What Causes Autoimmunity?


My last post listed some of the more common autoimmune diseases and the three main factors that are thought to contribute to autoimmune disease: genetic predisposition, triggering factors, and a leaky gut.  Today I’d like to talk more in depth about these contributing factors and how they lead to misdirection of the immune system and the development of disease.

Genetic Predisposition

The bad news is that you can’t do anything to change your genetics.  You’re stuck with them, for better or for worse, and they’re bound to affect your health.  But the good news is that the expression of your genes is influenced by your diet and your lifestyle.  For example, you may have a predisposition to diabetes, but if you watch your diet and eat healthily, exercise regularly, and otherwise take good care of yourself, you may be able to avoid it.

Triggering Factors

We know that some drugs can induce lupus, that certain environmental substances like silica can induce scleroderma, and sometimes infections can trigger conditions like Guillan Barre.  Unfortunately, we don’t have a map of all the autoimmune diseases and their triggers.  It would be nice if we did.  Thankfully you don’t necessarily have to know what triggers each autoimmune condition in order to avoid them.  Think of things that elicit an immune response that might push your cells over the edge into autoimmunity.  These are things like chemicals and pesticides in your food, environmental toxins in the products you use, infectious bacteria and viruses, and even food allergies.  Do your best to eliminate toxins from your home and eat as clean food as you can get your hands on.  Keeping yourself healthy will help you avoid medications that may trigger autoimmunity, and will keep your immune system strong enough to fight off infection and prevent it from turning on your healthy cells.

Heal Your Gut

I cannot overemphasize the importance of a healthy gut, and this is what I’d like to talk about the most.  Think of your gut as actually being outside of your body.  It’s basically one long hollow tube that extends from your mouth to your rectum, and its primary job is to take in nutrients and keep pathogens and toxins out.  When your gut is functioning well, your body is protected.  When the lining of your gut gets irritated and leaky, toxic substances and pathogens find their way into your bloodstream and activate your immune system.  Over time, this chronic immune system activation can lead to autoimmunity.  Did you know that approximately 70% of your immune tissues are located around your digestive tract?  Seventy percent!  Clearly, our bodies know that the biggest threat to our overall health comes from the things that pass through our gut.  And this is where things really get interesting.  Let’s just talk about thyroid disease for a second.  More and more research is linking thyroid disease, whether its Hashimoto’s or Grave’s, with gluten intolerance.  Picture this, you’ve got a nice healthy gut, with a well functioning lining.  You absorb the nutrients you need and keep the toxins out.  But over time, whether its because of excess sugar intake, too many courses of antibiotics, or long periods of extreme stress, the lining in your gut starts to break down.  All of a sudden, partially digested food particles start leaking into your bloodstream.  Gluten, in particular, is very problematic in the bloodstream because the amino acid structure of the protein gliadin (found in gluten) closely resembles the protein structure of your thyroid gland.  So, you eat gluten, it leaks into your bloodstream, and your body starts making antibodies to it.  Not only do you make antibodies when you’re exposed, but you can react to gluten for as long as 6 months after ingesting it.  If you don’t know you’re gluten intolerant, you just keep eating it.  And then one day, your immune system is so revved up from the chronic activation that it begins attacking your thyroid, mistaking it for gluten.  The attack continues until you start to have thyroid symptoms, and before you know it, you’ve been diagnosed with an autoimmune thyroid disorder.  Can I just take a moment to say WHY ON EARTH IS NO ONE TALKING ABOUT THIS???  (Ok, sorry, had to get that out.  I feel much better now!)

So after you’re finally diagnosed with hypo or hyper thyroidism (usually long after the damage actually began), you’re told that the only solution is lifelong medication and monitoring, and hopefully, we can get your symptoms under control.  If we can’t, well, you’ll have to be put on other medications to control your symptoms, like anti-depressants, beta blockers, etc.  Oh wait, maybe that’s why no one’s talking about this.  I forgot how much money there is to be made in chronic diseases.  Forgive my cynicism, but if more research is showing that autoimmune diseases are linked to the health of the gut, why don’t we try healing the gut to see if it can help correct the underlying imbalances that cause autoimmunity in the first place?  Sure, some patients will probably always need lifelong medication, and thank God that we have it.  But shouldn’t we try changing our diets and our lifestyles and actually healing ourselves before we give up and put all our faith in manmade pharmaceuticals?  I think we should.

