This is Part 2 of a three-part article series in which I attempt to demystify the autoimmune disorder lupus. Part 1 provided a background on our conventional understanding of lupus: what it is, who gets it, common symptoms, and how it’s diagnosed. In the present article, I’ll discuss what we believe causes lupus, and our current understanding about what causes autoimmune diseases in general. In Part 3, we’ll discuss how the Paleo diet can help to put and keep lupus and other autoimmune diseases in remission.
Over-Stimulation of the Immune System Causes Chronic Inflammation.
To understand how the Paleo diet can help us to overcome autoimmune diseases including lupus, it’s important to have a basic understanding of how our immune systems work. The long and short of it is, that every single time the immune system is activated, it produces inflammation as a part of the normal immune system response. Thus chronic (long-term) inflammation results when the immune system is constantly being triggered. It is this chronic inflammation from an over-stimulated immune system that lies at the root of lupus and other autoimmune diseases. It is also important to understand that the majority of our immune system is located within the gut (intestines), which is a big reason why gut health plays such a critical role in the expression and treatment of lupus and other autoimmune diseases.
A healthy immune system produces proteins called antibodies that normally protect the body against foreign invaders, such as viruses, bacteria, and other harmful germs. In all autoimmune disorders, the immune system becomes ‘confused’ and is unable to distinguish between these harmful foreign invaders and the body’s own healthy tissues. As a result, the immune system mistakenly creates autoantibodies (“auto” means “self”) that can mount attack against virtually any part of the body. It is this attack of healthy tissues by autoantibodies that creates the inflammation, pain, and tissue damage that are characteristic of all autoimmune diseases, including lupus. The main factor that distinguishes one autoimmune disease from another is the part of the body that is being targeted by one’s own immune system. For example, rheumatoid arthritis involves autoantibody attack against one’s own connective tissues and joints, autoimmune thyroiditis involves autoantibody attack against the thyroid gland, alopecia areata (hair loss) involves the destruction of hair follicles by autoantibodies, and so on. As far as autoimmune diseases go, lupus is one of the worst due to the widespread nature of its destruction, which can involve nearly any type of tissue in the body, most often the kidneys, joints, and skin.
Similar to other autoimmune disorders, the cause of Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) remains largely unknown, although the majority of researchers agree that a genetic predisposition coupled with particular environmental triggers are likely responsible for its onset. While no single gene or group of genes have been identified that specifically cause lupus, those carrying specific alleles of the HLA (human lymphocyte antigens) gene are about twice as likely to develop SLE. It is also well established that individuals who are related to someone with lupus are themselves at an increased risk of developing lupus and autoimmunity in general. The observation that certain ethnic groups are at a greater risk of developing lupus is also indicative of a genetic component to the disease.
Researchers continue to debate and explore the various environmental triggers that may instigate lupus, and most agree on the strong likelihood that some environmental factor is playing a role. Possible environmental triggers that have been hypothesized include viruses, bacteria, or chemicals, which may induce a genetically susceptible individual to express the disease.
3 Triggers of Autoimmune Diseases
More recent research conducted by Dr. Alessio Fasano proposes that a trio of triggers underlies most, if not all autoimmune diseases, including lupus. This trio includes: a genetic susceptibility to autoimmune disease (i.e. having the HLA gene), exposure to an environmental trigger, and the presentation of this environmental trigger to the immune system via a leaky gut. A leaky gut (literally tiny holes in your gut) allows for the passage of stuff from inside your digestive system (like toxins and bacteria), through the gut wall, and into your bloodstream. The immune system is stimulated to create inflammation when harmful particles pass through the gut and into the bloodstream via a leaky gut. Remember that the majority of your immune system is located in the walls of your gut! If the leaky gut never heals, the inflammatory response can become widespread as the harmful particles reach systemic circulation and travel all over the body. This is how the chronic inflammation resulting from a leaky gut can wreak havoc on essentially any part of the body, as witnessed by the system-wide tissue destruction observed in SLE.
Leaky Gut and Autoimmune Disease
Many experts now agree that all three factors in the trio must be present for lupus (and other autoimmune diseases) to be active: genetic predisposition, a leaky gut, and the presence of environmental triggers. By this mechanism, all autoimmune diseases could theoretically be stopped or reversed if at least one of these three factors is removed. Support for this theory has increased in recent years, due to the discovery of zonulin, a chemical found to regulate the transport of particles through the gut wall, thus regulating leaky gut. We now know that zonulin production is increased in the guts of people who are affected by autoimmunity. The main environmental triggers that have been found to increase zonulin production include gluten/gliadin, other chemicals from grains and legumes, and dysbiosis (gut bacterial imbalance). It has been well documented that these triggers induce the release of zonulin, which in turn increases leaky gut, and subsequently invokes immune system activation. Remember that it is chronic inflammation from an overactive immune system that lies at the root of essentially all autoimmune conditions, including lupus.
Hippocrates had it right all along: “All disease begins in the gut.”
So what am I saying here? I’m saying that substantial research now exists that demonstrates precisely how grains, legumes, and other gut irritants can trigger autoimmune diseases in susceptible individuals. I’m saying that if you heal your leaky gut by removing the agitating “environmental triggers” (such as grains, legumes, toxins, and an imbalanced gut microbiota), that you stand a great chance of putting your lupus into remission and keeping it there.
So in the final article of this series, I will explain how the Paleo diet can help you to heal your leaky gut, and to overcome virtually any autoimmune disease, including lupus.
In good health,
Kinsey Jackson, MS, CN
- Fasano A. Zonulin, regulation of tight junctions, and autoimmune diseases. Ann N Y Acad Sci 2012;1258:25-33. Retrieved from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3384703/
- Fasano A. Zonulin and its regulation of intestinal barrier function: the biological door to inflammation, autoimmunity, and cancer. Physiol Rev 2011;91:151-75. Retrieved from: http://physrev.physiology.org/content/91/1/151.long
- Sonier B, Patrick C, Ajjikuttira P, et al. Intestinal immune regulation as a potential diet-modifiable feature of gut inflammation and autoimmunity. Int Rev Immunol 2009;28:414-45. Retrieved from: http://informahealthcare.com/doi/full/10.3109/08830180903208329