Why is autoimmunity on the rise?
Recent research has revealed more and more people are affected by autoimmune disease. In this article we’ll look at what may be behind this rise.
Autoimmune Disease is Increasing
It’s estimated four million people, or 1 in 16 of us in the UK, are living with an autoimmune disease. There are thought to be over 80 autoimmune conditions, such as lupus, coeliac disease, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and type 1 diabetes. Women are three times more likely to be affected than men.
The number of people affected by autoimmune disease has increased in recent years. Globally, type 1 diabetes is increasing by 2.8% per year, while coeliac disease has shown the greatest increase, becoming four times more common over the 22 years to 2011.
Overall in the UK, the incidence of autoimmunity is thought to be increasing by as much as 9%.
The cost to the UK of three autoimmune diseases – type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and MS – adds up to more than £13 billion per year.
What Causes Autoimmunity?
Autoimmune diseases are all characterised by the body’s immune system becoming confused and attacking its own cells. Symptoms depend on which parts of the body are affected.
Many people live with more than one autoimmune condition, because once immune system function is compromised, many different organs may be affected.
Your immune system has the job of defending you against invaders. In autoimmune disease, the immune system is no longer able to distinguish between enemies and friendly organisms such as your body cells.
What causes the immune system to lose this selectivity and to attack us in this way isn’t entirely clear. Although genetics do play a role, the rapid rise in autoimmune disease cannot be explained by genetics alone. This is where our environment comes in. If we have a genetic tendency towards developing an autoimmune disease, whether this predisposition is expressed depends on environmental factors.
Factors Associated with Autoimmune Disease
Functional medicine practitioners always try to discover the root causes of illness and to put these right.
In the case of autoimmune disease, conventional medicine usually prescribes immune suppressant medication. Functional medicine, on the other hand, would examine the reasons why the immune system is not functioning as it should, and use methods to support, rather than suppress, a healthy immune response.
- Autoimmune disease is frequently seen alongside increased intestinal permeability, otherwise known as leaky gut. This allows substances across large gaps in the gut wall which then enter the bloodstream, where they would not normally be found. Such substances can include incompletely digested particles of food, toxins and infective organisms. This puts the immune system on red alert. Many factors can cause leaky gut, such as diet, stress or medications, on an imbalance in the gut bacteria.
- Autoimmunity is also often connected with an imbalance in the microbiome, the population of bacteria living in your gut. These bacteria not only determine the health of the intestinal lining but also produce molecules which send signals to the immune system. It’s thought the makeup of the microbiome can determine whether genetic tendencies towards autoimmune disease are expressed. This becomes obvious when we remember over 70% of our immune system is present in the gut, so proper immune function is dependent on a healthy digestive system.
- Chronic infections from bacteria, viruses or even parasites can trigger autoimmune disease. They can lie dormant in your body and become triggered by, for example, chronic stress. In attempting to control these organisms, the body can produce rogue immune cells which attack the body’s own tissues.
- Food sensitivities, particularly to gluten-containing grains, are closely linked to autoimmunity, and it’s thought food sensitivities can spark off autoimmune symptoms. Gluten can contribute to leaky gut and chronic inflammation in the body.
- Exposure to environmental toxins such as pollutants, chemicals from cleaning products and personal care products can all disrupt the immune system and contribute to the development of autoimmunity.
- Chronic physical or emotional stress can also play a part because stress adversely affects immune system function.
All the above factors work in combination and they are all commonplace in today’s world, so it’s no wonder autoimmune diseases are on the rise.
Gut Health and Autoimmunity
As gut health is so important for immune health, it makes sense to heal the gut and by so doing restore healthy immune system function.
A functional medicine practitioner may test for hidden infections, food sensitivities and increased intestinal permeability. A blood test can detect antibodies to your own cells, which can sometimes be seen years before symptoms occur, giving the opportunity to prevent autoimmunity from developing.
If you would like to improve your gut health in just 30 days by natural nutritional interventions and lifestyle changes, contact me today.