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AUTOIMMUNITY – WHAT IS IT AND WHY IS IT INCREASING?

Autoimmunity is an umbrella term for a number of medical conditions with one common problem: the immune system. In autoimmunity, the body’s immune system mistakenly identifies healthy cells as invaders and attacks them. This disease can present in various forms and can affect any part of the body. For some, autoimmunity can disrupt hormone production, as in Hashimoto’s or Graves. In other people, it can present as a symptom of inflammation, fatigue, and pain. Some people even experience neurological changes, as in cases of MS.



And while autoimmunity is not news to modern medicine, the increased number of reported cases per year is. It poses the questions - why are incidence reports on the rise, what, if anything, is causing its increase, and is there anything we can do about it?


According to recent research, the increase in the number of new autoimmunity diagnoses has been growing between 4% and 9% annually, with the highest reported onset of the new disease being rheumatoid arthritis(1). Part of this increase may be contributed to increasing awareness and accurate diagnosis of autoimmunity, particularly celiac disease. Another concern is the increase in the likelihood of secondary autoimmunity in patients with previous diagnoses. Basically, once you have been diagnosed with one type of autoimmunity, the risk of developing another autoimmune disorder also increases. What Causes Autoimmunity? Our immune system responds to foreign invaders by attack and destroys tactics to keep the body healthy and strong. Sometimes, the body mistakes certain ‘self’ cells as an invader and triggers an immune response. Part of this response involves the production of both inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokines, intended to create edema, white blood cell influx and tissue reconstruction, but also regulate the process as it occurs. There needs to be a careful balance between the two types of cytokines to avoid negative outcomes, and without it, inflammation gets out of control and we lose grasp of immunologic tolerance to our own cells, leading to autoimmunity. While there is no single underlying cause for autoimmunity, multiple factors have been attributed to the disease's development. Some of these factors include, but are limited to:

  • Stress

  • Genetics

  • Infectious Diseases

  • Gut Dysbiosis

  • Toxin & mould exposure

Research studies have shown that about 30% of all cases are from genetic factors(2). The remaining 70% of cases are caused by other factors. This is good news because it means that the remaining 70% of factors may be modifiable if we can identify them and change them before autoimmunity onset. Early detection and modification may even lead to the prevention of autoimmune development together. Modifiable risk factors associated with increased risk of autoimmunity Some of the modifiable risk factors triggering autoimmunity may include certain foods we eat or toxins we come into contact with. Examples include:

  • Increased organic solvent exposure, is commonly found in dry cleaning, paint thinner, nail polish remover, perfumes and detergents (3).

  • Changes in intestinal tight junction permeability (aka ‘leaky gut’) associated with industrial food additives (4).

  • Sugar, salt, emulsifiers, and gluten (4).

  • Tobacco and alcohol use, as well as some medications including cardiovascular drugs, antiepileptic drugs and slow-acting anti-inflammatory drugs (5)

  • Drinking cow’s milk may increase autoimmunity due to the cross-reactivity of albumin (6)

  • Gut dysbiosis (aka imbalances in our microbiome) (7).

It is important to remember autoimmunity develops from multiple factors. A good number of these factors can be controlled with changes to your diet and environmental habits. For further information about autoimmune disease and reducing risks, please feel free to schedule an appointment with Toronto Naturopathic Doctor, Dr. Courtney Holmberg ND by calling 647-351-7282 or booking online today!

  1. LernerC, JermaisP, MatthiasT. TheWorldIncidenceandPrevalenceofAutoimmuneDiseasesisIncreasing. InternationalJournalofCeliacDisease (2015); 151-155.

  2. https://www.immunology.org/news/report-reveals-the-rising-rates-autoimmune-conditions

  3. Barragán-MartínezC, Speck-HernándezCA, Montoya-OrtizG, MantillaRD, AnayaJM, Rojas-VillarragaA. Organicsolventsasriskfactorforautoimmunediseases: asystematicreviewandmeta-analysis. PLoSOne. 2012; 7(12): e51506.

  4. Fasano, Alessio. “Zonulin, RegulationofTightJunctions, andAutoimmuneDiseases.” AnnalsoftheNewYorkAcademyofSciences 1258.1 (2012): 25–33.

  5. ThierryVial, BrigitteNicolas, JacquesDescotes. Drug-inducedautoimmunity: experienceoftheFrenchPharmacovigilancesystem. Toxicology.1997; 119(1): 23-27.

  6. MacFarlaneAJ, etal. AType 1 Diabetes-relatedProteinfromWheat (Triticumaestivum) cDNACloneofaWheatStorageGlobulin, Glb1, LinkedtoIsletDamage. JBioChem. 2003;278:54-63.

  7. OpazoMC, Ortega-RochaEM, Coronado-ArrázolaI, BonifazLC, BoudinH, NeunlistM, BuenoSM, KalergisAM, RiedelCA. IntestinalMicrobiotaInfluencesNon-intestinalRelatedAutoimmuneDiseases. FrontMicrobiol. 2018 Mar12;9:432.


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