Why is the Body Attacking Itself?” A Discussion About Autoimmune Disorders

By Karen Wheeler, APRN

One of the leading causes of chronic health problems in this country is autoimmune disorders. The American Autoimmune-Related Diseases Association reports that there are 80-100 different disorders that are caused by the body attacking itself (www.aarda.org). But there may be many more diseases that have an autoimmune component to them. Autoimmune diseases include rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Type 1 diabetes, lupus, Hashimoto thyroiditis and Crohn’s disease. The National Institute of Health statistic is that 23.5 million Americans are suffering from an autoimmune disorder. Most likely, there are millions more because of the difficulty in tracking these statistics. In comparison, heart disease affects 22 million and cancer 9 million (www.nih.gov). While autoimmune diseases affect more women than men, they can occur at any age from childhood on. An individual can also have more than one autoimmune disease!


Asthma, Celiac Disease, Eczema and Psoriasis, Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, Multiple Sclerosis, Rheumatoid Arthritis, System Lupus Erythematosus

So what exactly are autoimmune diseases? Why does the body start attacking itself? The body has an intricate array of cells that are constantly monitoring for anything that may cause it harm. If the immune system recognizes a foreign substance, it sets about neutralizing or destroying it. When the immune system gets confused and cannot recognize what is self, compared to what is not self, it can start attacking normal tissues in the body. This results in illnesses that we classify as autoimmune disease. Autoimmunity develops over time and often takes years to diagnose because of the vague symptoms it causes: fatigue, low grade fever, malaise. But pre-clinical antibodies can be found circulating in the blood if the clinician is astute enough to consider the possibility of the patient having an autoimmune disease and orders proper tests to look for them.

So what causes this confusion of the immune system? Several triggers for autoimmune disorders have been generally recognized and include genetics, environmental toxins, infections, stress and gut-related issues such as intestinal permeability (aka “leaky gut”). Most likely, it is a combination of factors that lead to a person developing autoimmunity. By identifying and avoiding triggers to the autoimmune disorder, the disease process can be stopped!

Dr. Jill Carnahan, in her presentation for Genova Diagnostics on March 25, 2015, states that 30% of autoimmune disorders can be attributed to genetic factors because these determine how the body is able to handle environmental exposures to infection and chemicals through processes such as methylation. But also, she speaks in depth about the importance of protecting the integrity of the gut lining and the beneficial bacteria in the gut that is referred to as the microbiome (www.gdx.net).

Approximately 70% of the lymphatic system is located surrounding the GI (Gastro Intestinal) tract. This makes perfect sense due to what is inside the lumen of the gut is really part of the external environment! The apple you eat is still a foreign object inside of your gut until it is completely digested, broken into the smallest components, the usable nutrients absorbed and the waste disposed of. The lining of the gut is only one cell thick, so it is imperative that it stays healthy so that only what is safe to the body gets into it. Ah, but what happens when the gut lining is NOT healthy? What about when it gets irritated?

Have any of you seen poison ivy? That oozy, red rash occurs when the resin of a poison ivy plant gets onto the skin of a person sensitive to it. So imagine that same red, inflamed, swollen rash going on inside of your gut and you can get an idea of what is going on when your gut lining comes in to contact with something that it is sensitive to. This is the picture of a leaky gut. The compromised lining allows larger molecules to pass into the bloodstream than what are supposed to be allowed in. The immune system recognizes these molecules as foreign invaders and sets off an inflammatory and immune response. Problems with autoimmune disorders come up when the immune system starts attacking normal tissues that look similar to those “invading” larger molecules. For example, if the immune cells detect that one of these “invading” molecules has iodine on it, it may start attacking the thyroid gland because it also has iodine in it to make thyroid hormone.

Many things contribute to developing “leaky gut” and therefore, autoimmune diseases. One of the most obvious causes is food allergies, or sensitivities. Allergic reactions can occur immediately or can have delayed onset for up to 72 hours! Our ancestors did not eat grains for centuries, until after the start of the agricultural era. Gluten, which is found in wheat, barley and rye, causes intolerance or full blown celiac disease in millions of people. Gluten has been proven to stimulate zonulin which is a protein that has been discovered to open the tight junctions between the cells lining the gut (Fasano, 2012). Our bodies were never intended to ingest the food additives, pesticides or GMO products that are common in the diet of most people, so it is no surprise that these can lead to problems in our bodies. Medications, such as NSAIDs (anti-inflammatory medications that include ibuprofen and naproxen), disrupt the protective mechanisms built into the GI tract so, if taken with any regularity, it is presumed that the gut is leaky.

Antibiotics that we are given for infections, or that are in the milk or meat products that we eat, literally kill the normal beneficial bacteria in the GI tract and make it more susceptible to pathogenic microbes which can cause autoimmune disorders. Artificial sweeteners are also detrimental to the good bacteria that live in our gut. Even emotional stress affects the gut flora. A multitude of books have been written about the microbiome and how it is essential to protect and diversify it to stay healthy, so it is beyond the scope of this article to delve deeper into it at this time.

Research has shown an association between several infectious agents and the development of an autoimmune disease. For example, chlamydia and salmonella have been shown to cause the development of reactive arthritis. Epstein-Barr virus has been associated with multiple sclerosis, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Coxsackievirus is associated with Type 1 diabetes. Viral infections can lie dormant in the body and reactivate years after the initial infection, or they can cause a low grade infection which adds to stress on the immune system.

So let’s wrap up with what you can do to keep your immune system healthy! Get back to eating whole foods and organic produce to limit the amount of chemicals your body has to detoxify. Have your diet be sugar-free, gluten-free, and non-GMO. Avoid known food allergens, high mercury fish and other sources of heavy metals. Avoid trans fats. Limit alcohol and caffeine. Find natural treatments like turmeric for inflammation instead of NSAIDs. Develop ways to help you handle stress—meditation, yoga or exercise may help. Many nutrients such as vitamins A, C and D can help boost immune function, just as probiotics can support a healthy diverse microbiome.

Probably the most important thing to do is to consider the possibility of having an autoimmune disease if you have vague symptoms that don’t have a clear explanation as to what is causing them, and ask your provider to order appropriate testing.

For more information, call the Doctor’s call time number or make an appointment to see one of our providers. We are here to help you discover Real Health!

1. (Fasano, A.: Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2012 Jul; 1258(1): 25–33).