Why are we seeing a rise in autoimmune diseases?
A decade ago, not many people had heard about autoimmune disease. You may have heard of various autoimmune conditions being referred to as independent diseases, such as type 1 diabetes, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis or psoriasis. Still, as a collective group, they were widely unknown.
Today, however, autoimmune disease is categorised as one of the most common chronic illnesses, and for largely unknown reasons, they are on the rise
Cancer and heart disease were the focus for ill-health in the 80s and 90s. Still, as we move through this millennium, autoimmune diseases seem to be taking over as the prominent disease states causing debilitating and life-changing symptoms, often without a cure. I will review the various theories to support the rise in autoimmune disease and what diet and lifestyle factors might be contributing to the increase in these health-sapping disorders.
What is autoimmune disease?
An autoimmune disease is a condition where a person’s immune system attacks itself, either a specific organ or a particular type of tissue. For example, in alopecia areata – which causes patchy baldness – the immune system attacks the hair follicle causing the hair to fall out. Nobody fully understands the underlying cause of these conditions. Still, genetics, digestive health, environmental toxins and stress all seem to play a part in the onset of these conditions.
Woman are three times more likely than men to be diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, which may be due to the complexities of their immune system or female hormones. And risk factors include being at childbearing age, having family members with the conditions, having exposure to environmental irritants and smoking.
How do you know if you have an autoimmune disease?
Autoimmune disease is challenging to diagnose, especially those that are non-organ specific, such as systemic lupus erythematosus, Sjogren’s syndrome and rheumatoid arthritis. You can go years experiencing unpleasant symptoms such as fatigue, sore joints and inflamed skin before knowing that you have an autoimmune disease.
Doctors might test for antinuclear antibodies (ANA), which indicates autoimmunity in the body. But this does not tell you which part of the body the immune system is affecting. Also, as chronic inflammation is a critical driver in autoimmune disease, you may be tested for your C-reactive protein which is a marker for inflammation in the body.
The American Autoimmune Disease Association believes that there are over 100 different autoimmune diseases, each with different symptom presentations. So, even with signs of these conditions, medical practitioners are cautious about diagnosing the disease definitively, as there are not as many conclusive tests as there are with other diseases.
So why do we see a rise in autoimmune disease?
It is debatable why we have seen a rise in autoimmune diseases – and the truth is that no one knows why, as no one truly knows what causes them. It is common to find that when someone has an autoimmune disease, a person in their family has one as well. Often, they are different independent diseases such as multiple sclerosis and sarcoidosis, but still likely caused by similar facets. As a result, genetics is probably a contributor to the conditions, but this cannot be the reason for the rise in prevalence, which would take tens of thousands of years to manifest.
What is more likely is that our lack of exposure to microorganisms as a child, our polluted environments, stressful lifestyles and toxic diets are causing the emergence of these diseases. And given the increase in frequency, some medical experts are now calling it an epidemic.
A flourishing and diversified gut microbiome is often associated with gut health and longevity. This may be diminished in people with autoimmune disease. The relationship with gut health has prompted theories that the so-called hygiene hypothesis. First formulated in 1989 by an epidemiologist, Dr Strachan, the hypothesis suggests that a child’s sheltered interaction with microorganisms may leave their immune systems immature and therefore more prone to irregularities. This may lead to autoimmune disease later in life.
Other scientists argue that it is our increased exposure to pollutants in the air and the food we consume that could be causing the rise. Studies have shown that people have 100s of chemicals in their blood and urine daily, which may disrupt the body leading to an inadequate immune response.
Internal stress is also likely to be instrumental in the increase in these disease states. Studies have shown that people with higher stress in their lives (which can also cause sleep disturbances) are more susceptible to these illnesses.
Many other factors, such as smoking, vitamin D deficiency and eating a western diet are also associated with a rise in autoimmune disease cases.
Are autoimmune disease diagnoses likely to escalate further?
Autoimmune diseases in people are likely to be widely under-diagnosed due to the intricacies of the symptoms. Hence, as medical practitioners become more familiar with these conditions, diagnoses should increase for this reason alone. Worryingly, a recent study testing people from different background and ages for ANA – the most common biomarker for autoimmunity – found that its prevalence had increased, without knowing why. This study suggests that the cases of autoimmune disease are likely to increase further in the future if an intervention to stop the progression of these diseases is not put in action.
Until more information becomes available, research indicates that living a healthy and active lifestyle with plenty of rest and sleep, as well as eating foods which nourish the digestive system, might give you the best chance of protection against the symptoms of autoimmune disease.
Article written for Thrive Magazine Autumn 2020 issue >>
Victoria is a qualified Nutritional Therapist and has a BSc (Hons) in Biochemistry and Immunology. She focuses on autoimmune disease including skin conditions, neurological and brain issues, chronic fatigue, and cardiovascular disorders. @theautoimmunitynutritionist