If you have an autoimmune disease, please take the time to do some research for yourself.  There are more and more practitioners out there that are starting to recognize the importance of healing the gut in order to heal the rest of the body.  Search for a functional medicine doctor, get yourself tested for food sensitivities, and learn everything you can about the traditional eating and cooking methods that kept our ancestors free of chronic diseases for most of human history.  One great place to start is The Real Food Summit, a free event going on for the next week.  If you have a specific autoimmune condition that you’d like to learn more about, drop me a line and let me know, and I’ll try and include it in an upcoming post.  And check out my previous posts on intestinal health, I’ve got some great information there to get you started.


Kresser, C. The Thyroid-Gut Connection. July 29, 2010, http://chriskresser.com/the-thyroid-gut-connection

Kresser, C. The Gluten-Thyroid Connection. July 18, 2010.  http://chriskresser.com/the-gluten-thyroid-connection

Mainardi, E., Montanelli, A., Dotti, M., Nano, R., Moscato, G.  Thyroid-related Autoantibodies and Celiac Disease: A Role for a Gluten-Free Diet? Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, 2002, Sept (35), 3, 245-8.

Rose, N. The Common Thread, The American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association. http://www.aarda.org/common_thread.php


7 thoughts on “What Causes Autoimmunity?

  1. I’m so glad to hear that your family has a great resource for naturally treating autoimmunity through diet. I would love to check out your cousin’s book!

  2. Pingback: What is Autoimmunity? | owningwellness

  3. Hi, I have lupus (sle), sjogrens syndrome, raynaunds and fibromyalgia. I have been dealing with this most all of my life. Almost constant kidney infections and numberous struvite stones. I have had problems with my digestive system for years and all they say it they just see alot of inflamation and do nothing. I have had volvulus and sugery on it and now have what I just found out from a recent er visit and CT that I have Adult Intestinal Intussusception and they are making me wait over a month for a colonopsopy. Plus from the CT they also said I have multiple stones in both kidneys again..I am so discouraged at this point. Tired of all of this..So if you could shed some light I would it would be greatly appreciated! Oh wanted to meantion that I have nine aunts on my dad’s side of family all his sisters that have one form or another with autoimmune dieases.
    Thank you for taking the time to read this quick note.

      • Kathy-
        I’m so sorry to hear that you’ve had so many medical problems and haven’t received much help thus far. It can be so maddeningly frustrating to feel like you could be doing something different but not knowing what that is. There’s a quote attributed to Hippocrates “All diseases begins in the gut.” Now, over 400 years later, we’re starting to realize how true this is. If your gut is inflamed, it makes sense that over time that inflammation would spread to the rest of your body, affecting all systems and leading to autoimmunity. There are lots of different protocols out there for healing the gut: the GAPS diet, The Body Ecology Diet, and Robb Wolf’s Autoimmunity protocol come to mind. They’re all a bit different, and some people find success with one over another. I don’t know what your current diet is like, but eliminating processed foods, the common allergens, and sugar (at least for a time) will go a long way towards healing your gut. Different people need different lengths of time on healing diets in order to restore intestinal health, so it’s hard to predict how long it will take. Bone broth is also an excellent way to heal the gut, the gelatin and minerals in the broth help recoat your intestinal linings and soothe the inflammation. I’ve written a post on making bone broth entitled “Processing Chickens”, if you need a resource. I’ve also written a series on intestinal health, and a couple posts on silent inflammation. I recommend you start with those, and if you have any further questions, feel free to send me an email through my contact page and we can discuss it in more detail. Healing your gut may seem overwhelming at first, but it sounds as if you are ready to make some changes and take back your health. I wish you the best of luck.

  4. Pingback: Rome wasn’t built in a day…or…Change is hard, so take it slow. | owningwellness

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