Riordan Clinic Seeks Whole Person Balance in Autoimmune Treatments
By Melody Spurney
When it comes to autoimmune diseases, Riordan Clinic providers follow a functional medicine model of searching for the underlying “why’s,” not just the “what.”
Traditional care models focus on the organ presenting with the symptoms of an autoimmune disease. For example, in Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, the diseased organ is the thyroid gland.
Dr. Ron Hunninghake, MD, and Chief Medical Officer for the Riordan Clinic, said that by taking a whole person approach to diagnosis and treatment, he finds that autoimmune inflammation is linked to broader imbalances in the body.
From a systems biology perspective, both organs and systems within the body can malfunction and co-contribute to autoimmune illness. The Autoimmune Association cites two types of autoimmune diseases: organ-specific disorders and non-organ-specific diseases.1
“When something goes bad, there can be a domino effect,” he said.
In her article published June 13, 2022, “The Functional Medicine Solution for Autoimmune Disease,” Dr. Christine Maren, DO, IFMCP, states that it takes three underlying causes to create a full-blown autoimmune disease: genetics, environment, and poor gut health.2
Dr. Ron said that when diagnosing an autoimmune disease, he first evaluates a patient’s nutrient levels. This is how Dr. Hugh Riordan, clinic co-founder, began his evaluation of complex chronic disease.
Dr. Ron said that when nutrient levels are out of balance it can indicate problems within the body. Common nutrient tests include vitamins D and C, zinc, magnesium, and fatty acids, among others. He said that abnormal nutrient levels can be compared to warning lights and gauges on a car’s dashboard.
“We use nutrient tests as gauges, they tell us how well nutrients are working in the body,” he said, adding that individual nutrients can have diverse functions in multiple organs.
The environment also plays a role. Some common environmental tests at Riordan Clinic include mold, chemical, and heavy metal toxicities, as well as glyphosate, a common herbicide used to kill certain weeds and grasses. These toxins can disrupt normal immune system functioning.
Inflammation markers, insulin resistance testing, and gut microbiome evaluation can help to identify imbalances early.
Gut health is a particular key to understanding autoimmune diseases. Intestinal permeability, sometimes known as “leaky gut,” describes the passage of material from inside the gastrointestinal tract through the cells lining the gut wall into the rest of the body. That leakage can then trigger cascades of inflammation, Dr. Ron said.
Recent research shows that the number of cases of autoimmune diseases has been rising. Dr. Maren states that 1 in 5, or 20 percent, of Americans are affected by one or more of the 100+ types of autoimmune diseases that have been identified.2 In fact, the Autoimmune Association states that between 5 and 10 percent of Americans have more than one autoimmune disease.1
Research also shows that more than 80 percent of all patients diagnosed with an autoimmune disease are women. In her article, Dr. Maren stated some potential causes for the imbalance between the rate of diagnosis between men and women.
According to Dr. Maren, theories include:2
- Gender differences in immunity: Studies have shown women naturally have stronger inflammatory responses than men when their immune systems are triggered.
- Sex hormones: Many autoimmune diseases tend to affect women during hormonal changes such as pregnancy, menopause, and other times of large hormonal changes.
- Genetic susceptibility: Some evidence shows that the X chromosome may be related to susceptibility to certain autoimmune diseases.
- Pregnancy: Related hormonal changes, as well as stress and lack of sleep, could be factors.
- T helper (Th) cell immunity: These cells help regulate the mother’s immune response, but changes in the cells may also drive the progression of certain autoimmune conditions.
Dr. Ron said that controlling environmental factors, especially diet, can help patients find relief from their symptoms and reduce the inflammation that contributes to autoimmune diseases. Reducing trigger foods such as dairy and gluten is often a good place to start. Some people are also sensitive to the lectins in nightshade plants, such as tomatoes and potatoes.
Dr. Ron recommended eating nutrient-dense foods that are organically grown, when possible. He also recommended avoiding packaged food that can contain vegetable oil that can spoil easily. Focus instead on good fats, especially Omega-3. He said wild-caught seafood is preferable to farm-raised because farm-raised seafood is often fed glyphosate-contaminated grains.
“Eat organic foods, clean foods, and colorful foods,” he said. “If you can afford cleaner food, you will be better off in the long run.”
Dr. Ron added that food issues and environmental toxin issues can overlap. For example, he said that autoimmune patients can sometimes be misdiagnosed with having celiac disease, which is an intolerance for gluten, when the problem may actually originate with the herbicide glyphosate, which was likely used to treat the grain used in the product they consumed.3 He also said that chemicals can creep into the household environment through sources such as cleaners, make-up, plastics, laundry detergent, and more.
Other factors such as lack of sleep and excessive stress can influence digestive health. Dr. Ron said that stress can trigger a “fight or flight” response that disrupts gastrointestinal functioning, leading to increased inflammation. He said the brain and the gut are very connected, adding that the gut actually has more neurotransmitters than the brain.
“There are fascinating connections between the gut and the brain,” he said.
He also said that some patients can benefit from Low Dose Naltrexone (LDN). LDN is a novel drug therapy for general autoimmune diseases. It binds to endorphin receptors for up to 90 minutes. When it wears off, there is an hormetic response where the body increases both endorphins and endorphin receptors. Endorphins can then modulate the inflammation of various autoimmune diseases.4
Riordan Clinic also uses innovative intravenous therapies, such as ultraviolet blood irradiation along with high dose Vitamin C, for more intransient care of autoimmune disease.
For more information about autoimmune diseases and an alphabetical list of currently identified conditions, visit https://autoimmune.org/.
- About autoimmunity. Autoimmune Association. (2021, August 3). Retrieved July 21, 2022, from https://autoimmune.org/resource-center/about-autoimmunity/
- Maren, C. (2022, June 13). The functional medicine solution for autoimmune disease. Dr. Christine Maren. Retrieved July 21, 2022, from https://drchristinemaren.com/the-functional-medicine-solution-for-autoimmune-disease/
- Samsel, A., & Seneff, S. (2013). Glyphosate, pathways to modern diseases II: Celiac sprue and gluten intolerance. Interdisciplinary toxicology, 6(4), 159–184. https://doi.org/10.2478/intox-2013-0026
What is low dose naltrexone (LDN)? LDN Research Trust. (n.d.). Retrieved July 21, 2022, from https://ldnresearchtrust.org/what-is-low-dose-naltrexone-ldn