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Autoimmunity: What is it?

This is a personal topic for me, as I was diagnosed postpartum with Hashimoto's, as well as, my daughter was diagnosed at age five with hashimotos. Know that calming the body is possible. Join us in this series as we take a deeper look at autoimmunity.

Nourish Functional Health Santa Barbara Holistic Health

The immune system defends the body against infections and other invaders, as a result it creates something called antibodies. Antibodies are proteins that retain a memory to the specific foreign antigen (substance not found in the body - virus, bacteria, toxin). Once the foreign substance has been cleared - sometimes the immune system stays reactive and attacks the body's own healthy tissues or organs. This is called autoimmunity.

The research data shows anywhere from 25-30% of autoimmune conditions are related to genetics while the remaining 70-75% are a result of environmental factors. (We will discuss environmental factors in a future post.)


Types of Autoimmune Conditions:

There are thought to be more than 80 types of autoimmune diseases that affect a wide range of body parts. A few are: Type 1 diabetes, Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), Psoriasis/psoriatic arthritis, Multiple sclerosis (MS), Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Sjögren’s syndrome and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.

According to a 2014 study, women get autoimmune diseases at a rate of about 2 to 1 compared to men — 6.4 percent of women vs. 2.7 percent of men. Often the disease starts during a woman’s childbearing years (ages 15 to 44).

Important Statistic:

About 25 percent of people with autoimmune diseases have a tendency to develop additional autoimmune diseases. This really helps to keep me on track to living a healthy lifestyle and personalizing my family's health approach. Prevention is the key here!


The antinuclear antibody test (ANA) is often one of the first tests that doctors use when symptoms suggest an autoimmune disease. A positive test means you may have one autoimmune condition occurring, but it won’t confirm exactly which one you have or if you have one for sure. From there specific autoantibodies test can be run to narrow down to a further to a specific autoimmune disease. Note, not all autoimmune diseases lead to a positive ANA.


Autoimmune: Environmental Factors/ Infections

Given that the research data shows anywhere 70-75% of autoimmune diseases are a result of environmental factors - some factors listed amongst the research data are:

1. Infections

2. Environmental Toxins

3. Diet

4. Gut

5. Lifestyle/ stress

Let's deep dive into infections, as this one has a complexity to it that is fascinating but also the root of some of the autoimmune conditions.

Santa Barbara Nutritionist

An infection can be produced, for instance, by bacteria, viruses, or parasites. Bacterial and viral infections are thought to impact the autoimmune response by a process called molecular mimicry.

Molecular mimicry is the key here...This is when a foreign substance is shaped very similar to a naturally occurring substance/gland in the body, essentially blending into the body like camouflage.

Now the fascinating part is that we know antibodies stay in the body even after the antigen has gone. This is so if the same antigen is encountered again, antibodies are able to recognize them immediately and mount a much faster and stronger defense against the foreign molecule.

This is where autoimmunity comes in... If a molecule on the surface of our normal body cells very closely resembles a foreign antigen, the antibody might incorrectly lock onto it. (molecular mimicry) This would then trigger the immune system to attack our own body’s cells rather than the foreign ones that the antibody was originally designed for.

Let's look at an example of Epstein Barr Virus (EBV). A growing number of research papers are linking EBV in the pathogenesis of many autoimmune diseases but particularly Hashimotos.

When specific immune cells are insufficient, the Epstein-Barr virus may take up residence in our organs (such as the thyroid) and essentially hijack the organ to help the virus hide and multiply.

If you remember the concept of molecular mimicry, the EBV is mimicking the tissues of thyroid and the body having a memory of this antigen - then continues to fight the virus - rather it is also attacking its own cells (thyroid).

There is a lot more to this topic but hopefully you get the idea of how viruses, bacteria and other pathogens can play a role in autoimmunity.


Autoimmune: Environmental Factors/ Toxins

Santa Barara Nutritional Therapist

Let's review some links between environmental toxins and autoimmunity.

There’s not necessarily one single toxin that causes autoimmunity. (although there are some toxins linked more directly to certain autoimmune conditions) It’s really the cumulative effects of all of your toxin exposures that add up to your total toxic load.

Think of your body as a bathtub – with a defined capacity to hold water. But if that capacity is exceeded, that “toxin bucket” overflows, and toxins begin to accumulate. If the overall toxic load is left unaddressed, eventually, your immune system gets burnt out – slowly getting weaker and less efficient.

A few examples of direct exposure and autoimmunity are below:

  • Asbestos - rheumatoid arthritis, systemic sclerosis, and systemic lupus erythematosus, among others have a compelling link to autoimmunity (J. C. Pfau et al.).

  • BPA - D. Kharrazian's describes eleven different pathophysiological and immunological mechanisms where BPA exposure may lead to autoimmunity.

  • Heavy metals - includes mercury, lead, and arsenic, along with several others. Numerous studies have linked elevated levels of heavy metals with autoimmune diseases, especially autoimmune thyroid conditions.

  • Glyphosate - is proposed by one study to play a role in celiac.

  • Mold exposure - growing amount of evidence is correlating mold exposure and their accompanying mycotoxins linked to autoimmunity.

The good news is that by identifying and addressing the environmental factors contributing to your autoimmune disease (including toxins), and you can restore your body’s optimal immune function. Reach out today if you are ready to make a change! Visit us here.

Autoimmunity Part 2, read here.


Our Approach

I am a clinically trained psychotherapist, who learned along with education and practicum hours that one's health challenges can be at the root of their psychological obstacles. I view the body and mind from a holistic perspective and dive deep with my clients to root out the core imbalances that keep them from progressing in the healing of their body and mind.

Sources: Autoimmune Fix-Dr.O'bryan, PMID: 25610638, PMC3076021, PMID: 24678255, PMID: 28421079, PMID: 27491297,


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