by Dr. Will Cole
Autoimmune diseases are tricky – or at least, mainstream medicine would have you think so. People struggling with unexplained autoimmune symptoms can go years without being diagnosed, and even if they are diagnosed with an autoimmune condition, they are typically given very few options other than immune-suppressing drugs and more drugs to suppress symptoms.
They are also frequently told that the disorder is genetic, so there is little they can do other than medicate and make the best of it. Is this true? Are autoimmune conditions solely (or even mostly) due to genetics, and is that the end of the story? Not from a functional medicine perspective. Not at all.
Nature or Nurture?
There’s no debate about whether or not autoimmune conditions have a genetic component. We know that is part of the puzzle. A variety of autoimmune conditions tend to be found throughout families, but it is not the whole puzzle by a long shot. The dramatic increase in just about every autoimmune condition in the last few decades is just the first piece of evidence that genetics alone do not cause autoimmune disease.
The old view of genetics was that it was an immutable force, and that if your family had a certain health problem, it would be just a matter of time before you got the same disease, unless you were very lucky. Today, we know that this isn’t so simple. The field of epigenetics has explored and demonstrated that environmental factors influence DNA expression. In other words, genetics can give you the tendency to develop an autoimmune disease, but it is your lifestyle choices and your environment that determine whether those particular genes get switched on, or stay switched off.
One Stanford study, published in 2015, looked at 210 healthy twins. Some were identical and others were fraternal. Identical twins share almost all the same genetics, while fraternal twins have about 50% of the same genes. Because of this, studying twins is a great way for researchers to distinguish between genetic and environmental factors.
Looking at different aspects of the twin’s immune systems, what the scientists found was remarkable:
- 58% of the immune system was almost completely determined by environmental and lifestyle factors.
- 19% of the immune system was largely influenced by environmental and lifestyle factors.
This is actually great news, because it means 77% of the immune system is determined by things we can control. The foods we eat or don’t eat, our toxic exposures, our exposure to germs, our stress levels, and our medications, all play a role in determining health status, including the status of diseases for which we may be genetically predisposed.
Our Genes Are Living In A New World
Our DNA is much the same as it has been for hundreds of thousands of years, and yet, in just the past 100 years, we have experienced rapid development, and in just the last few decades, a disturbing increase in chemicals, processed foods, and environmental toxins. I believe we have yet to experience the full force of this dramatic and detrimental change in our world on human health, but the fact is that our genes haven’t changed at nearly the pace of our environments. This is one theory about the dramatic increase in autoimmune disease and at the heart of many autoimmune studies.
Take your Th17 cells, for example. They’re a part of your immune system. Their purpose is to fight bacteria and fungi, but when they overreact, they have been linked to autoimmune diseases. What makes them overreact? Well, researchers found that a high-salt diet negatively affected Th17 cells and increased autoimmune problems.
Our fast food society is filled with salt far beyond what anyone would get eating natural foods from the earth. This is one example of a genetic mismatch between genetics and modern lifestyle – our ancient immune systems can’t handle the high amounts of salt in the modern diet. This is likely just one of the many triggers that can cause an inflammatory autoimmune response in genetically susceptible individuals.
In other words, our exposures may largely determine our genetic expression and the strength or weakness of our immune system. The good news is that while modern life has brought its share of problems, it has also brought us unprecedented access to information. While autoimmune conditions are rising, so is the information and research on how to overcome them.
We are at the forefront of a much greater and more powerful understanding of the human immune system, and functional medicine is at the cutting edge of these discoveries and especially their applications in life, such as how lifestyle and behaviors influence immunity. This means you can learn what your immune triggers are and you have all the natural tools you need to calm your over-reactive autoimmune responses, coaxing them into remission – no matter what your genes say.
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