Ankylosing Spondylitis Awareness

It’s Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS) awareness month so I thought I should write a bit about it before the month is over as this is the condition I was diagnosed with in 2010. First of all, I don’t like calling it a ‘disease’, because what is a disease? Something you just wake up with one day, something that has to be treated with drugs? With chronic illness, there are no magic pills. You can suppress symptoms with drugs but they will never treat the root causes.

It takes a long time for health to spiral down this far and if autoimmune markers were tested or other preventative diagnostic testing would have been done 5, 10, even 20 years before a diagnosis is made, a person’s conditions could have been changed and autoimmune disease may have been prevented.

Ankylosing spondylitis is a type of arthritis that primarily affects the spine. Symptoms include pain and stiffness in the SI joint (lower back) and up to the neck. Spondylitis means inflammation of the vertebrae of the spine. This can in some cases lead to ankylosis, which means fusion of the vertebrae, which results in a rigid spine. Fatigue, depression and brain fog is also common as with inflammatory conditions in general.

A question I often get when I say I control my back pain with diet and lifestyle is “how can diet affect back pain?” Well, even though AS affects the spine, it’s not the spine that is the problem – it is, like with all autoimmune disease, the immune system that is turning against you, attacking your own cells.
80% of our immune system is situated in our gut which is directly connected to many other systems throughout the body. Gut health has been shown to affect everything from autoimmune disease, Parkinson’s and mental health.

The gut barrier is always semi permeable, to let nutrients through, but it can get damaged by stress, medication, alcohol, poor diet, pesticides, leading to low levels of healthy protective bacteria and an overgrowth of yeast or non beneficial bacteria. The gut then becomes ‘leaky’, allowing bigger food proteins to leak into the bloodstream, provoking an immune response which can result in inflammation, brain fog, anxiety, digestive problems and autoimmune disease.

Another question I get asked is, does anyone else in your family have AS? And the answer is no. They may have the gene for it, as I do (HLA-B27), but the gene was never turned on. Genes only account for around 30% of your risk of developing an autoimmune disease. The rest is down to diet and lifestyle. Eating food is a bit like programming a computer, food is code and it can turn genes on or off, changing the epigenome.

The root causes of an autoimmune condition may be completely different in different people. Therefore an individual approach is necessary to address these causes. There are over 100 different autoimmune diseases and what they all have in common is inflammation and a malfunctioning immune system that turns against your own healthy cells. Regardless of which one, improving gut health and strengthening the integrity of the gut wall is an important step towards reduced inflammation and better health.

Conventional measures ie. drugs, may be required in the short term but for long term wellness, diet and lifestyle changes are crucial.

To anyone with an autoimmune diagnosis, I would recommend working with a Nutritional Therapist or Functional medicine trained practitioner that can help you discover YOUR root causes.

Instead of calling it a disease, I like the words of Robert Luby (Institute for Functional Medicine). “You are expressing a condition known as (…insert given condition…), and that which is expressed can be silenced. If the conditions in you life change, so will your condition.”

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