Autoimmune Disease 101

Here you’ll find a very basic guide to understanding autoimmune diseases – to understand yourself, your relative, your friend, your co-worker, or your neighbour’s cat.

Autoimmunity: when the body’s immune system produces antibodies and they start attacking the body’s own healthy cells and tissues. AKA. when your worst enemy is yourself.

According to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, an estimated 50 million or more Americans (that’s about 1 in 6) have an autoimmune disease – and another 40% are suspected to have an autoimmune component (Trescott & Alt, 2016, p. 1). And that’s just America, folks. With environmental toxins and stressful lifestyles on the rise, autoimmunity is rising too!

Autoimmune diseases are like that friend that brings along other friends to a party. (Well, I wouldn’t know because I don’t party, but I’m guessing!) About 25% of sufferers will have at least two or more co-existing autoimmune diseases.

One type of autoimmune disease, an organ-specific one, affects the thyroid and is called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. (Yours truly is familiar with this one.) Did you know? There are over 300 “typical” symptoms related to it – click here to find a non-exhaustive list of them!

Celiac’s disease (in which the absorptive surface of the small intestine is damaged by a substance called gluten) is also an autoimmune disease – and there’s a high correlation between Hashimoto’s and Celiac disease, meaning MANY have both conditions, even if they don’t know it (Ch’ng, C. L., Jones, M. K., & Kingham, J. G. C., 2007).

There are also non-organ-specific autoimmune diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Furthermore, there is a whole list of suspected autoimmune diseases out there, including: diabetes, asthma, interstitial cystitis (IC), psoriasis… the list goes on and on!

Sufferers may experience “flares”, which are periods in which the symptoms they may experience may be particularly challenging to deal with and affect their everyday life.

What causes an autoimmune disease? Exposure to toxins, chronic stress, infections/parasites, Candida overgrowth, and certain diet/lifestyle choices are often suspected to be possible factors that exacerbate symptoms. But, currently it is believed that there must be 3 factors that must be present in order for autoimmunity to occur. According to Dr. Alessio Fasano, genetics and environmental triggers are 2 of them.

Others have a gut feeling that there’s more to it, which brings me to the third trigger suspect: “Leaky gut syndrome”, or intestinal permeability, is now a suspected cause of autoimmune diseases, as well as of new food allergies. I’ll keep it simple: imagine your intestines are made of cloth. Every time you eat a food particle that irritates you, such as food you’re (unknowingly) intolerant to, and even gluten, your intestinal lining “loosens up” and gets damaged. This happens due to “anti-nutrients” as well, which are found in many foods. (For example: phytic acid in brown rice and saponins in nightshade vegetables.)

Normal, healthy individuals aren’t really affected by this – but repeated exposure to gut irritants and other factors (such as chronic stress, toxins, medications, and pathogens) can really damage the lining and cause “holes” in the intestines. Food particles can escape into these “holes”, enter the bloodstream, and trigger immune responses — including food allergies.

What’s the cure? Conventional doctors typically view autoimmune diseases as diseases for life, though some may recommend hormone replacement pills (ie. levothyroxine or thyroid replacement hormone, insulin for diabetes), NSAIDs for pain, corticosteroids, antibiotics, DMARDs, TNF inhibitors, or surgery (Trescott & Alt, 2016, 21).

However, many others find breakthroughs and even get their illness into remission with dietary and lifestyle changes! Popular choices include: going gluten-free, discovering and avoiding allergens by undergoing various tests that identify their food/environmental sensitivities, and going on special diets to reduce systemic inflammation.

Common diets include:

  • the Paleo diet (meat, veggies – foods our ancestors would’ve eaten but no grains, dairy, nor processed foods, etc.)
  • the AIP (Autoimmune Protocol) – A combo of the Paleo protocol with restrictions of other (frequently inflammatory) foods like nuts/seeds/eggs as well
  • Elimination diets, which involve the removal of common food allergies/sensitivities from one’s diet for a few weeks and then the reintroduction of them. The body heals during the elimination process and the goal is to monitor any “sensitivities” you’re now aware of to certain foods.

Why avoid gluten if you’re not celiac?
Gluten damages your gut lining. Leaky gut syndrome aside, it’s especially important to avoid gluten if you have Hashimoto’s. Research has shown that the body can mistaken gluten particles as thyroid particles due to “molecular mimicry” (Myers, 2015, p.98-99), and thus gluten can trigger an autoimmune response.

I wrote this so that my friends and family would understand the philosophies behind my lifestyle choices. I hope this helps clear things up for you too!


References:

Ch’ng, C. L., Jones, M. K., & Kingham, J. G. C. (2007). Celiac Disease and Autoimmune Thyroid Disease. Clinical Medicine & Research, 5(3), 184–192. http://doi.org/10.3121/cmr.2007.738

Myers, A. (2015). The Autoimmune Solution. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Trescott, M. & Alt, A. (2016). The Autoimmune Wellness Handbook: A DIY Guide to Living Will with Chronic Illness. New York, NY: Rodale.

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