In my last article ‘Is there a Gene for Autoimmune Disease?’ we considered the link with certain inherited gene variations and the likelihood of developing an autoimmune disorder. Genes are an important factor in autoimmune disorders as they give an indication of how the immune system might react under certain stressors. Finding the trigger of autoimmune disease is central to addressing the underlying cause of the symptoms.

In this article we will explore the role of microbes as an environmental trigger in autoimmune conditions and why understanding this helps to find strategies to support the symptoms of these conditions.

The powers of mimicry

One common theory in autoimmune disease is the so called ‘molecular mimicry’ concept. Molecular mimicry is a process where the immune system mistakes a part of the body as a pathogen and targets an attack against it. The possible reason the immune system becomes ‘confused’ is because a pathogen, such as a virus, may have a similar appearance to a part of the body so the immune system targets both, and as a result there is self-damage.

Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) which causes glandular fever in some people has been linked to multiple sclerosis (MS) and systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Clinical studies have shown that those who have previously suffered with glandular fever are at more of a risk of developing MS. SLE may also be provoked with EBV and it is thought that molecular mimicry plays role in this association. A common body cell target in SLE (protein Ro) has been shown to ignite a similar immune response to a molecule produced by latent EBV in the body, suggesting that EBV is a trigger in SLE. More research in this area is required, but as EBV can lay dormant in the body for a number for years, a possible treatment may be to follow an anti-viral dietary protocol so that the immune systems stops reacting to this virus, possibly settling the autoimmune response.

Innocent bystanders

Another model for autoimmunity is where the immune system is stimulated to attack a pathogenic molecule in the body such as a bacterium, and whilst undergoing its attack it starts to develop an autoimmune response to a body part close by, causing dysfunction of the affected organ.

Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) is one such bacteria found in the stomach and is linked to autoimmune conditions, in particular, autoimmunity gastritis which causes inflammation in the stomach. Inflammation in the stomach can cause an array of symptoms, but as the absorption of vitamin B12 is dependent on its combination with a protein in the stomach, this condition can lead to vitamin B12 deficiency. Vitamin B12 deficiency can result in energy depletion and pernicious anaemia and may play a role in the onset of other autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis.

By removing H pylori from the stomach with either antibiotics and/or using alternative therapies, then the autoimmune destruction and subsequent nutritional deficiencies may be improved.

Do microbes cause autoimmune disease?

It is likely that microbes play a prominent role in autoimmune conditions, but their affects are only part of the picture. Whether your cells become autoreactive is likely due to your genetic predisposition and potentially many other factors, such as the health of your cells. The health of your cells could be impacted by environmental air borne toxins such as cigarette smoke, or pesticides found in food, or plastics from water bottles and packaging. These all need to be considered as well as the potential initial trigger from the pathogen which could be viewed as the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Stress from life situations such as changing jobs or having a baby and being influenced by events from your childhood that may have changed your tolerance and response to certain predicaments in your life, need to be viewed holistically when deciding the best solution for autoimmunity.

A central and unfolding area of research in autoimmune disease is the association with the commensal gut flora and how this has an impact on the onset of autoimmune disease. In next weeks article, I will be looking at the link between your gut health and autoimmunity as well as promising methods to strengthen your digestive system and harmonise the microbial environment in the gut to support autoimmune symptoms.

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