Many common conditions such as thyroid disease, bowel disease and endometriosis are, in fact, autoimmune conditions. If conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia are included in the statistics (and many experts believe that they should be), the frequency of autoimmune conditions in the western world is 1 in 5 people. Among women, it's even more frequent.
Autoimmunity occurs when the immune system attacks the body's own tissues. This causes inflammation, and potentially destruction of that tissue. Autoimmunity can affect multiple tissues, such as Lupus or Sjogren's disease, or it can affect single organs, such as thyroid disease or Juvenile Diabetes. Autoimmunity is the cause of over 80 different conditions.
Autoimmune disease is a topic of intense research, and some likely causes have been identified (see below). There is not, however, likely to be one single cause. The immune system is a highly complex organ. It has some innate degree of autoimmunity in order to protect the body against the mutated cells of cancer, or against certain kinds of pathogens. The immune system's complexity helps us to live in a complex environment. But it also has many parts that can malfunction.
A Disease of our Modern Lifestyle?
Autoimmune disease is currently on the increase. The incidence of some types of autoimmune diseases, such as Multiple Sclerosis, has doubled during the last decade. Something in our modern lifestyle is causing the problem, but what? Possible factors include vitamin D deficiency, infection, disturbed gut flora and toxic chemical exposure.
5 Possible Causes
1) Vitamin D Deficiency
The prime suspect for the increasing frequency of autoimmune disease is vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is an immune modulator. It enhances immunity against cancer, but at the same time, it prevents the immune system from forming ‘autoreactive' cells (1).
Vitamin D comes from the sun, so being without sun creates deficiency. High latitude countries such as Canada and New Zealand have significantly higher rates of autoimmune disease than tropical countries, where autoimmune disease is almost nonexistent. Sunscreen use, which began sharply in the 1980's, blocks vitamin D synthesis. An Australian government study has found that the ‘Slip, Slop, Slap' campaign has created widespread vitamin D deficiency (2) This deficiency has unwittingly contributed to the growing epidemic of autoimmune disease and cancer.
Check your risk: Get a blood test for vitamin D.
Vitamin D is an important immune modulator. Deficiency may be the cause of auto-immune disease. Sunscreen use causes deficiency. Blood level of vitamin D should be between 80-100 nmol/L
Infection triggers some types of autoimmunity such as Rheumatic Fever and Ankylosing Spondylitis. In these diseases, autoimmunity occurs because, to the immune system, the body's own cells have a similar appearance to the bacteria that it is trying to kill. This process is called molecular mimicry. When infection is the cause, antibiotics are effective treatment. However, even when infection is not the known cause, antibiotics may be considered. Antibiotics are currently being trialled as treatment for Rheumatoid Arthritis, based on the theory the disease is caused by infection by an as-yet-unidentified. Infectious agents that can trigger autoimmunity include bacteria, yeast, and viruses like the Epstein Barr virus.
3) Disrupted Gut Bacteria
The health of the gut bacteria is critical for the immune system. There are literally trillions of bacteria in the gut, and one of their jobs is to train and regulate the immune system. In recent decades, our gut flora has been damaged by antibiotics, the Birth Control Pill, and by the modern western diet. Imbalance in the gut flora has been shown to directly increase the risk for autoimmunity and other immune disorders. (3)
4) Leaky Gut
When the gut bacteria are disturbed, digestion becomes less efficient. This causes damage to the lining of the intestine, and it compromises the barrier that is supposed to separate the blood stream from the contents of the intestine. The resulting ‘leaky gut' allows food molecules to enter the blood. The food molecules put a huge burden on the immune system. They cross-react with the body tissues, and can trigger autoimmunity. Some foods are more likely to cross-react than others. The worst items are wheat gluten and cow's milk casein. Wheat gluten has been shown to cause or worsen Ankylosing Spondylitis and Hashimoto's Thyroiditis. Cow's milk casein has been linked with Type 1 Diabetes.
5) Environmental Toxins
Autoimmune Disease, particularly Lupus, can be triggered by toxic damage. Environmental chemicals that are a known risk include: mercury, pesticides, hair dyes, PCBs, and plastic contaminants, such as bisphenol A. (4)
Toxins damage the immune system directly, but they can also cause autoimmune disease by damaging the body's tissue, so that the tissues are changed, and are no longer recognisable by the immune system. The thyroid gland is particularly vulnerable to damage by environmental toxins. This is why autoimmune thyroid disease is so common.
