We rely on our immune system to protect us from harmful germs and bugs. But what happens when your body turns on you? When your immune system malfunctions and rather than protecting you, it begins attacking you?
This is the scary reality for a rising number of people struggling with autoimmune diseases. And while many doctors and scientists have chalked autoimmunity up to flawed genes, the truth is a little bit more complicated than that.
As it turns out, there are some hidden triggers that could be sneakily causing and contributing to the development of autoimmunity. Today we’re going to dive into exactly what some of these hidden triggers might be, and more importantly, how you can address them.
What Is Autoimmune Disease?
Your immune system consists of a complex network of cells, tissues, organs, and chemical messengers all working together to defend your body against foreign invaders like bacteria, viruses, parasites, and toxins. When your body detects an intruder, it activates an immune response – releasing an army of signaling molecules, proteins, and specialized cells that target and attack the invading molecules.
Your immune response is also referred to as the inflammatory response and is your body’s natural defense mechanism designed to regularly activate, and subsequently deactivate while protecting you from harmful microbes.1 In a healthy and balanced immune system, your body has no problem ramping up and down while differentiating between your own cells and any invading pathogens.
But in an autoimmune disorder, there’s a disruption in the line of communication that your body relies on to differentiate between “self” and “non-self.” And this miscommunication causes your immune system to malfunction – mistakenly attacking not only invading microorganisms but also your own cells and tissues.
What Exactly Causes Autoimmune Disease?
There’s not necessarily one single factor that causes autoimmunity. Some people may be more susceptible to developing an autoimmune disease due to their genetic predisposition. But genetic predisposition is an oversimplification of how your body works.
You see, having a set of genes that make you more likely to develop autoimmunity is similar to “loading the gun”. But it’s outside influences – like your lifestyle – that “pulls the trigger” and can push your body over the edge into actually progressing into autoimmunity.
So what exactly are these factors that can “pull the trigger” and be a hidden cause of your autoimmunity? Let’s take a look at 4 of the heaviest hitters, which are:
- Gut health
Let’s dive a little deeper into each of these and investigate exactly how they can contribute to autoimmunity.
How Can Stress Trigger Autoimmune Disease?
Emotional or psychological feelings of stress that shift our bodies into “flight or fight” aren’t in and of themselves a bad thing. In fact, stress can be quite useful and is one of the mechanisms that has kept us alive for centuries.
The problem arises when we have chronic stress – that underlying level of tension that never seems to go away. This is particularly troublesome because of the way that stress is translated to your immune response.
Chronic stress alters your immune system function in a few ways including:2,3,4
- Chronic activation and subsequent dysregulation of your overall immune response
- Alteration and amplification of inflammatory cytokine production
- Decreased natural killer cell function
- Increased cytotoxicity
- Decreased number of T-cells in circulation
This also creates a vicious cycle because stress has been further linked to additional lifestyle behaviors that are damaging to the immune system such as:5
- Poor quality sleep or insomnia
- Smoking and tobacco use
- Alcohol use and abuse
- Poor quality of relationships
This shift in your immune system’s day-to-day functioning can essentially confuse your immune system and lead to autoimmunity.
How Can Toxins Cause Autoimmune Disease?
There’s not necessarily one single toxin that causes autoimmunity. It’s the cumulative effects of all of your toxin exposures that add up to your total toxic burden.6 Think of your body as a bucket – with a defined capacity to process and eliminate a certain amount of toxins through your natural detoxification systems. But if that capacity is exceeded, that “toxin bucket” overflows, and toxins begin to accumulate.
When this happens and your toxic burden begins to climb, your immune system is forced into overdrive. This results in chronic low-level inflammation – causing your immune system to get stuck in the “on” position and essentially working overtime just to keep up.7 But it can only keep up this hectic pace for so long.
If left unaddressed, eventually, your immune system gets burnt out – slowly getting weaker and less efficient. And then, the more your immune system is suppressed, the less capable it is of eliminating toxins – allowing more and more toxins to build up. This immune system burnout combined with the build-up of toxins can send your immune system into a tailspin and cause it to attack itself.
To learn more about how your total toxic burden relates to your immune function, head over and read my article How to Boost Your Immune System by Reducing Your Toxic Burden.
How Can an Infection Trigger Autoimmune Disease?
Underlying infection can be caused by many things:
- Parasites (like Lyme disease)
If not treated or if your body is unable to properly target, attack, and eliminate the pathogen, it can cause your immune system to stay turned on. This can cause chronic immune system stimulation that goes something like this:8,9,10
- Invader latency: After the initial invasion, some microorganisms can stay dormant in your body. Your immune system senses an invader, so low-level inflammation is activated, but these sneaky invaders are able to evade capture by hiding out in your cells.
- Chronic secretion of immune mediators: The continued and overblown production of mediators that promote inflammation depletes your immune system and diminishes its ability to modulate the inflammatory response.
- Decreased natural killer cell activity: Natural killer cells – the immune cells tasked with engulfing and abolishing infected cells – become overworked and exhausted in their attempt to hunt down the hidden invaders. This depresses your overall immune function and leaves you with dwindling resources – which can further disrupt immune homeostasis.
- T-cell disruption: T-cells – an additional immune cell that helps mediate the ramping up and down of inflammation – can also become imbalanced. When your T-cells become overworked and disoriented, it can cause your entire immune system to become unbalanced.
