary care, or family doctor, may be the first person who you discussed your health issues with. Perhaps they noticed something unusual with your blood tests. Maybe they were savvy enough to recognize the abnormal symptoms you describe and decided to explore further.
If your primary care doctor determines there is something out of the ordinary going on, they will be the one to point to in the next direction of treatment through a referral. Who you go to next will likely depend on what symptoms you are looking to address. If autoimmune type conditions are suspected, the next stop will be a specialist such as a rheumatologist.
Disease Specific Specialists
A disease specific specialist is any doctor or practitioner who specializes in a particular disease or set of diseases. It seems as though the one-stop-shop specialist for most autoimmune patients is a rheumatologist. Rheumatologists practice medicine involving musculoskeletal and autoimmune conditions which affect the joints, skeleton and muscles that cause aches, pain, inflammation and deformities. Since most autoimmune diseases affect these areas rheumatologists are a sort of catchall and other specialists may or may not become involved in additional treatment.
Other specialists who autoimmune and chronic illness patients may end up seeing are endocrinologists who treat the thyroid and hormones, infectious disease doctors, gastroenterologists who treat stomach and intestinal issues and immunologists who treat abnormalities of the immune system. There are a host of other specialists who become involved in treatment depending on the complaint symptoms.
Functional Medicine or Integrative Medicine Doctors
Functional and integrative medicine doctors treat their patients as a whole person, looking to heal the body, mind and spirit. These doctors look at symptoms as clues as to what is going on with the person’s health on a deeper level. They look to discover the root cause(s) of the illness and treat that rather than focusing on treating the individual symptoms.
Most functional and integrative doctors use modern medicine as well as other medical orientations to provide versatile treatment that does not strictly rely on prescribing medicine. Treatment may call for changes to the patient’s diet and lifestyle, addressing nutrient deficiencies and repairing past mental and emotional traumas. Functional and Integrative doctors also look to problems that may be on the horizon. Often different diagnostic ranges are used to catch health problems that are on the verge so they can be addressed before the issue becomes a full-blown problem and then treatment can begin.
Much like functional and integrative medicine doctors, holistic doctors use a wide variety of treatment options. Holistic doctors also treat the whole patient. They can provide traditional treatment, but often lean on alternative medicine practices as well. Treatment can range from dietary changes, massage therapy, chiropractic, exercise regiments and spiritual focus to name a few.
Dietary needs are different from one individual to the next. However, most experts agree that women with autoimmune and chronic conditions should stay away from certain types of food. I’m talking about high inflammatory foods. As more evidence mounts to support chronic inflammation being a leading contributor, if not the main cause of both autoimmune diseases and chronic illnesses, the importance of eating a non-inflammatory diet is becoming more and more clear. (1)
It’s easy to say you should eat an anti-inflammatory diet, but what does that mean? Cutting out known inflammatory foods like gluten, sugar, highly processed foods full of chemicals and additives is a great first step. So is adding in low inflammatory foods like vegetables, low-glycemic fruits and grass fed/pasture raised organic animal proteins. But what does your body need? Are you deficient in vitamins and nutrients? Are you suffering from unknown food intolerances? What foods are really going to benefit you versus what foods could potentially be harmful to you?
This is where a nutritionist comes into play. A nutritionist or registered dietitian can prescribe foods and supplements for you. They can test you for nutrient deficiencies and prescribe the right vitamins and supplements so you can replenish where you may be lacking. Nutritionists are great at guiding you and teaching you what you can do with your food to make a huge impact on your wellbeing.
This may not be a well-known fact, but your oral health is a huge contributing factor to your overall health. If you are suffering from cavities or gum disease your health is likely less than ideal. The biggest reason for this is the bacteria that resides in your mouth. The bacteria in your mouth, for the most part, is nothing to worry about, but if you aren’t brushing and flossing regularly, and if your diet is a wreck of sugary treats, bacteria will fester and become a problem. (2)
Bacteria is linked to fueling autoimmune symptoms, gut bacteria in particular. When you remember that your mouth is the first mechanism of your digestive system, this puts a new importance on keeping that mouth bacteria in check.
Another thing to consider is medications can affect your oral health. Certain medications can reduce the saliva production in your mouth which is a natural protectant against the bacteria. * Saliva breaks down food as you chew, helping to digest food even before it reaches the stomach.
Health coaches are the bomb. And I’m not just saying that because I am a health coach. I truly and whole heartedly believe health coaches are one of the biggest factors in the health solution movement. We are revolutionizing the game.
A health coach’s job is to listen to their client’s health goals and help their client discover what works best for them so the desired goal can be achieved. Health coaches educate, support and guide their clients. Health coaches offer their clients opportunities to really evaluate what kind of life they want to live and ways to get there that the client may never have thought of before.
There are a zillion different types of health coaches too. No matter what you are dealing with, there is more than likely a health coach who specializes in what you need. Health coaches may offer programs targeted to a particular set of problems or they may create an individualized program specific to you and your needs.
