Turns out, an estimated 75% of people living with autoimmune disease are women—and these chronic health problems are occurring ever-earlier in life. While autoimmune conditions used to primarily impact women between the hormonally-changing ages of 30-60, women in their early twenties are being diagnosed with autoimmune conditions like lupus and Hashimoto’s at an alarming rate.
Theories for this include the gender difference in immunity—as female immune systems tend to be more ‘sophisticated’ than their male counterparts, and women thus exhibit a stronger inflammatory response. A more complex system of sex hormones could also be to blame—perhaps exacerbated by the fluctuations that come with pregnancy, the menstrual cycle or using oral contraception.
Whichever way you slice it, women have become increasingly susceptible to autoimmunity; where the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the body; and the side effects of these conditions can be utterly debilitating.
Here are three factors that contribute to autoimmunity, and the preventative measures you can take in order to avoid it:
Surprise! As we now know, what we eat has a huge impact on the state of our health, so removing the usual inflammatory suspects is a no-brainer. This includes eating the rainbow of organic fruits and veggies, lots of healthy fats, lean sources of protein and lots of Omega-3 fatty acids. It also involves limiting caffeine, alcohol, sugar, dairy and—sorry to all of the bread lovers out there, gluten.
Gluten has been shown to trigger the release of zonulin; a chemical in the intestines that gives instructions to the tight junctions in the gut to open and remain open. When these tight junctions are open and gluten is consumed, the gluten which normally could not get into the bloodstream sneaks its way in.
Ultimately, the immune system knows the gluten is foreign, so it goes to attack the gluten; however,because gluten looks almost identical to our thyroid tissue—so our immune system can end up attacking our thyroid along with the gluten—unleashing autoimmune related havoc on the body.
Known as the gateway to autoimmune disease, leaky gut comes with a host of scary health implications. As mentioned, a poor diet and excessive stress are disastrous for anyone with a compromised immune system, as they can escalate an existing gut imbalance.
When it comes to leaky gut, gluten once again gets a bad rap—with multiple studies having found that humans are unable to digest gliadin (the protein found in gluten), which can cause intestinal permeability and lead to leaky gut.
This study found that both physical and psychological stress has been implicated in the development of autoimmune disease, with the stress-triggered neuroendocrine hormones leading to immune dysregulation, which ultimately results in autoimmune disease, by altering or amplifying cytokine production.
Science-speak aside, stress must be dealt with in order to prevent autoimmunity. This study indicates that retrospective studies found that up to 80% of patients who were diagnosed with an autoimmune disease reported uncommon emotional stress before disease onset.
Stress-relieving measures like yoga, meditation and deep-breathing may feel like throwing a solitary glass of water over a raging fire, but every little helps—regulating the stress response is crucial to maintaining a good level of health.