Why are autoimmune diseases on the rise? Can we do anything about it?

For the past 200 million years, mammals have lived and cooperated with bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Without them, life would not be possible. Unfortunately, our lifestyle is killing our microbiome, and that is linked with a variety of diseases.

Yeray Lopez
Yeray Lopez

Table of Contents

How does our surroundings affect us?

Whenever I think about our surroundings affecting our health, images of pollution, dirty water, toxins, germs, radiation, and the like come to mind. Then, of course, I tend to think that the things outside myself are the ones affecting me the most. So my main concern is often the "cleanness." But let's face it, cleanness is one of the things that might be killing us. The lack of contact with germs is weakening our immune system.

It sounds strange. But the most direct and vulnerable way of interacting with our medium, the outside world, is via our digestive tubes. In that exchange between what's outside of us and our gut is where our immune system trains and, sometimes, mutates to becoming our worst enemy. This is because we need germs to keep our immune system operating as expected, and we do not get enough contact with them, especially when we are young.

Having pets, living on a farm, or not having had prolonged rounds of antibiotics set you up for a good start. But we need to do more for our guts to prevent gastrointestinal problems, inflammation, and, in the worst cases, the beginning of an autoimmune disorder.

Today I talk about all this because I might be at the beginning of a yet undiagnosed autoimmune hiccup. I had a positive Antinuclear Antibody test six weeks ago, which might suggest an autoimmune disorder. Since then, the importance of our gut has come as a surprise to me. I hope that understanding it better helps me live a better life.


Leaky gut

Inside our bellies, we have an extensive intestinal lining, covering more than 1200 square meters of surface area when flattened out. The microscopical structure of the gut is genuinely impressive. When working correctly, it forms a tight barrier that controls what gets absorbed into the bloodstream. However, an unhealthy gut lining may have holes that allow partially digested food, toxins, and bugs to penetrate the tissues beneath it. The so-called leaky gut triggers inflammation and changes in the gut flora, mainly formed by bacteria.

Close up of our gut lining

We could not live without the roughly two kilograms of different kinds of bacteria, viruses, and fungi that live and work inside our guts. They make what is known as the microbiota, or the microbiome, and new science proves that those microscopic organisms' wellbeing is crucial for our survival. For example, our intestinal microbiome stimulates the immune system, breaks down potentially toxic food compounds, and synthesizes specific amino acids and vitamins, including the B vitamins and vitamin K. Changes in the intestinal bacteria may play a role in developing several common chronic diseases, including depression, lupus, and many others.

So think about this. If you don't have the right bacteria to digest your food, it does not matter how healthy or expensive that food is; you will not be absorbing what you think you are.



Should we care about all this?

Twenty-five hundred years ago, Hippocrates stated that "All disease begins in the gut." Now, science gives his intuition the thumbs up. But conversations about our guts are not very popular among friends, nor do most doctors get a good look at them. It seems, maybe more so in the western world, that everything that relates to the gut, and its feeling, is obscured and pushed away by stupid tabus until, of course, other problems show their face.

I have always had issues with what I thought was my stomach, but they were always dismissed as anxiety or nerves. Sustained emotional stress can indeed lead to inflammation in the gut. But saying that tends to be an easy escape for doctors who do not know much about how the inner flora affects us. Recent studies show that intestinal inflammation plays a role in regulating emotions, mood, stress vulnerability, and emotion-related memory encoding, things generally associated exclusively with the brain. So what comes first, depression or gut problems, is something I must find out.

As you can imagine, understanding the gut has become something personal.


Take care of your gut

As you can imagine, I am new to all this autoimmune stuff. I seem to have antibodies that are fighting my own cells, but their low numbers paired with non-specific clinical symptoms make it hard to find a diagnosis at the moment. According to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA), those with an autoimmune disease spend an average of 4 years seeking a diagnosis. Let's see what Denmark can do about it.

I am determined to learn what I must to keep my numbers low, stay positive, and be healthy. I hope you find my ongoing research helpful.


New findings

Several diseases have been associated with gut microbiota dysbiosis, an imbalance in the intestinal microflora. These include Alzheimer's disease, cancer, and multiple autoimmune disorders.

For inspiration

Watch this Ted talk to get an overview of what I mean.


Nutrient deficiencies are thought to contribute to the onset of autoimmune diseases. Deficiencies in some nutrients like vitamin D, or fiber, are linked to developing such disorders.

"There are so many triggers for autoimmune disease, including stress, diet, lack of exercise, insufficient sleep, and smoking. Anything that causes chronic inflammation in the body can eventually lead to the development of an autoimmune disease, which could be one reason they're are becoming increasingly common," said Ryon Parker, MD, Chief Medical Officer at Parker Medical.

It is impossible to control inflammation and manage your autoimmune condition unless your blood sugar is under control. Furthermore, excessive sugar in the diet can feed pathogenic overgrowths in the gut, exacerbating leaky gut and dysbiosis. Sugar weakens the immune system and is a source of empty calories that potentially replace more nutrient-rich foods.

Probiotic foods, fermented foods, or drinks like Kombucha or kefir could help you replace the lost good bacteria and increase their diversity in your organism. I started with probiotics of various kinds and water kefir with excellent results (more on this in future posts). Increasing the diversity of the gut microbiota by supplementation of probiotic bacteria, prevents diet-induced obesity and TH17-biased immunity.

Managing stress is one of the best things anyone can do to boost their immune system and protect themselves against disease development.

Excess dietary salt intake is already a well-studied culprit in cardiovascular disease, stroke, and hypertensive inflammatory autoimmune diseases [58, 59].

Innovative therapies for gut microbial-dependent immune dysfunctions may also include fecal microbial transplants. That is taking the microbiome from a healthy donor.


FOOD

Did you know that spinach, a plant that you might have had hundreds of times, have more than 800 different species of bacteria, both on their surface and inside the plant?. So yes, plants also have microbiota to help them thrive that we can use. If you want to get the best out of vegetables, try to consume them fresh. I know that having frozen spinach, for example, is convenient, but in that way, you are killing all the bacteria that can be useful for replenishing your own inner flora.

One way to fight depression might be with greens: higher consumption of vegetables may cut the odds of developing depression by as much as 62 percent. Additionally, the spice saffron was found to be effective at treating mild to moderate depression.

Poultry and tuna are the leading food sources of arsenic. Dairy is the number one source of lead, and seafood, including tuna, is the number one source of mercury. An analysis of more than twelve thousand food and feed samples across twenty countries found that the highest contamination of the toxic chemical polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) was found in fish and fish oil, followed by eggs, dairy, and then other meats. The lowest contamination was found at the bottom of the food chain, that is, in plants. Those who eat a plant-based diet have been found to have significantly lower blood levels of a PCB implicated in increasing the risk of developing Parkinson's disease.


Please, remember that each one of us is different, and we should always look for medical advice in relation to our health. This investigation is part of my journey to healing and it has informational purposes only.


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