Autoimmune diseases are now more prevalent than heart disease or cancer. Here’s how you can stop your body from becoming your own worst enemy.
A century ago, autoimmune diseases were virtually unheard of. In the rare instance that one did occur, it was among the wealthy who bathed frequently and had proper sewage disposal. The average person back then was exposed to a large quantity and wide variety of germs throughout their lifetimes, by drinking impure water, eating food that was near spoiled or contaminated, and living in close proximity to livestock without a sewage system. Infectious diseases caused a third of all deaths.
Autoimmune disease is a broad category that encompasses everything from rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, lupus, and multiple sclerosis, to Celiac, Crohn’s, Ulcerative Colitis, and even asthma and allergies. Autoimmune diseases are still on the rise – Colitis and Crohn’s rates have more than doubled in the past 25 years, and Celiac disease has experienced a 20-fold increase. These diseases used to be rare, and even though many have become household words now, that doesn’t mean their diagnosis is a new trend in the medical profession – the increase is due to more people actually having these diseases.
As of 2019, infectious diseases were only responsible for about 4 percent of all deaths. But our modern day focus on hygiene made significant changes in our immune systems – and these changes may be why autoimmune diseases have now reached epidemic proportions. I am particularly concerned that with all of the extra sanitizing, social distancing, and face covering measures we are taking to protect ourselves against this pandemic virus, that we may be opening ourselves up to a chronic autoimmune disease in the process. Unfortunately, studies done on the hygiene hypothesis confirm my suspicions.
What We Can Learn From the Mice
Dr. Erika von Mutius is an immunologist and head of the Asthma and Allergy Department in the Children’s Hospital of the University of Munich, Germany. In 2012, she and her colleagues did a study on young mice raised in a completely sterile environment. These mice were kept in sterile cages that were completely free from all bacteria and viruses. Their food was specially sterilized and their air was treated to remove all microbes.
Considering all the advice we’ve been given during this current pandemic, you might think this sounds like paradise for the immune system and a sure way to good health. But, this germ-free environment actually created the opposite scenario. The mice developed severe autoimmune diseases and were especially prone to colitis and asthma.
In science, we have to discern between correlation and causation – was the autoimmune disease a coincidence? So Dr. von Mutius and her colleagues inoculated these mice with stomach bacteria from a standard mouse colony. All traces of autoimmune disease not only disappeared in afflicted mice, but young mice who had never gotten sick were given the same bacteria and it prevented them from developing autoimmune disease. Yet another study-backed example that proves that good health begins in the gut.
The Protective Role of the Microbiome Against Autoimmunity
When scientists observed that children who grew up on farms or in cultures like the Amish, where they’re exposed to a greater diversity of microbes at a young age, weren’t having the high rates of asthma and allergies that other children were having, they went searching for the reason why. What they found is that the immune system relies on a diverse environmental microbiome to learn to adapt and properly respond to inhaled and ingested environmental elements like allergens, viruses, and other particulates.
There is a multitude of studies showing that even small changes in the microbiome – of as little as one strain of bacteria – lead to either health or autoimmune disease. And they found that even immune responses on the skin, in the airways, and in the gut need great microbiome diversity to counterbalance and suppress any maladapted responses that normally lead to asthma and other inflammatory airway diseases.
In a nutshell, their results showed that the environmental microbiome around us not only influences our own internal microbiome but is like a master switch for innate protection from autoimmunity, including asthma and allergies. It’s key to understand that this appears to only work in childhood. When children are kept in ultra-hygienic environments and then transition to farm life as adults, they don’t experience the same immune system balancing and protection.
Fight Autoimmunity with Good Gut Health
If you weren’t raised playing in the mud, all hope is not lost. You can create protective diversity in your microbiome and shore up your immunity to whatever viruses and allergens may come your way. To make it easy to understand, I’ve distilled it down into 3 simple steps.
- Start with Your Stomach Acid. People with autoimmune diseases tend to have low stomach acid. Allergic and autoimmune reactions can cause gastric and intestinal linings to become inflamed, which decreases the secretion of stomach acid. This acid is a protective mechanism, destroying the protective coating of pathogens like viruses and other unwanted invaders, while helping us to break down our food so we can access the nutrients we need.
Once stomach acid is low, whole proteins pass through undigested and get into the bloodstream through inflamed intestinal walls. These whole proteins increase inflammation and the autoimmune response, like a vicious cycle. If you’ve had tests done that show you are low in iron, calcium, zinc, folate, vitamin B12, or protein, then you aren’t making enough stomach acid. And even though we are taught that heartburn and acid reflux are signs of too much stomach acid, it’s often the reverse that’s true.
Start by supplementing with UNI KEY Health’s HCl+2 before each meal. Your dose is determined by how you feel when you take it; start with one pill before meals, and increase gradually until a slight burning is felt in the stomach, then decrease by one pill and that’s your dose. Your dose may change over time; many people need less acid supplementation as digestion improves and are able to wean off the supplement.
- Develop Diversity. Overuse of antibiotics can harm the beneficial bacteria strains you need in your microbiome. Sugar, stress, and even the medications you use to treat your autoimmune disease can also destroy these essential probiotics. The lack of bacterial balance is especially hard on digestion and immunity.
To create more diversity in your microbiome, you need a good probiotic like Flora-Key from UNI KEY Health. It contains all of the research-backed strains that have been shown to support health when you have an autoimmune disease. This is the powdered probiotic I personally take to keep my gut healthy – and it tastes delicious sprinkled on a bowl of fresh berries.
Considering there are trillions of microorganisms that make up your microbiome, supplementing with billions of beneficial bacteria is much like planting seeds and waiting for them to grow. You might not feel the positive effects right away because it takes time to grow a new, healthy population.
- Say No to Salty, Processed Foods. One change that has paralleled the rise in autoimmune disease is our increased consumption of salt. We average 3 to 4 grams of salt per day, and the salt we get through processed foods is void of trace minerals, which we need.
Studies have shown that even a modest increase in salt intake is enough to make the T cells of the immune system struggle with distinguishing healthy cells from germs. This is a hallmark of the development of autoimmunity. Also, a high salt diet depletes lactobacillus probiotics in the gut, and these strains in particular have been shown to be beneficial in the fight against autoimmunity.
Since more than 70 percent of the average American’s salt intake comes from processed foods, start by cutting as many as you can out of your diet. Then, replace the white salt in your shaker with a good quality salt rich in trace minerals, like RealSalt or Celtic sea salt.
Check out this episode of my First Lady of Nutrition Podcast for more cutting edge way to fight autoimmune illness!