A hidden infection can overburden your immune system. And over time this can lead to malfunction and hyper-reaction – causing your own body to begin waging a war against itself.
Can An Infection Like COVID-19 Trigger Autoimmune Disease?
A hidden chronic infection isn’t the only kind of infection that can potentially trigger autoimmunity. As the coronavirus pandemic carries on, researchers are noticing a confounding pattern. Some COVID-19 patients are presenting with an immune response strikingly similar to the reaction seen in autoimmune diseases.11
Scientists speculate that the coronavirus can trigger the rapid development of autoimmune dysregulation via a process called molecular mimicry. You see, the proteins found within the coronavirus and within human cells are similar enough that, in some cases, the immune system may become confused about who exactly the “enemy” is and mistakenly begin attacking your own healthy cells.12 COVID-19’s ability to “mimic” your own cells can activate a cascade of immune activation that looks a lot like autoimmunity.
More time and research is needed to truly understand COVID-19’s role in triggering an autoimmune response. But understanding this virus’s fascinating link to autoimmunity could certainly bring us closer to finding a cure and help improve the outcomes of patients with COVID-19.
What’s the Link Between Gut Health and Autoimmune Disease?
Your digestive health plays a critical and complicated role in your immune response and the overall health of your immune system. And the health of your gut hinges on two primary factors – the integrity of your gut lining and your microbiome. Let’s look at how an issue with either of these can throw your immune system out of whack.
The Integrity of Your Gut Lining:
Your intestinal tract is designed to be a selective barrier – allowing certain molecules to be absorbed into the bloodstream while keeping everything else inside the intestines to be excreted. If the integrity of this lining is compromised, tiny particles and microbes that are meant to be excreted, begin leaking through the “gaps” and make their way into your bloodstream.13
Once in your bloodstream, these leaked molecules are “tagged” by your immune system and your body launches an inflammatory response. As more and more molecules seep into your bloodstream, your body continues to deploy wave after wave of inflammation. Eventually, your chronically overstimulated and overstressed immune system starts attacking with less and less accuracy – causing your own cells to get caught in the crossfire and be mistakenly attacked.
Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria that make up a delicate ecosystem of “beneficial” and “not-so-beneficial” microorganisms. This delicate balance collectively makes up our microbiome and plays an important role in:14,15,16
- Regulating the cells, proteins, and chemicals released during an immune response
- Maintaining the integrity of the lining of our intestinal tract which is designed to keep invaders from entering the bloodstream
When your “not-so-beneficial” bacteria begin outweighing the “beneficial” bacteria, it can damage your gut lining and begin disrupting the lines of communication among the cells and tissues of your immune system. This breakdown can further contribute to the creation of accidental autoimmunity.
To learn more about the intricate link between your gut health and your immune system, head over and read my article How to Heal Your Gut for a Stronger Immune System.
Can Autoimmune Disease Be Cured?
The answer is – it’s complicated. While there’s not necessarily a “cure” for autoimmune diseases, the excellent news is that the symptoms and damage associated with many autoimmune disorders can be stopped and even reversed with some strategic lifestyle modifications. If you or someone you love is struggling with autoimmunity, I recommend examining the underlying factors addressed in this article by:
- Minimizing stress
- Investigating and decreasing your toxic burden
- Identifying and addressing any potential underlying infections
- Healing your gut and prioritizing gut health
Some other lifestyle factors that play a pivotal role in supporting and promoting a balanced and healthy immune system include:
- Getting plenty of high-quality sleep
- Focus on a well-rounded, healthy, anti-inflammatory diet
- Incorporate immune-boosting supplements
- Integrate alternative health-supporting therapies – like PEMF therapy, infrared saunas, and/or IV vitamin therapy
While your lifestyle choices can have a monumental impact on autoimmunity symptoms and progression, the truth is, navigating autoimmunity can be complex and overwhelming. So I strongly recommend seeking out the guidance of an experienced Integrative and Functional Medicine Practitioner to help you come up with a plan that meets your unique needs.
When It Comes to Your Health, You Are Your Own Best Advocate
Autoimmune diseases are almost as unique and individual as each person they affect. When your body is waging a war against itself, it can be downright scary and difficult to know what steps to take. But the good news is, you are not at the mercy of this diagnosis.
When it comes to your health and addressing autoimmunity, you are your own best advocate. And knowledge is your most powerful weapon. That’s why I’m so passionate about bringing you empowering information as you’ll find in this article. Because it’s my mission to equip you with the tools to take the driver’s set when it comes to your own health and healing.
If you or a loved one is struggling with any form of autoimmunity. I suggest starting with the steps and additional links outlined in this article while working with a Functional Medicine Doctor. Plus, I’ve got tons of other resources for you on my blog. And if you want access to my best and most exclusive tips and advice, you can sign up for my newsletter – all you have to do is enter your name and email address in the form below.
Now it’s time to hear from you. Were you surprised to learn about these potential triggers for autoimmunity? What steps are you taking to support and heal your immune system? Leave your questions and thoughts in the comments below!
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The product mentioned in this article are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information in this article is not intended to replace any recommendations or relationship with your physician. Please review references sited at end of article for scientific support of any claims made.