by Dr. Will Cole
Nobody wants an autoimmune disease, but unfortunately, all too many people already have one (or more). Autoimmune conditions have grown rapidly over the past years, with more than 50 million Americans living with some sort of autoimmune disorder.
I’ve already covered the multifaceted reasons for the autoimmune explosion we are seeing, and I’ve also given you some effective tools to reverse autoimmune symptoms and rebalance your immune system. But how do they start? Autoimmune diseases don’t just appear out of nowhere. While many people are on the autoimmune spectrum long before they have bothersome symptoms, often something triggers a full-blown move into disease or a significant flare of symptoms.
From diagnosable autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s, celiac, or Hashimoto’s disease, to common “autoimmune spectrum disorders” like acne or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), it’s important to know the potential “land mines” that can turn on an inflammatory-immune response in your body. So let’s look at what some of these top triggers are.
The infamous “G” word is a protein that’s found in wheat, barley, spelt, rye, and other grains, and is scientifically linked to an increased risk of autoimmunity. Many people and their doctors believe you have to have celiac disease to be gluten intolerant. When their labs for celiac come back negative, they are told that avoiding gluten is not necessary. This antiquated misinformation keeps many people struggling with an autoimmune condition, feeling unnecessarily sick.
For many of my autoimmune patients, it doesn’t have to be a piece of bread or pasta to cause damage either. Foods cross-contaminated with gluten can be like gasoline on a fire for many people with autoimmune conditions. If you are suffering, try eliminating gluten for a good 90 days and pay attention to whether your symptoms get any better.
2. Gluten-free grains
Many people with autoimmune problems already avoid gluten, but still consume non-gluten grain foods like corn, oats, and rice. As well-intentioned as that may be, these grains can be just as damaging as gluten, for people who are sensitive to them (and this is common with people prone to autoimmune issues).
The reason is that the proteins in these grains are very similar to gluten, and an over-reactive immune system may mistake them for gluten and begin an attack. Just as with gluten sensitivities, symptoms do not have to be gastrointestinal in nature. A flare-up of any autoimmune symptom can occur with exposure to grains.
Everyone is different, so it’s helpful to run immunological blood tests to see what your body is cross-reacting with, but you can also try going grain-free for awhile, to see if that makes a difference.
A favorite in the health community, so-called pseudo-grains like quinoa are high in proteins called saponins, and these can be inflammatory and damaging to the gut lining, causing an immune response in the body. Soaking and rinsing quinoa can reduce the gut-damaging effect, but for many with serious autoimmune conditions this is not enough and avoiding quinoa altogether is a more effective strategy to quell this inflammation and symptom response.
Stress has far-reaching effects on your health and one of them is to influence the health and activity of the immune system. Research has found chronic mental stress to be a trigger for autoimmune diseases, and accordingly, many of my patients noticed the onset of their autoimmune health problems during a rough time in their lives. Caring for an aging parent, the loss of a loved one, or a divorce can be the tipping point for an autoimmune response. Stress management techniques like deep breathing and meditation can help to reverse the stress response.
We live in a toxic world. Our environment has been bombarded with toxins that were unknown just 100 years ago. Studies have shown that toxins play a role in autoimmune cases such as autoimmune thyroiditis. Avoiding toxic exposure as much as you can gives your body a better chance to detox.
It should be no surprise that sugar is on this list, but I’m not just talking about the stereotypical junk food. There are many popular “healthy” junk foods that are not good for autoimmune conditions, even if they are labelled as so-called health foods.
Terms like “organic turbinado sugar” or “agave nectar” on a food label may sound less insidious than “white sugar,” but to the immune system, it’s all sugar. Try using less and eventually phasing out added sugar for better health.
This yummy and frankly anti-oxidant-rich food can be heart-healthy for some (in small, low-sugar amounts) but can cause a lot of damage to someone living with an autoimmune condition. The literature shows that some people who struggle with autoimmune problems may be negatively affected by chocolate, so if you are a chocoholic, try going without for awhile and seeing if it makes a difference.
Casein, the main protein found in milk and other dairy products, can be a trigger for runaway inflammation in the body for those who are susceptible. Ghee/clarified butter and plant-based “dairy” products like almond milk may be preferable and safer for some people because these do not contain casein. Some people with autoimmune disorders can also handle fermented dairy, like grass-fed whole yogurt or kefir, so if you love your dairy products, you might try limiting yourself to these first.
Members of this plant group that consists of tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, eggplants, goji berries, and some spices (like cayenne pepper) contain certain alkaloids in their skins which can cause an inflammatory response in the bodies of some susceptible people.
10. Instant coffee
Beloved by many on a busy work day, instant coffee (but not brewed coffee) may cause an inflammatory-immune response in some individuals with autoimmune disorders. Why is instant coffee worse? Research points to the chemicals used in the manufacturing of instant coffee, so it may not be the coffee itself.
That said, some individuals respond negatively to regular brewed coffee as well. I run food reactivity blood labs on my patients to see what underlying food triggers they may have, but you can also test yourself by phasing out coffee. After the caffeine headache clears, you may find you feel a lot better.
Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, or SIBO, occurs when normal bacteria of the microbiome expand beyond the large intestine into the small intestine, where they are not supposed to be. This can lead to a number of localized autoimmune spectrum conditions, such as IBS and acid reflux. Chronic SIBO can also lead to a leaky gut, which can hen trigger more advanced autoimmune problems throughout the body.
12. Weakened microbiome
Your microbiome – those colonies of bacteria in your gut – controls not only your immune system, but your brain, hormones, and genetic expression. When pathogenic species overgrow, the result can be parasitic, yeast, and fungal infections, which have all been implicated in a variety of autoimmune-spectrum conditions, such as Parkinson’s and Multiple Sclerosis.
You don’t necessarily have to be experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms to be affected by these pathogens. I run a specific two- or three-day stool lab to uncover these often undiagnosed factors in autoimmunity. Getting this kind of test can be informative regarding your microbiome balance.
13. Leaky gut syndrome
One of the central tenets of functional medicine is that increased gut lining permeability, or a “leaky gut,” is a precursor to autoimmunity. Since all of the above-mentioned triggers can lead to leaky gut syndrome, a leaky gut can be considered a casual trigger, as well as a symptom, of an autoimmune condition. Taking steps to repair the gut can therefore help to avoid triggering flares as well as help to reverse the autoimmune response.
Overall, seeking out and isolating our individual underlying triggers can save you from years of unnecessary suffering. I clinically investigate autoimmune cases all around the world, customizing personalized plans for each one of my patients.
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