Health coaches can work along with their client’s other practioners to implement a program designed to treat as the doctor is prescribing. A health coach cannot prescribe medical treatment, and doctors usually don’t have the time to dedicate to walking their patients through their recommended treatments. So if you have a doctor or nutritionist tell you to stop eating “X” and you need to start eating “Y”, you can bring this to a health coach and they can help you game plan how you are going to actually go about making these dietary changes so you can achieve the results your doctor is wanting to see.
Health coaches are adept at listening to what their clients want and providing them with avenues to get there. They wear many hats and a vast majority of health coaches have experienced their own health crisis so they are often empathetic and compassionate towards their clients and the struggles they are dealing with. They have been in the depths of despair themselves and want to help others climb out too.
For instance, I have both psoriatic arthritis and Lyme disease. I’ve struggle with a number of other issues related to my autoimmune disease and my chronic illness. The battle I have waged and the health I am now experiencing gave me purpose to help women in similar situations to where I once found myself. My clients are all women (mostly moms) who are struggling with their autoimmune or chronic illness and are ready to calm their symptoms so they can reclaim their lives and thrive once more.
I love my job. Helping other women prioritize themselves and find their health again, or perhaps discover health for the first time, is an honor.
You certainly do not need every single one of these practitioners on your health care team. You may be incredibly lucky and only need to see a couple or few of these experts. On the other hand, there may be a whole host of specialized doctors out there who you see and I neglected to mention. Because autoimmune diseases and chronic illnesses present so differently between each individual, there are sadly too many experts to delve into.
In a perfect world, all of your doctors and health care practitioners would be on the same page, or at least reading out of the same book. Because most doctors treat symptoms, they aren’t necessarily looking at what the underlying factors may be. It’s up to you to be your own best advocate. You have to kind of become your own doctor to ensure you are receiving the best available to you. A few tips on that:
- Tell Your Doctors About Your Doctors
Make sure all of your doctors know what other practitioners, specialists and experts you are being treated by. All of your health care providers need to know what the other is doing and what treatment you are receiving from the other providers. You do not want to end up repeating tests, getting on medications or supplements that will have negative interactions with one another, or taking too much of a medication or supplement because two different providers put you on the same or similar protocol.
- Make A List
Keep a list of all current doctors, medications (prescribed and over the counter), supplements/vitamins you are taking and any other treatments you undergoing. Make copies so you can leave the list with each doctor you are seeing. This is the easiest way to notify everyone on your team and make sure they are up to date on everything you are currently doing.
- Speak Up
If you have questions of your doctors and practitioners do not be afraid to ask. They are used to doling out the same information day after day. I think doctors sometimes forget that their patients are new to the information they are getting and assume the patients understand the information the same way they, the doctor, does.
A doctor should never make you feel bad for asking a question. If you are uncomfortable with how your doctor treats you, then don’t be afraid to speak up about that as well. They may need to hear from you how you are feeling, or how you are not completely understanding them. It is okay. Educating you on why they are recommending a particular treatment is part of their job too.
- Schedule Blood Testing Together
You may need blood lab work done for more than one doctor. If you can, schedule to have all of the tests completed at the same time. This may not be advisable if each doctor is running a multitude of different tests. You don’t want to need a transfusion when you leave the lab! But if each doctor is only requiring a few vials, having the tests done in the same sitting will remove one more appointment off of your calendar.
And while we’re on that, make copies of all of your lab work and tests so you can provide those to your other healthcare providers as well. This will stop unnecessary repeats of labs while also providing insight into what the others in your care team are looking at.
- Don’t Be Afraid of Exploring Alternatives
Traditional medicine is incredible. Do not misunderstand me on this point. However, medicine is not the only answer. Dietary changes, lessening your toxic load, stress management, getting enough sleep and exercise are all incredibly important and go hand in hand with your overall health.
Medicine can certainly play a role in maintaining your health. In some circumstances, it may be imperative to you feeling well, but don’t be afraid to explore new things that could benefit your health too. Maybe you’ve been curious about yoga and you need low impact movement to help achy joints. Saunas and sweating are great ways to detox. Maybe an elimination diet is something to explore when you have digestive issues, but you aren’t even sure what food messes you up. Keep an open mind when considering what may work for you, and always discuss options you are interested in with your doctor or health practioners first.
Autoimmune disease is nothing any of us have asked for. When you feel so out of control of your body, knowing you have options can be incredibly empowering. Remember, you get to decide what happens to you. You get to decide how you treat your symptoms and you get to decide who you allow on your health team. You, your doctors, practioners and specialists are a team. Everyone should have the same goal in mind; making you the best and healthiest version you can be. You deserve the best of the best. Always put yourself first in this area. I promise you, you are worth it.
*DISCLAIMER: I am not a doctor or health care professional. I am not licensed, nor qualified, to give medical or nutritional advice. My posts are not meant to diagnose or treat. They are meant to be informative. I am sharing my experience as someone who has suffered with and continues to live with autoimmune disease. Please consult with a doctor, nutritionist or medical professional for any medical needs and/or questions.*
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