Take a look around the outskirts of Tampa and you’ll easily see what I discovered upon arriving in what Money Magazine recently said is the best large city in the Southeast and one of five “urban gems” across the United States. I’m talking of course about urban sprawl, thick woods, lots of new homes, and the perfect breeding ground for ticks!

Ticks are synonymous with tick-borne illnesses such as Lyme disease, which is an infectious disease caused by bacteria of the Borrelia type, spread by the very ticks I suspect are now populating many areas of urban Tampa and Hillsborough County. And while Lyme disease — which affects at least 30,000 people each year according to data found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website — is not considered an autoimmune disease, its chronic and often undiagnosed symptoms do compromise the immune system and lead to the development of autoimmune diseases.

What is Autoimmune Disease?

Autoimmune diseases (sometimes referred to as autoimmune disorders) are illnesses that arise when the immune system attacks healthy cells in the body, instead of or in addition to attacking enemy invaders, such as harmful bacteria and viruses. More than 80 autoimmune diseases have been identified, including these:

  • Celiac disease
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Diabetes type 1
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Grave’s disease
  • Guillain-Barre
  • Hoshimoto’s thyroiditis
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  • Lupus
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Myasthenia gravis
  • Psoriasis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Scleroderma
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Urticaria
  • Vasculitis
  • Vitiligo

The illness a person gets depends on which cells the immune system decides to attack — cells of the skin, brain, nervous system, pancreas, thyroid gland, intestines, and so forth. The inflammation that accompanies an immune system response often causes fever, fatigue, muscle aches, and swelling and may cause flushing or redness on the surface of the skin. Because these symptoms are so general, many doctors often miss opportunities for early diagnosis.

Even worse, once the specific autoimmune disease is diagnosed, treatments typically focus exclusively on the organ or tissue affected, leaving the underlying cause(s) untreated.

What Causes Autoimmune Diseases?

Like most chronic illnesses, autoimmune diseases are typically caused by a combination of nature and nurture; a person with a genetic vulnerability to a certain autoimmune disease is exposed to something in the environment that triggers an immune response targeting healthy cells. A growing body of research has linked autoimmune diseases to infections and vaccinations, which certainly makes sense, because both of these environmental factors trigger an immune system response.

Infections linked to autoimmune diseases include the following:

  • Yersinia entercolitica, a food borne illness most commonly linked to eating pork, has been associated with Grave’s disease and hyperthyroidism.
  • Epstein Barr Virus (EBV) has been associated with Hashimoto’s and hypothyroid.
  • Mycoplasma infections have been associated with rheumatoid arthritis. Mycoplasma is often in the synovial fluid of rheumatoid patients. (Synovial fluid reduces the friction between cartilage and certain joints.)
  • Lyme’s disease, as alluded to earlier in today’s post, is believed to cause imbalances in the immune system that trigger autoimmune reactions.
  • Overgrowth of H-Pylori, a common gut bacteria, is also associated with autoimmunity.

However, other factors may also contribute to immune system malfunction, including the following:

  • Environmental toxins, including toxic mold; heavy metals — cadmium and mercury, for example; pesticides; hazardous wastes; pharmaceuticals (including antibiotics); hair dyes; trichloroethylene; toxic oil; and industrial emissions.
  • Stress, both physical and emotional/psychological, can trigger the production of neuroendocrine hormones leading to immune system dysregulation.
  • Leaky gut, a condition in which tiny gaps in the lining of the gut widen, allowing food particles, microbes, and toxins to enter the bloodstream and trigger an immune response.
  • Gluten sensitivity, which is the primary cause of leaky gut, is highly inflammatory, and has a similar chemical composition to some bodily tissues, particularly the thyroid.

Potential Triggers in Tampa, Florida

Many infectious agents and toxins can trigger an immune response that causes an autoimmune disease, and people living in Tampa, Florida, may face a heightened risk due to the prevalence of the following potential triggers:

  • Lyme disease: According to a June 2017 ABC Action News post, doctors predict a Lyme disease epidemic with Tampa and Hillsborough County being a possible hotbed of the debilitating tick-borne disease.
  • Toxic mold: Certain molds, especially Chaetomium and Stachybotrys chartarum can produce demylenating mycotoxins (fungal toxins that destroy the outer insulating layer of nerves), and Florida may just be the mold capital of the world.
  • Zika virus: The Zika virus, carried by certain mosquitoes and relatively common in Florida (as are mosquitoes) has been linked to Guillain-Barre.
  • Heavy metals: Mercury, lead, cadmium, and other heavy metals are often linked to autoimmune diseases. While there were only 13 reported cases of mercury poisoning in Tampa in 2015, and the lead poisoning rate of 2.3 percent in 2015 was less than that of Florida overall (3.6 percent), the number of people exposed to heavy metals is probably much higher.
  • Pesticides: Due to the year-round use of insecticides and herbicides in Florida, exposure to these chemicals is likely to contribute to immune system dysfunction and autoimmune diseases.

