While most of us like to pat ourselves on the back for staying late at work, exchanging sleep for to-do lists, and eating what’s quick and convenient, we’ve become our own worst enemy. Rates of autoimmune disease have risen dramatically in the last three decades, mainly in Westernized societies.
Yes, genetics play a role in the development of autoimmunity. But new research suggests environment and modifiable risk factors might be the bigger culprits. Our Western diet and stressed-out, sleep-deprived lifestyle increase our risk of autoimmunity; however, we can all take heart in knowing that making healthy, informed choices can equally alter the course of disease and improve quality of life.
What is autoimmunity?
Like a home security system, your immune system is designed to keep dangerous intruders out while keeping you safe inside. When all is functioning well, the immune system identifies bacteria, viruses, parasites, cancerous cells, and harmful substances from the environment and marks them for destruction by activating inflammatory pathways.
But when the body loses its capacity to distinguish between self and “non-self,” it loses tolerance to its own cells. If the body doesn’t recognize itself, it initiates those inflammatory pathways and begins to self-attack in a state of autoimmunity. It’s a bit like your home security alarm sounding off for no apparent reason, and at 3 o’clock in the morning to boot!
The challenges of diagnosis
Depending on the organs being attacked, autoimmunity presents differently in each person. Common autoimmune conditions include Hashimoto’s disease, myasthenia gravis and Graves’ disease, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), celiac disease, irritable bowel disease, multiple sclerosis (MS), lupus (SLE), and type 1 diabetes.
Based on symptoms, doctors order blood tests, imaging, or a biopsy. Since autoimmunity can affect nearly all systems, it’s notoriously challenging to arrive at a conclusive diagnosis.
The many factors at play
While there’s no definitive cause of autoimmunity, evidence suggests stress, sleep disturbance, low psychological well-being,
solvent exposure, smoking, Epstein-Barr infection, and low vitamin D status are associated with an increased risk of autoimmune disease. Research suggests that, when triggered by these factors, the autoimmune process likely begins in the gut.
A window into the gut
About 70 percent of your immune system is housed in your gut. The gut’s role is to absorb nutrients from food while maintaining a barrier between the self and the external environment. The gut maintains this delicate balance between immune reactivity and self-tolerance via tight junctions between intestinal cells.
But certain triggers can irritate those tight junctions, and when this happens, immunological proteins from food and harmful compounds from the external environment can pass between the intestinal cells. This increased intestinal permeability is commonly known as “leaky gut.” The immune system lodges a response against leaky gut that eventually attacks the body’s own cells.
Gluten, small intestinal bacteria, food additives, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and aspirin have all been found to increase intestinal permeability. Alterations in intestinal permeability have been associated with autoimmune diseases, including MS, type 1 diabetes, RA, and celiac disease.
To reduce intestinal permeability, start by avoiding gluten, sugar, and food additives, all of which are generally understood to be inflammatory. Cook at home whenever possible and eat whole foods rather than processed.
Having a diversity of good bacteria in your gut is also helpful for warding off autoimmunity. Good bacteria help induce regulatory T-cells, whose role is to maintain immune tolerance.
But infection, antibiotics, some pharmaceuticals, and even high-fat diets can negatively affect the microbiome (the community of microorganisms, including bacteria, that live in and on you). Changes in gut microbiota have been associated with MS, SLE, and celiac disease and likely contribute to other autoimmune conditions.
Healing the root cause
Identifying why there’s gut barrier dysfunction in the first place helps treat autoimmunity at its source. Check with your natural health care practitioner, who can offer comprehensive stool analysis, food sensitivity testing, and screening for small intestinal bacterial overgrowth and latent infection, all of which can be helpful in identifying your personal triggers of immune intolerance and obstacles to healing.
You’ll also want to mitigate modern lifestyle stressors. Choosing sleep over checklists, downtime rather than overtime, and whole foods over processed can substantially reduce your risk of autoimmunity.
The ‘S’ factors
Psychosocial stress from demands placed on productivity is a risk factor for autoimmunity.
Mindful breathing exercises can be helpful for managing myasthenia gravis, a chronic autoimmune neuromuscular disease that causes weakness in skeletal muscles.
Sleep helps maintain proper immunity, and sleep loss activates inflammation in the body.
Disturbed or disordered sleep increases the risk of autoimmunity, particularly lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjogren’s syndrome, ankylosing spondylitis, and type 1 diabetes.
Cognitive behavioral therapy and tai chi can reverse the inflammatory signaling associated with insomnia.
Supplemental probiotics and prebiotics may help induce regulatory T-cells and aid in suppressing autoimmunity. Curcumin can also induce regulatory T-cells and has been shown to help with myasthenia gravis, MS, SLE, and RA. Additionally, glutamine supplements may help reduce intestinal permeability.
The incidence of autoimmune disease increased at yearly rates ranging from 3.7 to 7.1 percent between 1985 and 2015.
The prevalence of autoimmunity has risen alongside the growing consumption of food additives and the expansion of commercial food processing.
High body mass index (BMI) and Western dietary habits are risk factors for autoimmunity.