The Autoimmune Equation Part 1 – Why Some People Develop Autoimmunity and Others Don’t
Autoimmunity is when the immune system forms antibodies to your own tissue. But why does this happen? What causes autoimmune diseases in the first place? Why doesn’t everyone develop an autoimmune issue?
There are both external and internal reasons why your immune system may turn on your own body. Here is a snapshot of both types of autoimmune disease triggers:
- Barrier permeability (i.e. leaky gut)
- Abnormal cell production
In part one of this blog post, I’ll break down each external factor and how to know if any of these factors are playing a role in your autoimmunity. I’ll also discuss why some people are affected by these external factors and others are not. In part two, I’ll dive into the internal factors.
Chemicals as Autoimmune Triggers
Chemicals can bind to self-tissue or directly to immune or hormone receptors. When a chemical binds to a tissue or receptor, it changes how that tissue protein or receptor looks. The immune system is equipped to identify harmful substances by their protein structure, so if this self-tissue protein or receptor now looks foreign, the immune system is more likely to think it’s harmful and attack it.
Here are some signs that chemicals are causing your autoimmune issues:
- You’re exposed to chemicals in your place of work or home (heavy metals, cleaning products, personal care products, plastics, dyes).
- You have symptoms upon exposure or inhalation of chemicals (asthma, skin rashes, cough, excess mucus production, or worsening of autoimmune symptoms).
Are Pathogens Causing Your Autoimmunity?
Our immune system excels at finding pathogens (viruses, bacteria, fungi, and mold). It seeks out these foreign invaders and destroys them so they can’t make us sick. But sometimes we get exposed to too many pathogens at once and it overwhelms the body. Other times, we already have other factors compromising our immune system. It’s distracted and we can’t effectively fight off the pathogens or suppress them.
We get exposed to pathogens on a daily basis. They’re in our food, water, and air. People who are susceptible provide the perfect host for these pathogens to thrive.
Signs that pathogens are your autoimmune disease triggers:
- Autoimmune symptoms started or got worse after an infection.
- You identify as someone highly sensitive to pathogens (i.e. walking into a building and smelling mold where others might not).
- You have chronic sinusitis or other chronic inflammatory ailments.
Trauma as an Autoimmune Trigger
Trauma is another important autoimmune trigger. By trauma, I mean physical such as brain injury or tissue injury or mental/emotional such as childhood trauma.
Physical injury, such as a traumatic brain injury or a car accident, can cause the immune system to react to normal tissue in a different way. Let’s take the example of antinuclear antibodies (ANA), which is a blood test for autoimmunity. You may remember that the nucleus is a circular structure in every cell where chromosomes- or DNA- are stored.
The immune system doesn’t normally encounter the cell nucleus because it is safely tucked away inside our cells. But in the case of a physical trauma, cells are damaged and cell nucleus material is released. These floating cell nuclei (the plural of nucleus) are now exposed to the immune system. If the immune system recognizes them as foreign, it can attack the cell nucleus and form antibodies to it, known as antinuclear antibodies. When someone shows up positive for ANA it means their immune system is reacting to their cell nucleus.
Trauma changes how the autonomic nervous system functions. The autonomic nervous system controls the body’s processes that we don’t have to think about: breathing, heartbeat, digestion, or body temperature. It is a gigantic network of nerves that keeps us alive, some of which prepare us for fight or flight (the sympathetic nervous system); other nerves prepare us to rest and digest (the parasympathetic nervous system). When the autonomic nervous system becomes dysfunctional (called dysautonomia) it leads to physical changes in the body such as increased stress, inflammation, and tissue destruction. These may contribute to a vicious cycle of autoimmune attack.
Emotional traumas, such as experiencing neglect or living in a household with yelling or fighting, can train the nervous system to think the environment is not safe. It primes the sympathetic nervous system for a fight-or-flight response. When a sense of danger is the norm, any potential threat, real or perceived, will trigger the nervous system to be on high alert. Constantly being in a stressed state also triggers the immune system to be on high alert and can contribute to tissue destruction and impair healing. Mental and emotional traumas create physical issues in the body.
Trauma may be an autoimmune trigger for someone who:
- Experienced a physical injury or trauma that seemed to set off their autoimmune disease
- Experienced mental/emotional trauma such as neglect, abuse, extreme stress
Why Am I Being Affected and What Can I Do About It?
Genetic susceptibility plays a big role in whether these external factors will cause you to develop autoimmunity or not. Two people can be exposed to the same conditions (diet, environment, childhood trauma) and one can develop autoimmunity while the other doesn’t. That is influenced by each one’s genetic blueprint and how resilient each one’s body is to stress.
The good news? While we can’t change our genes, and we can’t always avoid the external factors mentioned earlier, we can support our immune systems so that they don’t overreact and cause problems. We can train our body to be more resilient to stress so it can better adapt and not overreact. Autoimmunity is really called loss of self-tolerance. The immune system should be able to come into contact with our own tissues, cells, and cell components without having a reaction to them. That is called tolerance.
When we react to substances like chemicals it is called loss of chemical tolerance. When we react to foods, we call it loss of oral tolerance. We should be able to tolerate everyday things like our own cells, chemicals, and foods. But when our autonomic nervous system gets stuck (remember, we call this dysautonomia), it can go into a stressed or fight-or-flight state. It can cause damage, inflammation, and even more stress. It makes it difficult to tolerate normal things.
Frustrated that your body is going haywire? Don’t be. All of these problems are actually just your body trying to protect you, to keep you safe from what it thinks is a stress. It is turned on high alert and doing the best it knows to keep you alive. When treating autoimmunity, the best thing we can do is tell the body it is safe so it can calm down its over surveillance and overreactions. When it gets into rest and repair mode, autoimmune processes will turn off.
The way we can do that is to identify and remove as many stressors as we can. Each person’s stressors are unique. At the same time, we give the body support to balance out the internal and external factors that led to the immune dysfunction in the first place. That might mean someone with leaky barriers needs to focus on healing their gut or sinuses or lungs, etc., while someone else may need to focus more on stress management and dealing with emotional trauma.
We’ll Help You Feel Your Best Again
In part two of this blog post, I’ll address the internal factors that cause autoimmune issues. Meanwhile, I invite you to get in touch with us at the Caplan Health Institute so that we can dig down to figure out the stressors that sent you down the autoimmune path. When we identify and remove your triggers, give the body what it needs to rest and repair, we can reverse the autoimmune process. You will feel a boost in your energy, vitality, and overall well-being.