Autoimmune illness, why me?
Why do people get autoimmune disorders? Genetics? Environmental factors?
The answer is it is both. However, environmental factors need to be there for an autoimmune illness to develop.
Autoimmunity arises when the immune system gets confused and produces antibodies to its own body components.
Our body has immune cells called T lymphocytes which are the detectives and defense soldiers of our body. They must recognize our own body molecules from foreign ones. They give a signal to other immune cells to launch an attack and to dispose of foreign invaders.
These immature T cells arrive from bone marrow and go to school to learn their skills. This school is called thymus gland. In this school, they are presented with different body molecules and they learn how to recognize them from other foreign ones. Now imagine that some students are genetically predisposed to problems with the recognition of these molecules. A dyslexic student might have a problem in recognizing letter d from letter b, etc. A good school have the capabilities to help the student recognize these differences. Now imagine that a dyslexic student is taught how to recognize d from b by tracing, visualizing and repetition, however he was not taught to recognize p from q. The material necessary to distinguish p from q was not presented.
I will use Graves’ disease or Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (autoimmunity to thyroid) as an example. If thyroid molecules are not presented well to T cells in the thymus gland, they do not learn properly. When these T cells mature and escape the thymus to do their job in the body, they have problems with recognizing self- thyroid molecules from foreign molecules (‘letters p from q’). Many molecules are similar to thyroid molecules like some bacterial or viral components, parts of gluten molecules, parts of other foods or some pollen molecules.
The reasons for a poor recognition of thyroid components in the thymus may be due to viral infection or stress (emotional or physical) in childhood. Thymus gland is located above the heart and is active until puberty after which it starts to shrink. The mechanism needed to express thyroid molecules in thymus of people predisposed to Graves’ disease is genetically sensitive to a low cortisol level and a low progesterone level. These levels can be seen in some degree of adrenal exhaustion. Adrenals do not produce sufficient cortisol after a chronic and prolonged exposure to stress (physical or emotional). Thymus gland is also sensitive to stress, toxins and radiation. When cortisol is low, the thyroid molecules may be expressed poorly in the thymus and students (T-lymphocytes) do not have a good exposure to thyroid molecules and therefore cannot learn properly.
A mature T –lymphocyte is send into ‘the world’ but it still has a problem with distinguishing self -thyroid molecules from similar foreign molecules. It is like a seed from which autoimmunity can arise.
Imagine a person has a stressed thyroid gland. The thyroid gland can become stressed due to many factors. These factors may be chronic stress (emotional and physical), viral or bacterial components, nutritional deficiencies, hormonal imbalances, toxins, radiation and others. There is a pressure on thyroid to work harder. Stressed thyroid cells look foreign to the immune system. There might be some damage to the thyroid with some self- molecules being released in the process.
Some people may also have digestive health issues and become sensitive to components of food which look similar to thyroid molecules. A person may be more sensitive to air born allergens with similarities to thyroid molecules.
The T cells responsible for recognizing thyroid molecules get overwhelmed. Since they always had some problems recognizing p from q (thyroid molecules from foreign similar ones), now they are even more confused as many outside forces steer them to launching an attack on the thyroid gland. They mistakenly present thyroid self-molecules to B lymphocytes, which then produce thyroid specific antibodies, launching an autoimmune attack on the thyroid. Other coexisting genetic predispositions can also make it easier for T lymphocytes to steer the immune system in the wrong direction.
The autoimmunity can wax and wane. When some of the environmental triggers are removed and immune system balances, the antibody production can be reduced back to its normal levels and the illness can go into a remission. This can be done by reducing stress, detoxification, nutritional balancing, hormone balancing and avoidance of food and allergens one is sensitive to. Medications, specific herbs and supplements can help to re-balance a defective reaction of the immune system.
Stefan M, Wei C, Lombardi A, Li CW, Concepcion ES, Inabnet WB 3rd, Owen R, Zhang W, Tomer Y. Genetic-epigenetic dysregulation of thymic TSH receptor gene expression triggers thyroid autoimmunity. Proc nati. Acad. Sci USA. 2014 Aug 26; 111(34):12562-7.