The body’s immune system is incredibly complex. It is a network of cells, tissues, and organs which protects us from germs, pathogens and other undesirables. When the system is working properly it is great and will protect us from disease. However when the perfect storm of events are in place, the immune system can get confused and misidentify normal tissue in the body and turn on itself attacking its own body tissue, which is considered an autoimmune disease. There is upwards of 80 different types of autoimmune diseases including multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Sjogren’s syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, among many others. While it’s unclear the exact cause of autoimmune diseases, there is much research being done to understand the mechanisms. According to Dr. Alessio Fasano, the leading researcher for celiac disease, in order for any autoimmune disease to occur three things must be in place.
- genetic predisposition. We are born with certain genes that cannot be changed. However, much evidence exists indicating we can allow our genes to express themselves or not. These expressions are based on the information our genes receive from their environment-including food, medications, thoughts, and the like.
- immune system trigger. This trigger can be a pathogen (virus, bacteria, fungus, parasites), toxins that enter the body through skin, gut, or breath, or particular food particles. Once the trigger is present, the immune system will attack it as it is designed to do. The very specific job of the immune system is to get rid of non-self, dangerous stuff in the body.
- intestinal permeability also known as “leaky gut.” Intestinal permeability describes “breaks” in the lining of the GI tract. Under normal conditions, the gut has tight junctions which are the connections between the cells that line the gut. These tight junctions have the job of selectively allowing broken down nutrients through into the blood stream. However through various reasons with intestinal permeability, these tight junctions get broken apart which allows larger clumps of amino acids, fatty acids, and pathogens through the gut lining.
What Happens with Autoimmunity?
There are many unanswered questions regarding autoimmunity, however it is suspected to be like this. A trigger, such as a virus, attacks a part of the body. These cells start to die, sending out distress signals. The immune system receives the distress signals and comes to the rescue to save the body part from the attackers. Then, for reasons unclear, the immune system gets confused and will begin to mistake the body part that it came to rescue as non-self and foreign and attack it to make it go away. This creates more damage to the distressed body part and the immune system continues to attack. The body will begin to repair the body part and will run out of it’s resources to regenerate. Eventually, if this cycle is not halted, the body part will no longer to be able to be productive. When there is intestinal permeability non-self, dangerous things are being repeatedly introduced into the body and the immune system gets “excited” and can no longer recognize itself from an outside danger. Thus, when one autoimmune disease is present there is a much higher chance that another autoimmune disease will occur because the immune system is on high alert.
After autoimmunity occurs, the immediate response is to tame the immune system. This can be done by numerous ways, such as decreasing stress and decreasing toxins. From a food standpoint removing food sensitivities, which is different from food allergies, will help to decrease immune response. In addition removing gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, and legumes from the diet may be necessary. These proteins, if moved through the permeable gut wall, are often mistaken by the immune system as a foreign invader and can cause attack. A food sensitivity test is commonly used to determine a comprehensive list of foods are causing an immune reaction. You can also follow a elimination diet, eliminating the most common offenders from the diet for a period of time (at least 3 weeks) and then introduce them back one by one to determine how you feel. Depending on the body part that is being attacked will depend on what other treatment options are available.
All in all, autoimmune diseases are very serious and can lead to the body’s self destruction. However they are reversible and with some work, persistence, and patience keeping the immune system “in check” is largely possible.