What is the root cause of autoimmune disorders?

Autoimmune disease relates to a complex cluster of immune disorders where the immune system appears to target your own cells (self-tissue). In recent years, more and more diseases are being categorised as autoimmune conditions. Even cardiovascular disease is being considered an immune disorder, as chronic inflammation of the vessels is commonly a characteristic of heart disease.

Understanding the root cause of such varied illnesses can be difficult, however, it appears from research that there are 3 factors which most contribute to the onset of autoimmunity. These factors relate to epigenetics, environmental factors and a breakdown of biological barrier integrity and immunity. In this article, I will provide a summary of the current understanding of these 3 ideas which I will explore individually in more detail in later articles.

  1. Epigenetics

Epigenetics relates to the activity and expression of your genes which can affect various biological processes in the body, for example, how well your body eliminates toxins or your ability to metabolise certain fats. The variations in your genetics is not a life sentence, it just means that due to these differences you may have more risk of developing certain diseases. The good news is that with changes to your diet and lifestyle, you can take preventative measures to ensure that any weaknesses that you may have due to your genes are supported. It’s useful to understand your DNA profile, as it can provide clues for what might be contributing to symptoms of autoimmunity which can help form a health protocol to appease these issues.

  1. Environmental Factors

Environmental factors encompass many different environmental triggers and trying to decipher which ones are contributing to autoimmunity can be challenging. However, with exploratory functional testing and trial and error these influences can be determined which helps to direct a nutritional therapy protocol to eliminate the trigger. The main elements that may feature in autoimmune conditions are as follows:

  • Infectious agents such as bacteria, virus and fungus through a process known as ‘molecular mimicry’ (see more on this soon)
  • A high viral or bacterial load from past exposure to infections
  • Heavy metal toxicity
  • Environmental pollutants in air, food or water including diesel fuel, moulds and pesticides.
  • Gut dysbiosis from a build up of unhelpful bacteria which outcompete the good.
  • Food intolerances, most notable in autoimmunity is gluten and diary.

Functional testing can help understand which factors might be at play in the cause of chronic conditions and working with a practitioner will help guide you in which testing is right for you based on your symptoms and lifestyle.

  1. Breakdown of barrier integrity and immunity

This third factor was often associated with intestinal permeability (the so called ‘leaky gut’) as scientific research found that those suffering with autoimmunity largely suffered with this condition. However, our immune system has various protective barriers including the skin, the blood brain barrier, the alveoli of our lungs and the intestinal barrier. The intestinal barrier is by far the vastest barrier of all those described which is probably why it gained the most attention. However, the other should be considered as well when you are trying to strengthen these barricades from obstructive inhabitants. In autoimmune brain disorders it is theorised that moulds and bacteria pass through the blood brain barrier. This may cause an immune attack on neurones and other brain cells which harbours these unfriendly antagonists, causing damage to our brains. It is therefore important that we find ways to fortify our protective barriers with functional foods which support the integrity of our first line of defence.

Many causes with many presentations

We would love to find one cause and one answer to propel ourselves to health, but often there are multiple factors in the cause of any disease. By understanding the various factors which might be contributing to your symptoms, an approach for therapy can be investigated. Sometimes the answer is easy, and simply removing a food group can have a significant impact on your health. Other times it might take longer to reconcile the imbalances and the deficits which have accumulated over the years. However, by knowing your genetic disposition, finding YOUR trigger and eating to strengthen our biological walls, there are steps that you can take which may support the symptoms of autoimmunity, to help you live that little bit better.


Watch out for later articles where I will explain various ways that nutrition and lifestyle interventions may target these foundations, as well as understanding the various functional testing which should be considered if you suspect that you may be suffering with an autoimmune disease.

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