By naturopath Margaret Jasinska
Autoimmune disease is incredibly common, particularly in women. It occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks components of your own body – such as your organs or tissues. The most common autoimmune diseases are Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, psoriasis, iritis, arthritis, lupus, inflammatory bowel disease and Graves’ disease.
What causes a person to develop an autoimmune condition? The short answer is several things, including genetic predisposition, poor intestinal health (leaky gut and dysbiosis) and environmental triggers. An example of an environmental trigger is an infection.
Infections are a very common trigger of autoimmune disease, and they can also cause a flare up of an existing autoimmune disease. There is a great deal of research to support this fact. Infection with certain bacteria, viruses, fungi or parasites doesn’t cause an autoimmune disease directly, like a virus causes the flu. Instead, these infections are more like the straw that broke the camel’s back. They trigger the development of an autoimmune disease in a person who was at high risk of developing it sooner or later.
Certain infections have been linked with specific autoimmune diseases. This is probably because certain viruses or bacteria closely resemble specific parts of the human body. Therefore after making antibodies against a specific bug, your immune system gets confused and starts making antibodies against your own body. This phenomenon is known as molecular mimicry and is a leading theory as to why autoimmune disease happens in the first place.
As we travel through life we are exposed to more and more infections; this, coupled with nutrient deficiencies and stress can make autoimmune disease more likely to develop as we get older.
There are good and bad infections when it comes to autoimmune disease. Some infections are actually known to have a protective role, and it also depends on when you become infected. Infection with the stomach bacterium Helicobacter pylori in childhood can reduce the risk of autoimmune disease, while infection in adulthood may raise it.
You have probably heard of the hygiene hypothesis. This theory states that exposure to certain bugs and microbes in childhood reduces the risk of allergies and autoimmune disease in adulthood. Children who grow up with pets or grow up on farms and are exposed to dirt usually suffer less allergies and autoimmune disease in adulthood.
Some studies have been carried out on the use of hookworms in people with inflammatory bowel disease and coeliac disease with very positive results. Research participants were given capsules to swallow that contained worm eggs, and then had their inflammatory bowel disease or coeliac disease monitored. Results of these studies were overwhelmingly positive; the worms dampened down excessive inflammation and balanced the immune system. In some instances people with coeliac disease did not experience any harmful consequences from eating gluten while they had hookworms in their intestines.
We don’t suggest you start eating dirt or stop worming your pets, as you may acquire a harmful gut parasite that worsens your health problems. Instead, this highlights the significance of the gastrointestinal tract in autoimmune disease. You can get similar benefits from including probiotic rich foods such as fermented vegetables in your diet regularly. The good bacteria help to regulate and calm down an over active immune system.
You can’t prevent yourself from ever catching an infection. The types of infections linked with autoimmune disease are common infections that nearly everyone gets exposed to. It is far more important to strengthen your immune system with a healthy diet and the right nutrients in order to overcome these infections. Chronic infections that linger in your body and continually irritate your immune system are the worst at triggering autoimmune disease.