Autoimmune disorders are common, and they may even affect you or someone you care about. In fact, up to 9% of people in the United States have an autoimmune condition (ignoring that many more are developing them and will eventually be diagnosed) — though this varies by gender, ethnicity, and geographic location.
While autoimmune conditions vary widely in symptoms and severity, they all have the same underlying problem: Your body’s immune cells attack your own body.
Common types of AIDs include:
- Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
- Multiple sclerosis (MS)
- Celiac disease
- Hashimoto thyroiditis
- Graves’ disease
- Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)
- Addison’s disease
- Myasthenia gravis
- Sjögren’s syndrome
- Type 1 diabetes
Though many genes are connected to AIDs, scientists still don’t know for sure exactly what causes these disorders. And while we know that genetics — and your family history — definitely plays a role, it’s possible that up to 70% of autoimmune diseases may actually be caused by environmental factors — like:
- Exposure to toxic chemicals
Read on to learn about specific environmental triggers for autoimmune diseases, and what you can do to reduce your risk or improve your symptoms.
What environmental triggers are associated with autoimmune diseases?
In people with a genetic predisposition (where their genes put them at risk), certain environmental exposures can trigger autoimmune disease. These include toxins, infections, diet, and more.
Can toxins cause an autoimmune disease?
Yes. Multiple environmental toxins have been linked to autoimmune diseases. For example, cigarette smoking may increase your risk of:
- Graves’ disease
Additional toxic exposures linked with AIDs include:
- Ultraviolet light
- Silicone breast implants
- Heavy metals like mercury
- Plastics like BPA (highly associated to Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis)
Not all people with these exposures develop an autoimmune disease. There are other factors involved, like epigenetics and your family history.
Can your diet cause autoimmune disorders?
Yes. Dietary factors and the gut microbiome may also contribute to the underlying causes of autoimmune conditions. There are changes in the gut microbiome in people with certain autoimmune disorders like type 1 diabetes and RA. And, in some people, eating gluten can lead to an abnormal immune response and the development of celiac disease.
Again, not all people with dietary risk factors will get an autoimmune condition. Just like other exposures, diet is only one possible contributing factor.
Can an infection cause autoimmune disease?
Yes. Infections are a known trigger for AIDs in people with a genetic predisposition. Infections have been linked with many autoimmune conditions including:
- Type 1 diabetes
- Hashimotos hypothyroidism
- Wegeners Granulomatosis
Infections connected with autoimmune diseases include:
- Mono (Epstein-Barr virus)
- Strep throat
- Scarlet fever
- E. coli
Other possible triggers
There are some other possible triggers of AIDs including:
Emotional stress or trauma:
Stressful life events or trauma may increase your risk of developing an AID.
An autoimmune disease can present itself within the first year after a pregnancy.
Many medications have been linked to the development of Autoimmune diseases, particularly lupus.
How do environmental factors cause autoimmune disease?
It can be hard to know why environmental factors trigger autoimmunity in some people but not others. What we do know is that it can be a combination of genetics, the immune system, and other factors such as diet and the gut microbiome.
It’s also possible that when people with an increased genetic risk are exposed to certain environmental factors, the immune system can turn on itself.
Can you “cure” yourself if you remove the environmental cause of your autoimmune disease?
No. You cannot cure yourself of an AID after the disease process has started. But making changes in your life may help improve your symptoms, and keep your disorder from getting worse. We do see clients routinely put their autoimmune disease in remission but beware any phony claims that would have you believe they can “cure” you.
What can be changed in your environment to improve your autoimmune disease?
You can’t control every part of your environment. But there are steps you can take in your lifestyle and diet to help you feel more in control of an autoimmune disease. And some environmental changes may even help your symptoms get better.
Here are a few steps you can take to eliminate toxins in your environment:
- Stay away from tobacco products, even being near increases exposure risk
- Stop purchasing disposable plates/cups as they are all covered in BPA
- Only purchase “NO VOC” paints and if you have to use oils/stains/chemicals make sure you wear a ventilator
- Make sure there are no leaks in your house contributing to mold exposure (utility room)
Improve your diet and vitamin levels
Diet may play a role in autoimmune conditions. There’s some evidence that special diets like the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) could help with autoimmune symptoms and inflammation levels. This could have to do with improving the strength of the intestinal lining and the health of the gut microbiome. However, we do not recommend long term AIP as it can eventually erode your oral tolerance increasing the risk of food intolerance.
Vitamin D also plays an important role in the healthy functioning of our immune system, and low levels are associated with both cancer and autoimmune conditions.
Exercise can help improve the following in autoimmune conditions:
- Brain fog
- Quality of life
The amount and intensity of your exercise regimen will depend on your condition, but moving your body and getting your heart rate up every day is helpful.
Fatigue can be an issue for many people with autoimmune conditions, and sleep is an essential part of keeping your immune system healthy. Make sure to practice good sleep hygiene and try to get at least 7 hours of quality sleep every night.
Consider your climate
Weather changes or extremes can trigger symptoms in some people with AIDs. Because of this, it’s possible that some climates may be better for autoimmune diseases than others, like milder climates with minimal temperature variability.
Working on stress reduction is important. High stress can have a negative effect on your immune system. This not only can lead to the development of autoimmune conditions, but it also plays a role in how effective treatment may be.
If you smoke, quitting is important. Not only can it trigger AIDs, but it can make your symptoms worse and weaken your immune system.
Schedule an appointment with Dr. Autoimmune
When someone with a genetic predisposition encounters an environmental trigger, it can lead to an AID. Figuring out the specific environmental cause is a puzzle that functional medical professionals like Dr. Autoimmune specialize in. He looks at triggers that may be caused by a toxin exposure, infection, or dietary trigger and then takes steps to improve your symptoms so you can take control of your autoimmune disease.
Our functional medicine practice uses the patient’s story as a key tool for integrating diagnosis, signs and symptoms, and evidence of clinical imbalances into a comprehensive approach to improve both the patient’s symptoms and their physiological function.
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