For the past few years, Sheila has been suffering from a string of ailments that has left her puzzled. Initially, she had sore joints, followed by eczema, then came the headaches, combined with low energy and even digestive issues. Every time she suffered, she was tempted to brush them off as annoying, but after a couple of visits to her Doctor, she has been told she had an autoimmune disorder that is indicative of a more serious health storm brewing insideone that she has been totally unaware of, all along.

Sheilas case is not an isolated one. There are many like hers. In fact, autoimmune disorders are on the rise globally, so much so, that they are now considered to be as common as cancer and heart disease. According to a global estimate, nearly 700 million people—i.e., nearly one-tenth of the global population—suffer from some kind of an autoimmune disease, in stages ranging from mild and moderate to severe.

Autoimmune Diseases: Why do they occur?

Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system, which is meant to defend our body, actually attacks it. In other words, this is when our immune system makes antibodies and immune cells mistakenly attack our own healthy tissues. In effect, this means that certain microorganisms (i.e., bacteria or viruses) or drugs, may trigger changes in the body, that confuses the immune system, and leads to the destruction of body tissue, or abnormal growth of an organ or even changes in the organ function. The most common symptom of an autoimmune disease is inflammation. This explains why many find it difficult to recover from recurring problems such as sore joints or tummy trouble since the root cause lies in an underlying autoimmune disease, which needs to be addressed first.

Today, almost 80 different types of autoimmune diseases have been identified, ranging from Psoriasis which causes skin inflammation, to Lupus which causes organ failure. Occasionally, more than one autoimmune disease can also strike at the same time. Of these 25 are strongly biased against women.

The rise in Autoimmune Diseases

The incidence of autoimmune diseases is increasing at an alarming rate. Statistics show that worldwide rates of rheumatic, endocrinological, gastrointestinal and neurological autoimmune diseases are going up by 4 to 7 percent annually. Throughout human history, our exposure to myriad infectious agents has triggered an evolutionary arms race. Our immune system has evolved increasingly sophisticated countermeasures and recognition systems to combat the increasing diversity of the infectious agents and we have evolved right to the edge of the immune systems capacity. But, over the last few decades, the immune system has been pushed over the edge due to a series of environmental toxins to which we are currently exposedtoxins that interfere with the way the immune system communicates with the rest of the body.

The combination of gene mutations, the environment, and decrease in diversity of gut bacteria is responsible for the growing incidence of autoimmune diseases today. Scientists have now identified possible triggers that have led to the rise of this autoimmunity.

The Main Triggers

The first of these theories suggest that our reduced exposure to dirt and microbes raises our susceptibility to autoimmune diseases. Another theory finds ground in the overuse of antibiotics and over-the-counter painkillers that makes the gut bacteria incapable of regulating the immune system, thus triggering autoimmune disorders. Besides, these, lifestyle changes, dietary habits, the presence of industrial food additives, such asglucose (sugars), sodium (salt), fat solvents (emulsifiers), organic acids, gluten, microbial enzyme and transglutaminaseall of which lead to a more permeable intestinal mucosais another key factor in autoimmunity. Increase in incidence of inflammation also contributes to rising cases of autoimmune diseases. 

Recent studies suggest a link between depleting levels of Vitamin D and raised levels of Cortisol—the stress hormone—in the body, as a major cause of autoimmunity.

Why Are Women More Susceptible?

A recent study has found that women are more prone to autoimmune disorders—the basis for this sex bias lying in their X chromosome, which contains many immunity-related genes. No one knows exactly why, but research suggests that it may have to do with differences in the way certain genes are expressed in females. Statistics indicate that every 1 in 9 women suffers from autoimmune diseases and the fact that it continues to be the leading cause of death and disability in girls and women makes scientists believe, that perhaps estrogen or has something to do with it. This is more so because many autoimmune disorders occur in women soon after puberty and especially during the childbearing ages and during menopause.

Some studies even suggest that the female hormones estrogen and prolactin stimulate the growth of B cell autoantibodies. This genetic susceptibility and the hormonal fluctuations are responsible for more women to suffer from Rheumatoid Arthritis, Lupus, Multiple Sclerosis or Graves’s Disease as compared to men. Till date, most women who are afflicted with autoimmune diseases continue to rely only on medications to treat the symptoms, occasionally with some serious side effects.

Tackling Autoimmune DiseasesWhat the Future Holds

Although there are no known ways to prevent autoimmune diseases from occurring, if diagnosed early, many autoimmune symptoms can be reversed to a great extent, by eating right and addressing nutrient deficiencies in our diet. Foods rich in vitamin A, selenium, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish and flaxseeds) probiotics, glutamine and flavanols (plant chemicals which protect against disease)play a significant role in reducing the risk and treating autoimmune diseases.

Natural strategies are also gaining importance, which includes cutting down inflammatory foods like gluten, dairy, and sugar from our diet, reducing stress with regular meditation, lowering the burden of toxins and in particular, healing the gut as 80% of our immune system is located in the gut.