Autoimmunity, simply put, is the process of the immune system attacking one’s own body. There are over 100 autoimmune conditions including thyroid diseases such as Hashimoto’s and Graves’ disease, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and celiac disease. While each condition is unique in its presentation, all are characterized by a dysfunction of the immune system.
Our immune systems are necessary to ward off harmful pathogens such as viruses and bacteria, however numerous causes can make this process go astray. When this happens, healthy body tissues become targets and get attacked, leading to chronic autoimmune diseases. Many factors lead into this including infections, chronic inflammation, digestive health and diet.
Acute and chronic infections can contribute to the development of autoimmune conditions. Cytomegalovirus (CMV), Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) and Lyme disease are of the more familiar infections known to cause long-term complications. There are many ways in which this can happen, with the following explanations being just the tip of the iceberg.
When the body encounters an infection, it naturally creates an immune reaction to eliminate the pathogen. This is the normal response, and is necessary for survival. However, sometimes this innocent process can trigger more widespread and chronic inflammation. When this happens, the immune system can become confused and start attacking our own body.
During acute infections, the immune system releases inflammatory chemicals and immune cells in order the fight the microbe. However, sometimes a part of the microbe shares a similar appearance to our own body. Under these circumstances, the immune system starts to attack both the pathogen and our normal tissue. This is known as molecular mimicry and can be the start or the final straw in the development of autoimmunity. This phenomenon, for example, is responsible for the condition reactive arthritis, in which a person gets joint pain following a bacterial infection from another body location.
Chronic low grade or silent infections are also major sources of immune system dysfunction. People are often unaware of having such infections, hence the term “silent infection”. One way in which this feeds into autoimmunity is through the formation of immune complexes, which are molecules formed from the tight binding of a pathogen and its associated antibodies. These large molecules are hard to clear from our bloodstream, especially when the infection is ongoing. Because of this, the immune complexes can deposit in locations such as joints or skin. This process is partially to blame for rashes seen with Lupus and joint pain seen with rheumatoid arthritis.
Digestive Health and Diet
Our digestive system also plays a large part in regulating our immune systems. When functioning correctly and our immune system is healthy, we digest food well, inflammation is low and we feel better overall. The opposite is true when out of balance. Intestinal permeability, commonly referred to as leaky gut, is one condition that can feed into chronic inflammation and autoimmune conditions.
=Our digestive tract is a primary regulator of what we let in or keep out of our body. You can think of it as a wall of defense, letting in nutrients and keeping out harmful substances. This wall can become disrupted and lose its ability to selectively sort out good from bad. When this happens, molecules that should be blocked are allowed to sneak into the body. Because the immune system is usually protected from such substances, an immune reaction takes place, creating inflammation. This immune hyperactivity can lead to normal tissue becoming attacked.
The material that seeps through is typically from food that hasn’t yet been fully digested. The premature absorption to the immune system is a cause for the development of food allergies or intolerances. This is typically the case when a person has reactions to numerous foods.
Certain foods can also be the source of inflammation even if the digestive system is healthy. In these cases, consuming a particular food can cause the immune system to be alerted as if there was a threat. This can trigger the immune activation against the body. This can be seen from consuming foods that an individual is allergic to, but has also been correlated with general inflammatory foods such as gluten, dairy, eggs and nightshade vegetables.
Our bodies and immune systems are complex and inseparable. Despite the body’s innate intelligence, our systems can become confused, dysfunctional and diseased. While there are many common causes for autoimmunity, dealing with such conditions is always a multi-factorial picture. The goal as a healthcare provider is to acknowledge each patient’s unique makeup and help discover the causes of his or her disease. Silent infections, digestive health and diet are a few areas that are important to assess and optimize. Fully addressing each patient’s unique makeup not only lessens the strain on the body at that point in time, but also is key for prevention.