Stealth Infections as a Potential Cause

Often, doctors who practice conventional medicine don’t test for underlying infections or environmental toxins that may be at the root of an autoimmune disease. Or, the patient suffers from a stealth infection — a viral or bacterial infection that lingers in the body’s tissues undetected. For example, the infection may cause joint pain even though lab results look fairly normal. As a result, a patient may experience muscle aches and night sweats while fighting the infection, but the doctor may never suspect a connection between the infection and an autoimmune disease. To make matters worse, infections may clog the lymphatic system, making it difficult for the body to eliminate them.

What is a stealth infection?

Stealth infections are like chicken pocks and shingles. Once you have the infection, it’s always there. If you had chicken pocks when you were young, and your immune system is compromised later in life, shingles may appear. The stealth infection can be what’s causing the immune system to become dysregulated or it can become opportunistic once the immune system is compromised.

Diagnosing Stealth Infections

When people report symptoms of an autoimmune disease, one of the first steps I take is to look for possible infection. Results of lab tests, including a CD57 lymphocyte test, can provide clues to chronic infection, particularly Lyme disease. CD57 (a blood test) looks at natural killer cell activity; low levels indicate the possibility of a chronic infection. I also run tests for H-pylori, EBV, and mycoplasma infection.

Treating Infections by Restoring Healthy Immune Function

Conventional medicine treats infections primarily with antibiotics, which have several drawbacks:

  • While antibiotics may be effective for killing bacteria and fungi, they’re useless when it comes to treating viral infections over the long-term. That said, antibiotics can temporarily boost the immune system, resulting short-term relief.
  • Some bacteria and fungi are resistant to antibiotics (or to the antibiotic that has been prescribed), making them useless for treating certain bacterial or fungal infections.
  • Antibiotics have a poor track record for treating chronic infection caused by infectious agents that hide deep in tissues, such as nasal passages, that the antibiotics don’t reach.
  • Antibiotics often kill off beneficial bacteria that live in the gut, and the gut is a key component of the immune system. The killing of beneficial bacteria leads to an overgrowth of harmful bacteria and fungi, which compromises the immune system.

In additional to treatments that kill the infectious agents, we focus on restoring healthy immune function, so it can rid the body of the infectious agents without the collateral damage to the gut. Restoring healthy immune function requires a variety of minerals, herbs, and vitamins. Many people with autoimmune diseases are deficient in several key nutrients, including vitamins B, C, and D and the minerals zinc and selenium. Once these deficiencies are identified, supplementing with the appropriate doses significantly improves immune function.

Next, various herbs and botanicals including Japanese knotweed, neem, rishi mushroom, monolaurin, olive leaf extract, are used specific to each person to further defeat the infection.

Additional Tests and Treatments

While stealth infections may be at the root of immune system dysfunction, restoring healthy immune function may also require the following:

  • Detox: Detoxing helps eliminate toxins from molds, pesticides, heavy metals, hazardous waste, industrial emissions, pharmaceuticals, household chemicals, and so on.
  • Pre- and probiotics: Taking pre- and probiotics restores the healthy balance of microbes in the gut, which helps to eliminate leaky gut.
  • Changes in diet: Increased consumption of vegetables, fruits, certain nuts and proteins, and healthy fats while eliminating or significantly reducing sweets and starches (such as wheat) from the diet further improves gut function, which significantly impacts immune system function.
  • Stress management: Restricting consumption of caffeine and other stimulants and making lifestyle and relationship adjustments to reduce stress can calm the brain and endocrine system, which work together to signal the immune system. A calmer brain and endocrine system prevent the immune system from becoming overstimulated and overactive.

With the right treatment, immune function is restored, enabling the immune system to defeat or subdue any underlying infection while calming the over-activity that was causing the immune system to attack healthy cells in the first place.

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About the Author: Dr. Matt Lewis, D.C., CFMP®, specializes in diagnosing and treating the underlying causes of the symptoms related to chronic and unexplained illness through nutrition, lifestyle, chiropractic, and other natural approaches to whole-health healing in Tampa, Florida. He earned his B.S. in Biology from Shenandoah University, his Doctorate in Chiropractic from Life University, his CFMP® from Functional Medicine University, and his certification as a Digestive Health Specialist (DHS) through the Food Enzyme Institute. Dr. Lewis’ passion for health and wellness stems from his own personal experience. With a family history of autoimmune conditions and diabetes, and his own lab tests showing his genetic susceptibility to Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (autoimmune thyroid), he has learned how to restore his own health and vigor to prevent the onset of these illnesses and live an incredibly active life. Through this process, he acquired a deeper understanding of health and wellness, which he now offers his patients in Tampa.