What causes Autoimmune Diseases?

There are many potential underlying causes of autoimmune disease! Infections, food, toxic environments, chronic stress, genetics and more can all contribute to the onset of autoimmunity.

Let’s start by discussing the role of infections in causing autoimmunity. Many people don’t know or are not aware of the fact that infections can actually trigger autoimmune responses.There are a lot of different types of infections that we might come across in our lives and some are things like viral infections, bacterial infections and parasites (especially for some of the world travelers) and then also things like fungal infections.These infections can do a bunch of different things that are not so great for our immune systems.One thing that can happen is when you get an infection, the body is fighting this infection, but then the infection may look a little bit like some of our tissues, or it may have have molecules in it that look similar to our tissues.This is a process called molecular mimicry where the immune system does think that it’s fighting this infection, but suddenly it’s translated to the immune system attacking our tissues. With viral infections such as C-19, we learned a little bit more about how in a certain subset of the population that gets C-19 that it will go on to trigger autoimmune disease. There’s a bacteria called Clostridium Difficile that can develop after using antibiotics. This creates a horrible gut infection that can actually trigger infectious colitis (intestinal inflammation).There are many ways that the immune system can get triggered by infections.

How does our environment cause autoimmune disease? Our “environment” can refer to our physical environment and may also include our emotional and our spiritual environment. All of these pieces are things that our immune systems are interacting with on a daily basis. When we look at our physical environment, there can be things like mold or toxic chemicals that might be in your environment that absolutely can harm the immune system and can start triggering autoimmunity. Autoimmune processes can also happen from emotional trauma. There can be an inherent  vulnerability after we have experienced trauma.

So it’s not just that stress can create autoimmune disease or trauma can create autoimmune disease, it’s the process of what those stressors cause in our system that then can allow autoimmune disease to develop. So, something like having post-traumatic stress disorder from a traumatic event can suppress the body’s ability to have a healthy functioning immune system. There’s research that is undeniable showing that some of these mental/emotional impacts can cause physical conditions to manifest. Think about your environment. Whether it’s toxic exposures, or whether it’s toxic relationships – our environment can absolutely set us up for autoimmunity or not. 


What about food? Does it matter what we’re eating? Absolutely! When I think about the food that we’re putting in our bodies, I think that eating healthy or nutritious food is the most therapeutic thing that we can do for our health. Once we have a foundation of a nutritious diet, our health can build off of that. Nutritious food is a foundation for health and healing and eating the right things for us can help improve our health immensely. Dietary approaches are not one-size-fits-all. All of us have unique needs and unique approaches will be needed to help us return to health. But when we’re talking about food, a lot of my patients will say “I eat a healthy diet” and I say “that’s great! Tell me more about what that looks like for you.” I may hear them talk a little bit more about how much they love all of these “healthy” foods that I know are possibly not doing as much good as they could in helping them heal. Some foods might be gut irritating or immune irritating and some foods can be very inflammatory, especially when you have autoimmunity. It’s not that any food is really “good” or “bad” or that you should never have this or you should always have that. But, when you’re trying to curate reduction in inflammation and you’re trying to heal your gut, there may be specific nutritional strategies that you need to follow. Even for a short period of time to help your body to have a better chance of healing. Finding out  which foods that you’re sensitive to, finding out foods that irritate your gut, finding out the foods that can help to promote healing is key in knowing how to approach nutrition that is right for you. Embracing nutritional changes that help to promote healing are really central in our program and central in my practice as well.


What about sleep and sleep disorders? When we think about deep and restful sleep – this is the time that our body repairs itself. If we’re getting disrupted sleep than it really is disrupting other processes in the body, including its ability to repair itself. You could be eating the healthiest or healthy for you or healthy for your immune system diet, but then if you are not sleeping, then your body does not have the normal processes happening to be able to prop up your your immune system. Sleep is very important in health and healing and when it is out of balance can put undue stress on the body. 


What about the role that digestive health plays in developing autoimmunity? Hippocrates said it a long time ago – “all disease begins in the gut.” This is one of those quotes that circulates, but it is so true all of these years later, especially when we’re looking at the immune system. Roughly 70 percent of the immune system of the body resides in our intestines. Based on this fact, it would not surprise you to know that digestive health is really important in determining whether we develop  autoimmune disease or if we’re able to recover from autoimmune disease. We definitely want to appease the gut microbiome balance which in turn can help balance the immune system. Healthy digestion can help give us a great foundation for recovering from autoimmune disease. The digestive tract prevents our bodies from absorbing toxins from our environment.The digestive tract is key in trying to protect us from foriegn substances or organisms from entering our bloodstream.The digestive tract is also a key piece in deciding whether or not we’re going to be absorbing or nutrients from our food or not. So healing digestion can really help us to recover from autoimmunity.


What about the genetic component of autoimmunity?  There are very few purely genetic or inherited autoimmune conditions, but there are many more autoimmune conditions that may have some hereditary or genetic component but are caused by many factors.So just because your grandma or your sibling has rheumatoid arthritis does not necessarily mean that you are destined to develop it. There may be a hereditary or inherited component plus sprinkle in some of these environmental factors are infections – that’s when autoimmune conditions can really start developing. It’s very rarely purely genetic, but there is often a component of increased risk of developing autoimmune diseases because it’s in your family.

Small Conclusion

Let’s summarize. We talked about several different causes of autoimmune diseases –  infections, environment (both physical and emotional), toxins, stress and trauma, nutrition, sleep, digestive health and genetics.These are a lot of the main triggers, and if you understand this, then it means that you can create healing strategies in each of these areas. That really will give you the best possible chance of healing and recovering as a whole human being. You are worth it!

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