The Autoimmune Epidemic: Part 1

This is part 1 of a three-part article series covering the ins and outs of autoimmune disorders. In this article, I discuss how autoimmune diseases are a serious health issue, and much more common than many people realize. Part 2 will explain our conventional understanding of what autoimmune diseases are, how they are treated by modern medicine, and review our most current theories of what lies at the root of most autoimmune diseases (spoiler alert: it’s a leaky gut!). In part 3 we will discuss how diet, and moreover, how gut health is intimately connected to autoimmunity, and how a Paleo diet can be used to overcome most, if not all autoimmune conditions.

Autoimmune Disorders are Silently and Steadily on the Rise

autoimmune-graph-p1-1024x798.jpgChances are that you’ve heard the terms “autoimmune disease”, “autoimmune disorder”, and “autoimmune condition” being thrown around, but if you’re like the majority of folks, you’re not entirely sure what they mean. All of these terms are used to describe the condition of autoimmunity (“auto” means self), which refers to the destruction of a person’s body by their own immune system.

If you happen to be one of the estimated 50 million Americans living with an autoimmune disease/disorder (AD), then you’re probably aware of just how serious things can become (potentially fatal) when your immune system goes haywire and starts attacking your own tissues. The incidence of autoimmunity is rapidly rising, and is predicted to keep growing at an alarming rate as more and more people are diagnosed by the day. It’s estimated that up to 10% of Americans are currently suffering from autoimmunity, making ADs (when considered collectively), the most prevalent diseases in the United States.

Not only are ADs costing many people their quality of life, they are also costing our society a lot of money to manage. Because the majority of ADs are chronic (long-term) and “incurable”, they constitute a major concern from a public healthcare perspective. Uncontrolled autoimmunity can become life-threatening, and AD is one of the top 10 leading causes of death in women, with the vast majority (80%) of AD sufferers being female. It is estimated that one in every 12 women, and one in every 20 men will develop an AD in their lifetime, and this statistic keeps increasing.

The List of Autoimmune Disorders Keeps Growing

autoimmune-list-p1-1024x998.jpgUp to 100 different autoimmune diseases have been identified, and this number continues to grow as scientists discover more and more ways in which immune function can become dysregulated. Because the immune system can mount an attack against virtually any type of cell or tissue in the human body, the possibilities are theoretically endless as to the number of ADs that are possible.

Here is a partial list of some of the more common and well-known autoimmune diseases/disorders (ADs):

  • Celiac disease
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Lupus (SLE)
  • Hashimotos thyroiditis (autoimmune thyroiditis)
  • Alopecia areata
  • Skin disorders, such as psoriasis, eczema, various types of dermatitis, lichen planus, etc.
  • Psoriatic arthritis
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Type 1 Diabetes
  • Autoimmune hepatitis
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Grave’s disease
  • Cushings syndrome
  • Addison’s disease
  • Raynauds phenomenon
  • Sarcoidosis
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Mixed connective tissue disease
  • Narcolepsy
  • Polymyalgia rheumatica

Autoimmunity is an Epidemic

autoimmune-sign-p1-300x199.jpgTo put things into perspective, consider the following statistics. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimate that up to 24 million Americans are currently suffering from autoimmunity, which is likely a significant underestimate given that this number reflects only a small percentage of ADs for which good epidemiological studies were (at the time of estimate) available. The American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA) figures this number is closer to 50 million Americans. But even when grossly underestimated, the prevalence of AD trumps the rates of some of the most commonly-discussed and widely-dreaded diseases. For example, cancer afflicts approximately 9 million Americans, while heart disease affects about 22 million. On a similar note, the NIH estimates that autoimmune disorders generate annual healthcare costs in the range of $100 billion (likely another underestimate), while cancer costs are nearly half of that, costing approximately $57 billion annually. I’m not suggesting that one disease is worse than another. I’m simply pointing out how extremely prevalent autoimmunity has become. As stated by Dr. Noel Rose (director of the Johns Hopkins Autoimmune Disease Research Center): “It is obvious that the attention given to autoimmune diseases is not nearly proportional to the magnitude of the problem.”

Yet on the whole, ADs receive little media attention, with diseases like cancer and heart disease receiving far more publicity. Why is this? Maybe it’s because regardless of how increasingly common ADs are, they are not well understood by most doctors and researchers, who continue to be stumped by their cause and treatment. Or perhaps it’s because ADs are often not outwardly visible (people looking at me are always shocked when they learn that I have multiple ADs), and they often take several years to anti-climatically stifle the life out of a person (not as dramatic as a sudden heart attack, but equally as morbid).

In fact, ADs have become so prevalent, that unlike lightening, they can and often do strike the same person more than once. It’s a common scenario for a person who has been diagnosed with an AD to also be afflicted by additional forms of autoimmunity, as an immune system gone bezerk often attacks more than one organ or tissue type. I started developing symptoms of autoimmunity in my early 20s when I was diagnosed with autoimmune thyroiditis. When I turned 28 I developed a large and mortifying bald spot on the top of my head (alopecia areata). In my early thirties I was diagnosed with both rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, and was covered in painful rashes that the doctors called eczema. The point I’m trying to make is that multiple ADs tend to occur within a single individual, although not necessarily at the same time (as was my experience). This strongly suggests a common underlying cause amongst the various ADs.

The rapidly increasing rate of AD is alarming, especially considering that the current statistics are painting only a partial picture. Undoubtedly there are many undiagnosed individuals out there, who may not realize that an overactive immune system is to blame for their mysterious maladies. It’s actually speculated that most individuals have some degree of autoimmunity occurring in their bodies, which may or may not ever become problematic.

Why are Autoimmune Disorders so Common, yet so Confusing?

By now you might be wondering: Why is the rate of AD rising so rapidly, and why are people’s immune systems running amok? Moreover, how can I prevent my own immune system from turning against me, and how in the world do we stop the current autoimmune epidemic? To effectively answer these questions, it helps to have a basic understanding of normal immune system function, which happens to be intimately related to the structure of the digestive system, as will be discussed in the next article of this series.

autoimmune-confused-p1-300x200.jpgAutoimmune disorders are extremely common, yet they continue to cause a lot of confusion for those who are diagnosed, and for the healthcare providers who try their best to control their patient’s overactive immune responses. While the treatment of ADs can vary between conditions, it generally involves anti-inflammatory and immune-suppressing medications, which both work to shut down the immune system. It’s not a far stretch to imagine how stopping the body’s natural immune response can be potentially life-threatening.

Shouldn’t we instead be asking the question: what is causing the overactive immune system in the first place, and then focus our attention on finding a solution to the underlying problem(s)? Thankfully, some doctors and scientists are doing just that, as will be discussed in part 2 and part 3 of this series. For now, I would like to conclude with a foretelling quote from Hippocrates, the Father of Western Medicine, who said in the fourth century BC that “All disease begins in the gut.” It’s taken over 2000 years for modern medicine to even begin to accept the deep truth and implications that are contained within this simple statement, and to realize that perhaps Hippocrates had things right all along.

In good health,
Kinsey Jackson, MS, CN