The Rise of Autoimmunity

Updated: Nov 11

Stay immune to the stressors of our modern lifestyle

Originally written for alive magazine, April 2020. Read the full article here:

While we might 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.

While genetics do play a role in the development of autoimmunity, new research suggests that our environment might be the bigger culprit. While our Western diet and stressed-out, sleep-deprived lifestyle do increase our risk of autoimmunity, take heart in knowing that making healthy, informed choices can equally alter the course of disease and significantly improve quality of life.

Losing tolerance

  • The incidence of autoimmune disease has increased at yearly rates ranging from 3.7 to 7.1 percent between 1985 and 2015.

  • The incidence 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 constitute risks for autoimmunity.

Home security

Like a home security system, our immune system is designed to keep dangerous intruders out, while keeping us 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 our 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, 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 complex and challenging to arrive at a conclusive diagnosis.

Resilience to stress

  • Psychosocial stress from demands placed on productivity has been identified as 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, and they can reduce stress in those without autoimmunity.

A multifactorial disease

While there is no definitive cause of autoimmunity, evidence suggests that 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 diseases. Research suggests that, when triggered by these environmental factors, the autoimmune process likely begins in the gut.

A window into the gut

The gut is home to about 70 percent of the immune system. Its 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 environmental 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, against which the immune system lodges a response that eventually attacks its own cells.

Gluten, small intestinal bacteria, food additives, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as 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.

Glutamine supplements

Supplementing with the amino acid glutamine may also help reduce intestinal permeability.

To reduce gut permeability, start by avoiding gluten, sugar, and food additives, all of which are generally understood to be inflammatory. Cooking at home whenever possible and eating whole foods rather than processed can help you take ownership of what goes into your body.

Bug balance

Having a diversity of good bacteria in the gut is also helpful for warding off autoimmunity. Probiotics (good bacteria) help induce regulatory T-cells, whose role is to maintain immune tolerance.