There are over 30,000 chemicals in current use, and they have never been tested for long-term safety. If safety studies were done at all, they were for short-term acute toxicity, and did not consider the cumulative damage from combined toxin exposure. They certainly did not consider chronic immune damage. Long term safety studies will be done, but the results will take decades. In the meantime, protect your immune system by minimising exposure to pesticides, solvents and plastics as much as possible.
Natural Treatment for Autoimmune Disease
Natural treatment is very effective for Autoimmune Disease, but it must be used to treat the underlying problem with the immune system, and not just for symptom relief. What follows are some basic principals for immune modulation. This approach should be considered for all autoimmune conditions, regardless of the affected organ. In other words, it is as equally suitable for the under-active thyroid symptoms of Hashimoto's thyroiditis as it is for the diarrhoea of Ulcerative colitis.
Basic principals for treatment
• Avoid environmental toxins such pesticides, solvents and plastics.
• Remove environmental toxin residues with detoxification techniques such as sauna or exercise.
• Avoid wheat gluten and cow's milk.
• Supplement probiotics.
• Consider a course of a natural antibiotic such as Goldenseal.
• Consider a natural anti-inflammatory such as Turmeric or fish oil.
• Correct a vitamin D deficiency
• Avoid the Birth Control Pill, and consider the use of Natural progesterone, if appropriate.
How is Autoimmune Disease different from Allergy?
In Autoimmune disease, the immune system attacks the body's own tissues. In allergy, the immune system attacks a benign intruder, such as pollen.
Is Autoimmune Disease genetic?
There is a strong genetic component to Autoimmune Disease. Direct relatives are more likely to develop an autoimmune condition than non-relatives, although it may not be the same condition. For example, someone with autoimmune thyroid disease may have a relative with Lupus or inflammatory bowel disease or Sjogren's. A genetic predisposition does not mean that autoimmune disease is a certainty. Genetics interact with environment, so, with the right lifestyle and prevention, autoimmunity can be prevented.
Why are women more at risk?
79% of autoimmune patients are female. There are a few reasons for this. One factor is that the female immune system, with its ability to adapt to pregnancy, is inherently more complex than its male counterpart.
Women are also at risk from oestrogen itself. Oestrogen promotes autoimmunity. (The strong oestrogen-like drugs in the Pill and HRT do so even more strongly). Testosterone and progesterone, on the other hand, prevent autoimmunity. Autoimmune conditions can go into remission during pregnancy because of the high level of progesterone. Natural progesterone cream may deliver a similar benefit.
Women who have had pregnancies have yet another risk. During pregnancy, foetal cells migrate into the mother and stay there for decades. These cells protect against some diseases such as organ damage, but they also increase the risk for autoimmunity. (7) This is the reason that autoimmune thyroid disease is often triggered by pregnancy.
Hashimoto's Thyroiditis: 1 in 4 women
By the age of 35, almost one quarter of women have autoimmunity against their thyroid gland. On blood test, they will have thyroid antibodies, and these women will require a thyroid hormone supplement, even if their standard thyroid blood test is normal. Thyroid antibodies cause fatigue, weight gain, infertility and miscarriage. Treatment for autoimmunity (discussed above) will improve all of the symptoms associated with Hashimoto's, and will reduce the need for thyroid medication.
Tip: If you suspect a problem, ask your doctor to test ‘thyroid antibodies', even if the standard thyroid test was normal.
List of some of the over 80 conditions declared to be autoimmune diseases by the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association
Chronic fatigue syndrome
Hashimoto's thyroid disease
|Type 1 diabetes
Restless legs syndrome
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1. Cantorna, MT. Vitamin D and its role in immunology: multiple sclerosis and inflammatory bowel disease. Prog Biophys Mol Biol. 2006. 92(1): 60-4
2. Nowson C, Margerison C. Vitamin D intake and vitamin D status of Australians.2002. Med J Aust 177 (3): 149-52
3. Gale EA. A missing link in the hygiene hypothesis? 2002 Diabetologia 45:588-594
4. Cooper, GS et al. Occupational risk factors for the development of systemic lupus erthematosus. J Rheumatol. 2004. 31(10): 1928-33.
5. Saunders K, et al. Inhibition of autoimmune type 1 diabetes by gastrointestinal helminth infection. 2007. Infect Immun 75 (1): 397-407
6. Wållberg M et al. Co-infection with Trypanosoma brucei brucei prevents experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis in DBA/1 mice through induction of suppressor APCs. 2005. Int Immunol 17 (6): 721-8
7. Adams, KM. Microchimerism: An Investigative Frontier in Autoimmunity and Transplantation. JAMA. 2004;291:1127-1131.