Immunity and immune dysfunction are complex topics requiring a deep understanding of many different aspects of bodily function. As such, there has been an impressive amount of research done regarding specific autoimmune disorders such as type 1 Diabetes, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and others.
Despite the significant degree of study, there is still much to be learned about the cause of these and other forms of autoimmune dysfunction. To better understand what is known about the cause of autoimmune disorders it is essential to discuss what an autoimmune disease is and what factors may play a role in its development.
What is Autoimmune Disease?
Autoimmune disease involves the body’s natural defenses turning on itself and attacking healthy cells and tissues. During a healthy immune response, the immune system recognizes harmful bacteria, germs, or viruses invading the body and dispatches fighter cells to eliminate them. In some cases, the immune response can cause collateral inflammation and damage to healthy tissue while the actual threat is being destroyed.
Significant autoimmune dysfunction may cause the immune system to outright target healthy bodily tissue. For example, in the case of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, the immune system misidentifies a protein in healthy thyroid tissue as dangerous. This triggers an assault against the thyroid resulting in long-lasting and often irreparable damage to the thyroid gland. This type of misidentification is at the crux of autoimmune dysfunction.
Common areas targeted and affected by autoimmune dysfunction include the thyroid, intestine, skin, brain, and pancreas. However, because of the impressive degree of integration that the immune system has with the rest of the body, autoimmune dysfunction can affect virtually any bodily region. Because of this, it is often the case that those with one or more autoimmune disorders will experience a range of symptoms that may overlap with one another. This can increase the difficulty of diagnosis and treatment. However, depending on the specific condition, unique and more easily identifiable symptoms may be present.
Potential Causes of Autoimmune Disease
Research suggests that there are multiple factors that may prompt the development of an autoimmune disorder. Additionally, research suggests that the following factors are some of the most common and impactful contributors of autoimmune disorders.
Autoimmune disorders affect approximately 23.5 million Americans with the vast majority of this group being women. Women are diagnosed with autoimmune disorders more than twice as often as men. Research is being done to uncover why women are so much more likely to suffer from autoimmune dysfunction than men but there is currently no definitive answer.
One theory is that due to the greater hormone prevalence in women, they may be more prone to autoimmune dysfunction. This is supported by the fact that many cases of autoimmune dysfunction develop among women during their childbearing years, between the ages of 14 and 44, where hormone levels fluctuate most. Autoimmune disease is most common among women going through intense physical or emotional stress, such as childbirth. Periods of significant hormonal shifts such as during perimenopause or hormone replacement therapy are also associated with greater risk of autoimmune dysfunction.
Poor Gut Health
The gut contains approximately 80% of the immune system. As such, poor gut function has a significant impact of immunity. One of the most common forms of intestinal dysfunction resulting in autoimmune disease is leaky gut syndrome. Leaky gut is the loosening of the tight junctions in the intestine, which allows undigested particles, molecules, toxins, and other particulates to evacuate the gut and enter into the bloodstream. As these substances are carried throughout the body, they trigger a strong autoimmune response resulting in significant inflammation. If the immune system remains at an elevated and active state, the likelihood of developing one or more autoimmune disorders increases significantly.
Chronic emotional or physical stress is associated with greater occurrence of autoimmune disease. Stress has a notable impact on immune function, particularly the sustaining of autoimmune activity. When the body suffers a wound, injury, or infection, the natural stress response is triggered, and the body enters a heightened state of activity. In this elevated state, immune function kicks into high gear to protect against immediate threats. However, if stress is maintained, so too is the increased immune activity resulting in greater inflammation and increased risk of autoimmune disease. When an autoimmune response is triggered, additional or sustained stress simply makes the situation worse by increasing the intensity of the immune response.
Research shows that genetic factors and family history are important indicators of an individual’s risk for developing autoimmune disease. Those who have family members with autoimmune disease such as lupus or multiple sclerosis (MS) have a greater risk of developing these conditions. However, it is quite possible for individuals to have family members with an autoimmune disease and never develop it themselves.
Underlying infections have appeared in the literature many times over the course of the last few decades in relation to various autoimmune diseases. Possibly the most well-known infection-autoimmune connection is multiple sclerosis and viruses. MS has been linked to the presence of several viruses that affect the central nervous system – particularly human herpesvirus 6 (HHV6). Several studies have shown a direct association between the two, including one which found the virus in the nervous system tissue of 73% of MS patients and in 54% of blood samples, as opposed to 0% in the nervous system and blood of healthy controls. Additionally, Borrelia burgdorferi (the bacteria that causes Lyme disease) has also been found in a high percentage of MS patients. One study showed 38% infection rate and another 20% although due to limitations of testing, this number is likely even higher. Other viral and bacterial infections, such as Epstein barr virus (EBV), mycoplasma, and Chlamydia pneumonia have also been associated with MS.
Joining the Cause Against Autoimmune Disease
This information regarding the contributing factors such as gender, gut health, stress level, genetics, and underlying infections can help doctors better identify and treat autoimmune dysfunction. Individuals familiar with the indicators or the contributing factors associated with autoimmune disease may be better informed and preparedness for potential dysfunction. You can help combat autoimmune disease by raising awareness of these impactful conditions and the factors that may lead to their development.
1. Ana-Maria Orbai, M.D., M.H.S. “Autoimmune Disease: Why Is My Immune System Attacking Itself?” Johns Hopkins Medicine.
2. Amy Myers, MD. “Understanding the True Cause of Autoimmune Disease.” https://www.amymyersmd.com/2017/01/understanding-true-cause-autoimmune-disease/
3. Stuppy, W. “The Role of Infections in Celiac Disease.” Townsend Letter: The Examiner of Alternative Medicine. Aug/Sept. 2014.
4. Kent Holtorf, MD “Innovative Treatments of Multiple Sclerosis and other Neurodegenerative Diseases.” Holtorf Medical Group.