The prevalence of autoimmune diseases is on the rise. At least all the current estimates indicate this is true. However, it’s difficult to figure out exactly how many people have an autoimmune disease because new ones are being identified all the time.
Researchers have identified 80 different autoimmune diseases that affect 23.5 million Americans. The American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association suggests both of these numbers are too low and estimate there may be as many as 140 different autoimmune diseases. The organization also says there may be as many as 50 million Americans with an autoimmune disease, as the 23.5 million estimate is based on only 24 of the 80 classified autoimmune diseases.
And of course, this doesn’t take into account everyone who has an autoimmune condition or disease and doesn’t realize it.
Because research indicates that the development of an autoimmune condition is dependent on gut health and food choices, let’s explore the topic…
What is autoimmunity?
Autoimmunity is when your adaptive immune system creates antibodies against one or more of your own tissues. Once the antibodies are formed, they identify your cells as “foreign” and trigger an attack to get rid of the supposed invader.
Multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, psoriasis, Sjogren’s syndrome, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Graves’ disease, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and type 1 diabetes are examples of autoimmune diseases.
Who will develop an autoimmune disease?
Experts are converging on the idea that a person will develop an autoimmune disease when three components are sufficiently present:
- A genetic susceptibility to develop an autoimmune disease
Note: We do not know which genes are the culprit for every incidence of all 140 autoimmune diseases and experts suggest more than one genetic variation may be required. This is supported by the fact that not everyone with celiac disease has the alleles commonly accepted as the genetic variations that give susceptibility (HLA-DQ2 or HLA-DQ8).
- A trigger (such as infections, toxins, allergens and/or stress)
- A leaky gut
We know that genetic susceptibility is not enough. If it were, for example, then 30 – 35% of the population would have celiac disease because that’s how many of us carry the HLA-DQ2 or HLA-DQ8 alleles. As such, there are either other genetic variations involved that we haven’t identified yet and/or there needs to be something that turns the genes on and makes the immune system react to our own bodies (the trigger).
Also, it’s not enough for the trigger to exist. It must have access to the immune system before the immune system can react. Think of it like this: there may be someone that you think should be punched in the face (child molester, big game hunter, person who cut you off while driving, etc.). However, if you don’t come in contact with that person, you never have the chance to punch him or her. It’s the same with your immune system… it has to get up-close and personal with a trigger before it will respond.
Because the majority of your immune system lives just below the surface of your intestinal wall, the easiest access point is through a compromised digestive system. When you have a leaky gut, the trigger gets into the blood stream where your immune system can see it and react.
How does an autoimmune disease develop?
If a person who is genetically susceptible encounters a trigger, the immune system tries to get rid of the foreign object, and in the process begins creating antibodies against the self. There are two theories about how the body goes from protecting itself to attacking itself:
- The most commonly accepted theory is related to molecular mimicry. Basically, the trigger has proteins that are similar to the proteins in your own tissues. While the immune system is trying to take care of the trigger, it gets confused by the similar proteins and attacks the body’s cells also.
- The trigger, which is but shouldn’t be in the blood stream, damages our cells. Eventually, the immune system realizes it needs to clean up the damaged cells and creates antibodies against the cells that have been damaged.
The “how” doesn’t really matter (unless you like science) and it’s possible they both happen. The main point is that your immune system creates antibodies against your own tissues which results in self-destruction.
As well, those self-antibodies immediately start attacking the designated tissue. For example, any thyroid antibodies in your blood are attacking your thyroid so long as you still have a thyroid. This is important if you have antibodies, but your doctor has told you the levels are low and there is nothing to worry about or to be done.
In the beginning, the person may not have any symptoms and some experts call this the silent phase of autoimmunity because the attack is happening, but you and your doctor may not be aware.
There also may be a period when the person has symptoms, but an impact is not detectable via bodily function. Continuing with the thyroid antibody example, a person may have low levels of antibodies and feel like her thyroid function is compromised even if all of the blood markers of thyroid function are normal. This is called subclinical hypothyroidism. As well, she may be told she has an autoimmune condition or disorder (presuming it’s one that has already been labeled).
Over time, the number of self antibodies increases, the amount of tissue under attack increases, and the function of the attacked tissue decreases as the organ is destroyed little by little. Eventually, there is not enough tissue remaining for the organ to work properly and the person develops the associated symptoms. When the organ is no longer functioning optimally and the loss of function is attributed to auto-antibodies, the person is diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.
Are autoimmune diseases curable or reversible?
This is a complicated question without an easy answer. Obviously, the genetic susceptibility never goes away. However, there are steps that everyone can do to prevent or heal a leaky gut and remove and avoid triggers.
No one can predict if or when taking restorative and healing steps can reverse an autoimmune disease. However, there is plenty of evidence that dietary and lifestyle changes can have a major impact on the presentation and progression of autoimmune diseases.
As well, data shows that a person with one autoimmune disease is 3 times more likely to develop another one. So, those of us who have an autoimmune disease are wise to do what we can to heal our guts (so the immune system is no longer accessible) and to remove triggers where possible (so we stop poking our immune systems).
Now that you understand what it is, check out the next blog post in which I outline my top 5 suggestions to help your immune system be as healthy as possible. And if you want a personalized plan, contact me and let’s talk about how I can help you and your immune system.
Image courtesy of Zastavki.
— Autoimmune diseases fact sheet. Office on Women’s Health website. Updated July 16, 2012. Accessed December 3, 2014. http://womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/autoimmune-diseases.html.
— Autoimmune info. American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association website. Accessed December 3, 2014. http://www.aarda.org/autoimmune-information/questions-and-answers/.
— Bland J. Why Autoimmune Disease is NOT a Result of Being Allergic to Yourself, and What to Do About It. Video presentation. November 2014.
— Blum S. Immune System Recovery Plan. New York, NY : Scribner, 2013
— National Institutes of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Testing for Celiac Disease (For Healthcare Providers). In Diagnostic Tests. Accessed on June 24, 2015. http://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-topics/diagnostic-tests/testing-celiac-disease/Pages/diagnostic-test.aspx