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