The rate at which autoimmune diseases are growing is staggering. With approximately 50 million Americans effected, the chances of someone developing an autoimmune disease in the US is 1 in 5 people (1). While females are at a three times greater risk than males, the exact mechanism is unknown. Some think that it may be due to the hormonal shifts that occur in women or due to genetic factors in one of their X chromosomes (2). Autoimmune diseases are one of the top ten causes of death in women. They are the second highest cause of chronic illness and the top cause of morbidity in women in the United States. So how come with the rise in prevalence of autoimmunity there is very little discussion of it? To add to the frustration, conventional medicine only has one answer to the autoimmune dilemma- immunosuppressants. These are designed to squash any immune system activity and are really effective at doing so. The problem is that they leave people more susceptible to infections and can damage rapidly dividing tissue such as our bone marrow and gut tissue. So the question is:
“Is there anything that can be done do to prevent the occurrence or limit the effects of an autoimmune disease?”
What modern research is telling us is absolutely yes. To know how to conquer the condition it is important to understand the immune system even at the most basic level.
The overall function of the immune system is to protect the body from the hundreds of thousands of bacteria, viruses and other foreign invaders we experience throughout our lifetime. It does this by an army of many different specialized white blood cells, one of them being something called B-cells. These B-cells will produce antibodies, which is like a tagging or targeting system that gives other immune system cells the green light to attack whatever the antibody is tagged to. In certain cases the immune system makes a mistake and starts producing antibodies to its own tissue. This is called autoimmunity. The type of tissue the immune system targets generates the label or name of the autoimmune disease. When it’s your thyroid tissue it’s called either Hashimotos or Graves. When it’s a tissue called myelin in your central nervous system the disease is called multiple sclerosis. When your antibodies are attacking a tissue in your joints it’s called rheumatoid. While the tissue being attacked is important and can generate specific symptoms based on the type of tissue, it is not the core of the disease.
The core of all autoimmune disease is immune system dysfunction to the point in which your body cannot distinguish “self” from “non-self”
This is an important concept. Very little effort is done in modern medicine to help balance immune system function without obliterating it altogether.
The Autoimmune Trilogy
Recent research (2) out of the University of Maryland, by Alessio Fasano has gained much attention concerning factors that may predispose people to autoimmunity. These three factors necessary for autoimmunity include:
In all three of these areas there are lifestyle changes one can make to prevent the expression or progression of autoimmune conditions. This article is intended to give an overview of what can effect these areas. Further articles in the autoimmune series will dive deeper with a bit more detail on these three areas.
Miscommunication of the Immune System
As discussed earlier, every autoimmune disease at its core is a dysfunctional immune system to the point causing it to no longer recognize self-tissue. Certain factors can affect the communication of the immune system including: genetics, infections, pregnancy, and altered vitamin D status.
Family history may play a major role as there have been certain genes linked to various autoimmune diseases. The HLA gene type has been linked to many different types of autoimmunity including: ankylosing spondylitis, thyroid related autoimmunity, psoriasis, myasthenia gravis, Addison’s, rheumatoid arthritis, Celiac, narcolepsy, Multiple Sclerosis, and Type 1 diabetes (3). While it is not the only gene that predisposes individuals to autoimmunity, it is one of the most well recognized genes. The HLA gene variants change how our cells present antigens to other immune system cells. Most genes involved in autoimmunity alter normal immune system physiology one way or another.
Other factors that can contribute to the miscommunication of the immune system are things like: infections, pregnancy, and altered vitamin D status. Infections and pregnancy can skew the immune system’s cell production. Sometimes this can either promote or actually prevent autoimmunity. This explains why sometimes pregnant females get relief from their autoimmunity or can predispose them to an autoimmunity. This is also why sometimes autoimmune diseases develop after an infection. Vitamin D plays an important role in helping orchestrate the proper coordination of our immune system. Stay tuned as all of these topics will be covered in greater detail in future articles.
Without question humans are exposed to more chemicals in our environment today than in previous decades. While not all of these pose as a risk to our health there are certainly quite a few that can potentiate immune system reactivity. On top of that, people in westernized countries are being exposed to these chemicals before they are even born. In a study done in 2005 by the Environmental working group found over 287 chemicals in the umbilical cord. They stated(4) :
Of the 287 chemicals we detected in umbilical cord blood, we know that 180 cause cancer in humans or animals, 217 are toxic to the brain and nervous system and 208 cause birth defects or abnormal development in animal tests. The dangers of pre- or post-natal exposure to this complex mixture of carcinogens, developmental toxins and neurotoxins have never been studied.
Unfortunately, with the 80,000 different industrial chemicals used in the United States, the amount of our toxic exposure over our lifetime is likely to rise after birth. Some of these chemicals can build up in tissues and trigger heightened immunity.
On top of this, the modern way of eating could add to the inflammatory fire while also greatly impacting our gut microbes. The bacteria in our gut play a role in our well-being and when there is an imbalance or a disturbance in our gut microbe we call that “dysbiosis.” Recently there has been a growing amount of evidence linking bacterial dysbiosis to many different autoimmune diseases like: Type 1 diabetes (5), Rheumatoid arthritis (6), Ulcerative Colitis (7), Multiple Sclerosis (8), and Crohn’s (9). With the research in the field of the gut microbiota growing it is likely they will find evidence of other autoimmune diseases as well. We will be breaking down each individual environmental factor and what you can do to prevent these issues from affecting you in subsequent articles. So stay tuned!
Loss of Barrier Integrity
This is perhaps the most important of the three factors that can drive autoimmunity. The reason why is that when all of your cell barriers are intact it will prevent unwanted exposure to outside inflammatory compounds and therefore prevent further immune dysregulation and miscommunication. This is one of the first factors we address with our patients who have an autoimmunity. So what type of barriers does our body have? Well anything that separates our blood from our outside world is a barrier. The three primary ones being: skin, lung mucosa, and our gut barrier. Of these three barriers the one that is most susceptible to damage is our gut barrier. Let’s put into perspective how fragile our gut barrier is. Our skin is by far the thickest barrier in our body with some of its thickest points thought to be around 30 cells thick. What separates the contents of our intestine from our blood stream is a measly one cell layer thick. It is constantly being bombarded with bacteria, yeast, viruses and parasites. On top of that, certain foods (10) are thought to increase intestinal permeability. Other factors like stress and cortisol (11) as well as poor output from the neurons in our lower brainstem (12) can decrease the integrity of our gut barrier.
What is exciting is that much of these things can be changed with diet and lifestyle changes. Contrary to popular belief you are not destined to become what your genes or disease say you are going to become. We will discuss in great detail things you can do to help with the environmental factors of autoimmunity. If you have not signed up for our newsletter, do so to take the first step in educating yourself about your condition.