There are several factors that contribute to the development of autoimmune diseases, including genetics, pre-existing disease, ethnicity, and even sex – over 75 percent of people affected by autoimmune diseases are female. But one factor that puts the majority of the population at risk for autoimmune diseases is exposure to environmental factors. Here are five of the most researched triggers for autoimmune diseases.
Everyone has their own unique body chemistry and digestive function. Sensitivities to different foods can not only cause abdominal discomfort but can also trigger an autoimmune-related response.
While each of us may react uniquely to different foods, there are some proteins that are more likely than others to present inflammation and symptoms of immune dysregulation, such as wheat/gluten and dairy. A high-carb diet is a prominent factor promoting obesity, which leads to systemic inflammation and an excessive accumulation of visceral adipose tissue (belly fat), an inert tissue that releases a plethora of pro-inflammatory mediators. Eating a healthy, low-carb diet, high in nutrients with low inflammatory elements is recommended for the prevention of all diseases.
Repeated exposure to bacteria, viruses and mold wears on our immune system. For some, the hard-working immune system can turn on its own body and mistake its own healthy cells for harmful cells, thus attacking them. Viruses interact with your genetics through a variety of mechanisms. In short, they can turn on certain genes that impact the immune system’s ability to differentiate between self and non-self, triggering an autoimmune reaction.
Exposure to and consumption of toxins have long been associated with cancer, heart disease, and lung disease, among others. But more recent research has linked toxicity with the development and progression of autoimmune diseases, especially systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and multiple sclerosis (MS). There are many sources of toxins, some we can’t control and others that we can.
Over 80,000 man-made chemicals have been introduced since 1900, and only 550 have been tested for safety. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), about 3.4 billion pounds of toxic chemicals were released into our environment by large industrial companies in 2019, as reported by the EPA’s 2019 Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) Report. While we can’t totally control the release of such toxins, we can each do our part to reduce these numbers by using more environmentally-friendly products, using reusable products instead of disposable products, and educating ourselves on environmental toxic release.
Smoking has been linked to the development of autoimmune diseases. When tobacco burns, thousands of chemicals are produced, some of which are known to be toxic. Inhaling that smoke impacts the immune system through various complex interactions, including inflammatory responses, immune suppression, dysregulation of cytokines (signaling molecules involved in autoimmunity), and the development of autoantibodies.
Levels of stress-related illness are higher than ever. Both physical and emotional stresses weaken our immune system, allowing the body to develop a variety of illnesses. It has also shown to trigger and intensify autoimmune-related disorders. A 2018 study increased the possibility of a link between stress and the development of autoimmune-related diseases.
We are living in an era where stress is seemingly affecting the majority of the population. There are different ways that we can manage our stress, such as through yoga practice, meditation, spending time in nature, exercising, getting a massage, doing fun things, and increasing our amount of sleep. But for the overall prevention of autoimmune development or progression, practicing better control in all areas mentioned above is the best advice. A healthy diet low in processed inflammatory foods, reducing exposure to toxins, and stress management should all be applied as frequently as possible.
The gut is constantly exposed to a wide repertoire of antigens derived from food and environmental microbes. Therefore, we need this barrier system to be strong and robust in order to protect us. If there’s a barrier breakdown, inflammation can ensue and dysregulate the immune system. All of the environmental triggers mentioned above affect gut and barrier health. Another big one, not yet mentioned is alcohol. Alcohol has been well-established as a common cause of intestinal barrier compromise.
There is not any one environmental trigger that is more significant than the others. They all must be managed together to produce optimal protection against the onset or progression of autoimmune disease. Common signs and symptoms of autoimmune-related disorders include:
- Diarrhea or vomiting
- Joint pain and swelling
- Abdominal pain or digestion issues
- Muscle aches
- Weight loss or gain
Proactive medical care and advanced testing are available for the detection of autoimmune diseases and individual sensitivities to autoimmune triggers. Consult with your primary care physician if you have any of the symptoms listed above, believe you may have autoimmune-related issues or have been exposed to excess levels of toxins, pathogens, or an unhealthy diet. And remember – it’s never too late to work toward better health!
About the Author
Dr. Chad Larson, NMD, DC, CCN, CSCS, Advisor and Consultant on Clinical Consulting Team for Cyrex Laboratories. Dr. Larson holds a Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine degree from Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine and a Doctor of Chiropractic degree from Southern California University of Health Sciences. He is a Certified Clinical Nutritionist and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. He particularly pursues advanced developments in the fields of endocrinology, orthopedics, sports medicine, and environmentally-induced chronic disease.