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Myths about Autoimmune Disease: Five Main Causes, and What You Can Do to Avoid Them

The number of Americans suffering from autoimmune disease is on the rise.

In fact, over 23 million Americans have some form of autoimmune diseaseCrohn’s disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Hashimoto’s disease, ulcerative colitis, Multiple Sclerosis (MS), or rheumatoid arthritisaccording to the National Institutes of Health. Nearly 80 percent of autoimmune disease sufferers are women.

And worldwide, “rheumatic, endocrinological, gastrointestinal, and neurological autoimmune diseases” increased on average 5.5% annually, primarily in type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, and myasthenia gravis. The Northern and Western hemispheres home the majority of the afflicted.

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Why the sudden rise?

Some attribute the spread of autoimmune disease to environmental toxins from chemicals, GMO’s, pollutants, and processed foods. Some attribute it to dietary changes from the agricultural revolution the world experienced hundreds of years ago, claiming our biology has not adapted quickly enough. And still others claim doctors and scientists are more aware of the diseases now due to newer technology and testing.

Maybe it’s all of these things, maybe none of them.

Five Main Causes of Autoimmune Disease

Robin Berzin, M.D. of Parsley Health attributes autoimmune disease to five main theoretical causes:

  1. Hygiene theory: We’ve sanitized our environment with antibacterial soaps and other hygiene habits that have reduced our exposure to microbes and dirt that our bodies are designed to fight, thereby creating an imbalance in our immune systems.
  2. Microbiome theory: Gut bacteria, which regulates the immune system, has been destroyed by antibiotics and other medications, along with processed foods.
  3. Leaky gut syndrome: The digestive tract lining contains 70 percent of the immune system. When the cells in that lining are damaged, the lining becomes permeable, and the immune system reacts to foods, medication, and anything else that ends up in the digestive tract. As such, the immune system is always ratcheted up in reaction.
  4. Vitamin D deficiency: Linked to autoimmune disease in some studies.
  5. Stress: High levels of cortisol affect the immune system.

She says, that while autoimmune disease, when caught early, can be controlled with an anti-inflammatory diet (no sugar, gluten, and dairy), meditation or other stress relief, and supplements to heal leaky gut, the disease is often overlooked or misdiagnosed as something else. Conventional medicine treats the symptoms with inflammation-lowering medication, and not the cause.

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What Is Autoimmune Disease?

It can be any number of symptoms of an overactive or imbalanced immune system.

Your immune system, which makes the antibodies and immune cells that attack potentially harmful foreign invaders, gets confused and starts attacking healthy tissue. What you get from this malfunction is inflammation–from stomach aches and rashes to swollen and painful joints, among other persistent maladies and general unwellness.  

As a group of disorders, autoimmune disease is as common as heart disease or cancer.

There are two categories of autoimmune disorders:

  • Those specific to particular organs, like type 1 diabetes, which is the immunological attack on the insulin-producing pancreas.
  • Variable diseases on body systems, such as when the immune system attacks the tissue of many organs in a variety of bodily systems.

The symptoms vary with each kind, and causes vary too. For example, Graves disease occurs when the body mistakes antibodies with viruses or bacteria, and the immune system attacks the thyroid gland, causing weight loss, heat intolerance, bulging eyes, and other symptoms.

Rheumatoid arthritis includes pain and swelling in the joints, and Hashimoto’s causes fatigue, weight gain, and depression from a thyroid condition. Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis patients have severely inflamed intestinal tracts. And lupus attacks the entire body.

Why Is this Happening Now?

Well, according to Health Tap’s Geoff Rutledge, M.D., Ph.D., doctors now recognize the signs of autoimmune disease so they diagnose more patients with it, using more accurate tests. Before, these diseases were just a sprawling array of distinct symptoms; they weren’t categorized under one umbrella, so the toll on the population could not be tallied or named.

Also, doctors now know to watch for genetic predispositions. But Rutledge also believes environmental factors, such as pharmaceuticals (to treat other diseases) and smoking affect the autoimmune system. However, we need more studies and research to pinpoint causes.

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So far, Dr. Rutledge claims, prevention and cures are still out on the horizon. But vitamin D deficiency, diet, and stress appear to be the main culprits for diseases like type 1 diabetes, MS, rheumatoid arthritis, and Crohn’s. Doctors often recommend eliminating gluten, sugar, and dairy from sufferers’ diets. The hope is that with increased diagnoses and knowledge come earlier detection and treatment.

Food Additives

In a study published in Autoimmunity Reviews, titled “Changes in intestinal tight junction permeability associated with industrial food additives explain the rising incidence of autoimmune disease,” researchers connect processed food to the leaky gut partially responsible for immunity imbalance.

The tight junctions (a network of proteins) in the small intestine maintain the impermeability of that digestive pathway. When those junctions fail, the intestines become more susceptible to both naturally occurring and introduced toxins, carcinogens, and allergens. The result: autoimmunity disease.  

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The study concluded that food additives such as sugars, salts, fats (emulsifiers), organic acids, gluten, and other enzymes damaged the tight junctions, creating a permeable intestinal mucosa, the leading cause of autoimmunity. Not surprising, the study concluded that autoimmune patients avoid foods with additives. The lead scientist on the study also suggests the FDA regulate the food additive (largely unregulated) as strictly as they do the pharmaceutical industry.

Environmental Hazards

Fred Miller, director of the Environmental Autoimmunity Group at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, claims that environmental factors, such as the 80,000 approved commercial chemicals, produce unknown effects on the immune system, and our genes are not adapting quickly enough to account for those effects. He also cites lifestyle changes and more processed foods in our diets in the last decades as contributors to the rise of autoimmune disease. Miller warns that this rise could become our costliest burden in the U.S.

But other triggers include stress, hormones, infections, drugs, diet, weight, behavior, and others. However, direct correlations between one cause and specific symptoms still needs more study.

Amy Myers, M.D., who wrote The Autoimmune Solution advocates a stringent diet not only eliminating dairy, gluten, and sugar, but all processed foods or potentially contaminated foods. For example, she recommends foregoing all nightshade vegetables, like eggplant and tomatoes, which cause inflammation, and eating only organic vegetables, grass-fed beef or poultry, and fresh caught fish (Pacific salmon not Atlantic).

She also outlines the means to eliminate environmental toxins by drinking purified, filtered water and breathing purified, filtered air at home and work (if possible). No chemicals on the skin, other than ones she offers as chemical and metal-free, and no Teflon cookware to avoid metal leaching into foods. A former Graves disease sufferer herself, she claims those anywhere on the spectrum of autoimmune disorders can get relief from this total solution.

While theories and studies prove some or all of the reasons for the rise of autoimmune disease, the truth is that there’s still much work to do to discover the causes of the disease and educate not only medical practitioners but governmental agencies that protect the public and the public itself about the dangers of our current lifestyles. Prevention and awareness are still the best medicines for autoimmune disease.