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Written by
Tram Pham
Medically Reviewed by
Dr. Danielle Desroche

Autoimmune disease is a general term used to describe any condition in which the immune system attacks and destroys healthy cells in the body. In an autoimmune disease, the immune system produces autoantibodies — antibodies that lose the ability to tell “self” from “nonself” and attack the body’s own cells, tissues, and organs. Autoantibodies in healthy people are kept under control through normal immune function, but in susceptible individuals they can be a sign of genetic predisposition to an autoimmune disease. (Source, Source, Source)

So, how are autoimmune conditions developed? In this article we’ll look at the role of genetics and environmental triggers in autoimmune disease, how you may be able to predict and prevent disease development, and how an effective treatment plan can help you stay as healthy as possible. 

How Are Autoimmune Conditions Developed?

The exact cause of autoimmune disorders (AD) is unknown, but it is thought that genetics, environmental factors, and lifestyle choices play a role. Some characteristics that are known to increase the risk of developing an autoimmune condition include exposure to environmental or lifestyle triggers, having a family history of the condition, and being female. (Source, Source)

Genetics

Autoimmune disorders tend to cluster in families. Having a family member with an autoimmune disease may increase the chance you have inherited certain genes that make you susceptible to an autoimmune condition. Not every family member will have the same disease, but certain autoimmune conditions, such as multiple sclerosis (MS) and systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), tend to run in families. Furthermore, having one autoimmune disease makes it more likely that you’ll have another. (Source)

Some autoimmune disorders are also more common in certain populations. For example, African Americans are at a higher risk than those of European descent for SLE and scleroderma (systemic sclerosis) but are at lower risk for type 1 diabetes, thyroiditis, and MS. (Source)

Gender

Autoimmune disorders are two times more prevalent in women than in men. Certain autoimmune diseases, such as RA, MS, and SLE disproportionately affect women. (Source, Source)

The sex differences in autoimmune disorders may be due to variation within the sex chromosomes and hormonal changes in women. The relationship between sex hormones and autoimmunity is complex, but estrogen is generally considered to enhance autoimmunity. Furthermore, autoimmune diseases tend to affect women during periods of extensive stress or hormonal change, such as puberty, pregnancy, and menopause. (Source, Source)

Environment

Your environmental and lifestyle choices can influence how effectively your genes carry out their functions within your body, including your immune response. (Source)

Diet

  • A typical Western diet — high in saturated fat, salt, and sugar and low in fiber — has been shown to disrupt the gut microbiota, leading to dysbiosis and immune imbalance. (Source, Source)

Stress

  • Stress has an impact on the body’s gut–brain axis, which can alter the gut microbiota composition.
  • Studies have shown that stress reduces the number of potentially beneficial bacteria species, such as lactobacilli, in the gut. (Source, Source)

Environmental Agents

  • Smoke, including cigarette smoke, contains thousands of chemicals that can cause oxidative stress and alter the gut microbiota composition, contributing to autoimmune disease. (Source, Source, Source)
  • Primary pollutants in the air or water may create an environment in the body that triggers or exacerbates autoimmune diseases. (Source, Source)
  • Toxins or other chemicals, such as mercury (heavy metal from fish and dental fillings), silica dust, pesticides, and fungicides, may contribute to inflammation and autoimmunity. (Source, Source)

shoulders touching

How Are Autoimmune Conditions Diagnosed?

There are more than 80 different types of autoimmune diseases that may affect specific organs or multiple organs in the body, including the skin, joints, blood vessels, muscles, and nervous system. Their common symptoms, such as brain fog, fatigue, anxiety, joint pain, and abdominal pain, often overlap, which makes them hard to diagnose. (Source, Source, Source)

Diagnosing an autoimmune condition generally relies on a combination of physical assessment, medical and symptom history, and lab tests.

Testing for autoantibodies may be useful for predicting onset of autoimmune disease, as well as diagnosing and guiding treatment for existing disease. The specifics will vary by individual, but multiple laboratory tests, including antinuclear antibody (ANA) testing, are often needed along with evaluation of signs and symptoms in order to diagnose an autoimmune disease. (Source, Source, Source)

How Can I Stop an Autoimmune Condition From Developing?

Understanding the root causes that trigger symptoms, and managing those triggers through dietary and lifestyle interventions, may help prevent the onset of autoimmune conditions or put symptoms into remission. (Source, Source)

Instead of waiting for a clinical diagnosis, you can optimize your health today by taking steps to remove triggers, reduce inflammation, and support your immune system. Here are some strategies that may help:

  • Adopting a gluten-free, paleo, or autoimmune protocol (AIP) diet can help reduce inflammation and improve symptoms by identifying foods that trigger the immune system. (Source, Source)
  • Minimizing stress, which affects the immune system both directly and indirectly, may help reduce susceptibility to autoimmune diseases. Stress has a profound impact on the gut and increases risk for chronic diseases, including AD. (Source, Source, Source)
  • Getting enough quality sleep can help support your immune system and digestion. Research has shown that lack of sleep is associated with changes in immune response, leading to chronic inflammation and increased risk for autoimmune disease. (Source, Source)
  • Supplementation with Vitamin D may help slow down the progression of AD, as well as lower the risk of developing autoimmune disease. Vitamin D deficiency, which is often found in people with the autoimmune thyroid disease Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, is associated with greater inflammation and hypothyroidism. (Source, Source)

Remember, it’s a constant shift in lifestyle, not a cure. Our Care Team practitioners specialize in autoimmune care and can help you take a comprehensive look at your health, including your family history, stress, sleep, food, toxins, hormones, and gut microbiome.

The sooner you figure out the root cause of your symptoms, the more time you have to put in place the environmental and lifestyle changes that are needed to reverse autoimmune activity. While this process is not easy or straightforward, you can get there with patience, support, and self-compassion.

The Bottom Line On Autoimmune Conditions

Understanding the role of genetics and environmental triggers in autoimmune disease may help you predict and prevent disease development, tailor an effective treatment plan, and improve your quality of life. While there is currently no cure for autoimmune disease, it may be possible to suppress the production of some autoantibodies and target risk factors that contribute to autoimmunity. (Source)

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