The Role of Genes and Environment in Autoimmunity

Jun 10, 2024 | Health and Wellness

By Randi Mann, WHNP-BC, MSCP, APNP

Research shows that autoimmune diseases are on the rise, yet there is still a great deal that we don’t know about their immunological basis. While most scientists point to both genetic and environmental factors as potential causes, much uncertainty remains.

Autoimmune diseases occur when the body’s immune system turns against itself. Rather than defending against harmful invaders, the immune system is actually involved in causing or perpetuating illness.

So, which is more important in our health outcomes when it comes to autoimmune conditions – our genes or our environment? Let’s find out!

Common Autoimmune Conditions

Autoimmune diseases can vary greatly in symptoms and severity, but the issue underlying them all is the body’s immune cells attacking itself. Some of the most common autoimmune diseases include:

  • Rheumatoid Arthritis – characterized by chronic inflammation of the joints.
  • Celiac Disease – an affliction of the small intestine triggered by exposure to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye.
  • Multiple Sclerosis (MS) – a disease of the central nervous system, causing muscle weakness and vision problems.
  • Psoriasis – a skin condition in which an overactive immune system causes skin cells to multiply too quickly, creating itchy and inflamed patches.
  • Type 1 Diabetes – occurs when the pancreas stops producing insulin, a necessary hormone that regulates blood sugar.
  • Sjögren’s Syndrome – affects the parts of the body that produce moisture, leading to symptoms of excessive dryness.

The Role Of Genes

The most common theory is that a person has a particular genetic predisposition that makes them prone to their immune system ‘misfiring.’ When they encounter an environmental trigger – such as an infection or a toxin – that triggers an autoimmune disease.

Many genetic variations are linked to autoimmune diseases, and each contributes a small percentage to the overall risk. According to scientists, the disease only occurs when multiple genes act together. Even then, genetics don’t explain the risk entirely, indicating that environmental factors are at play.

The Role Of Environment

We are increasingly exposed to toxins and chemicals on a daily basis, which many experts believe is contributing to the rise in autoimmune disease.

Exposure to mercury, pesticides, environmental pollutants, and phthalates have been associated with various autoimmune diseases. Smoking, stress, weight gain, and medication/drug use are also considered to be environmental triggers of autoimmune disease.

Mitigating Risks and Managing Autoimmune Conditions

Having an autoimmune disorder can affect your life in profound ways. Stress can easily activate your immune system and cause symptoms to flare. Oftentimes, these disorders disturb one’s ability to sleep, work, and engage in social activities with family and friends, which in turn worsens symptoms.

While there is no known cure for any autoimmune disease, it is completely possible to reduce or eliminate symptoms, slow their progression, and improve your overall quality of life.

Strategies for reducing risks include:

1 – A balanced diet

A balanced, nutrient-dense diet is essential for managing autoimmune disease – much of our immune system is actually located in the GI tract!

Consuming a whole foods diet of lean protein, whole grains, and anti-inflammatory foods is the best course of action for managing any autoimmune condition.

Some of the top anti-inflammatory foods include:

  • Green leafy vegetables like collard greens, kale, and spinach
  • Fatty fish like salmon, sardines, and tuna
  • Almonds, walnuts, and other nuts.
  • Sources of healthy fats like olive oil and avocado
  • Fruits like blueberries, cherries, strawberries, and citrus fruits

2 – Regular exercise

Regular exercise helps to reduce inflammation in the body by promoting detoxification. Working up a sweat helps to release toxins, and as your heart begins beating faster, it pushes more oxygen through the body which helps it revitalize. Studies show that physical inactivity is a significant risk factor for the progression of autoimmune disease. 30-45 minutes of moderate activity four to five times per week can go a long way in improving symptoms.

3 – Stress management

Chronic stress can increase inflammation in the body and cause the immune system to flare up. It is important to mitigate stress as much as possible, focusing on relaxation and nourishment. Practices like meditation, yoga, and deep-breathing exercises can help to clear the mind and promote healthy immune function.

4 – Avoiding environmental toxins

An unfortunate fact is that environmental toxins are all around us in our air, water, and food. While it is difficult to avoid them entirely, there are numerous ways you can reduce your toxin exposure and take charge of your health. Eating organic foods, filtering the water that you drink and bathe in, and minimizing the use of chemical-laden household products can help your body heal.

5 – Supplement support

Determining the best supplementation for autoimmune conditions can vary greatly depending on the individual’s specific condition, overall health, and other factors. However, there are some supplements commonly recommended by healthcare practitioners for supporting autoimmune health:

  • Vitamin D: Many people with autoimmune conditions have low levels of vitamin D, which plays a crucial role in immune function. Supplementing with vitamin D may help regulate the immune system and reduce inflammation.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: Found in fish oil supplements, omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties that may benefit individuals with autoimmune conditions by reducing inflammation in the body.
  • Probiotics: Supporting gut health is important for managing autoimmune conditions, as the gut plays a significant role in immune function. Probiotic supplements can help maintain a healthy balance of gut bacteria and support immune health.
  • Curcumin: Derived from the turmeric plant, curcumin has powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that may help alleviate symptoms of autoimmune conditions.
  • Vitamin B12: Some autoimmune conditions, such as pernicious anemia, can lead to vitamin B12 deficiency. Supplementing with vitamin B12 can help prevent deficiency and support overall health.
  • Magnesium: Magnesium plays a role in hundreds of biochemical reactions in the body, including those related to immune function and inflammation. Supplementing with magnesium may help reduce inflammation and support immune health in individuals with autoimmune conditions.

Working with a qualified healthcare provider who is knowledgeable about autoimmune conditions can help tailor a supplement regimen to your specific needs and monitor for any potential interactions or side effects  – we can help!

While we cannot change the genes that contribute to autoimmune diseases, it is within our control to change our environment. Lifestyle changes aimed at reducing inflammation and stress can lead to positive and lasting change for those struggling with an autoimmune disease.

If you are looking to shift your autoimmune symptoms and reclaim your health, contact us today to find out how we can help. We will take the time to identify underlying factors and help you deal with your condition from a holistic perspective.

Sources:

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“Design of an Anti-Inflammatory Diet (ITIS Diet) for Patients with Rheumatoid Arthritis.” Contemporary Clinical Trials Communications, Elsevier, 21 Jan. 2020, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2451865420300089.

Ding, D., et al. “Physical Activity and Autoimmune Diseases: Get Moving and Manage the Disease.” Autoimmunity Reviews, Elsevier, 3 Nov. 2017, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1568997217302835.

Gregersen, Peter K, and Lina M Olsson. “Recent Advances in the Genetics of Autoimmune Disease.” Annual Review of Immunology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2009, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2992886/.

Khan, M. Firoze, and Hui Wang. “Environmental Exposures and Autoimmune Diseases: Contribution of Gut Microbiome.” Frontiers, Frontiers, 18 Dec. 2019, www.frontiersin.org/journals/immunology/articles/10.3389/fimmu.2019.03094/full#:~:text=Environmental%20agents%20have%20been%20gaining,to%20higher%20risk%20for%20ADs.

Mazzucca, Camilla Barbero, et al. “How to Tackle the Relationship between Autoimmune Diseases and Diet: Well Begun Is Half-Done.” Nutrients, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 5 Nov. 2021, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8620243/.

Schmidt, Charles W. “Questions Persist: Environmental Factors in Autoimmune Disease.” Environmental Health Perspectives, U.S. National Library of Medicine, June 2011, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3114837.