Autoimmune conditions such as MS, Celiac Disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis and others are increasing rapidly in the developed world. Recent studies show the incidence of autoimmunity is increasing by 5-10% per year. The immunology community blames this increase on various factors that come with living in an industrialized society including higher stress, exposure to certain chemicals, and poor sleep.
Autoimmune processes require three things:
1. A genetic predisposition. In most cases you must have the underlying genes specifically substitutions in the genes that relate to immune function. Most of these substitutions are found on the HLA (human lymphocyte Antigen) gene and the MHC (major histocompatibility complex). These are genes that determine the shape of the proteins used in the interaction of the immune cells with our own tissue and with invading pathogens. A little like a key can sometimes work on more than one lock, these substitutions allow for the immune system to mistakenly bind to and attack self tissue.
2. A trigger. Many people with the genetic predisposition may never go on to develop an autoimmune condition. It's a complex process and while we don't understand everything, we do know that most autoimmune conditions require a trigger. In celiac patients this trigger comes in the form of gluten. In some cases, the trigger might be a pathogen such as Yersinia or Klebselia that tricks the immune system through a process called Molecular Mimicry into attacking itself (more on this in the video below).
3. But even with a trigger and the genetic predisposition, autoimmunity is not a sure thing. You have a lot more influence over this process than you think. The immune system works actively to prevent this by maintaining a process called self-tolerance. When things go awry and the immune system loses this protection, damage begins to accumulate. Unfortunately, by the time symptoms begin to show the process has been building for quite some time. The immune system can be pushed out of balance by the presence of certain toxins such as aluminum, mercury, cadmium, lead, and organic pollutants such as pesticides and plasticizers. The immune system also requires the presence of specific nutrients. A lack of selenium makes Hashimoto's more likely to occur. A lack of silica leads to accumulation of aluminum and more more immune system activation. Sufficient fiber intake is necessary for proper detoxification of potentially damaging chemicals and so on. Lifestyle also plays a bigger part than is often realized. It is very common for a patient to have the initial onset of their autoimmune condition following a period of severe emotional stress. Attention to sleep, diet, stress regulation, and community all play a vital part in prevention and treatment of auto-immune conditions.
Another often overlooked area of focus in auto-immunity is the health of the health of the digestive system and more specifically the integrity of the intestinal membrane. The overwhelming majority of the immune tissue is located at the border of the intestines. When the lining, the membrane at the intestinal border, is compromised larger proteins can leak into the blood stream and lymphatic circulation causing an upregulation in immune activity. This leads in turn to more exposure to proteins capable of driving molecular mimicry, and as a result an increased risk of developing or exacerbating auto-immune conditions. The immune system as a whole is also more active, causing the differentiation of new immune cells into highly reactive cells called Th17 cells rather than the peace-keeper T regulatory cells that support self-tolerance.
The important take home is that if you're worried about auto-immune conditions then you have more power over the situation than you think. Just because it's in your family doesn't mean you have to get it, and if you have an autoimmune condition there are probably quite a few actionable steps left to reduce your symptoms and improve your long term quality of life.
For a comprehensive deep dive into this material, watch our video below.
Kieran Jones MTCM L.Ac.
I'm Kieran, clinician and owner of Cotati Community Acupuncture. I'm an acupuncturist, herbalist, and functional medicine practitioner for the past 10 years. I have a deep curiosity in health, biology, culture, medicine, history, and a healthy obsession with the pursuit of the perfect state of health.