What Causes Autoimmune Diseases?

Your immune system is supposed to be one of your body’s natural heroes. It’s meant to fight against illness and disease, attacking viruses and bacteria before they have the chance to take you down. But what happens when that immune system loses sight of what it should be attacking, and starts going after your own body instead? In these instances, it can feel like your immune system has morphed from hero to enemy.

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Autoimmune diseases are conditions that develop when the immune system “malfunctions” and becomes hyperactive, going after healthy tissues, cells, and organs. There are more than 80 conditions that fit this category, according to the National Institutes of Health, including:

  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis

These diseases can be life-altering for those afflicted with them, so of course people with autoimmune conditions want to know what caused them.

Explaining Why

Susan Bard, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist of Vive Dermatology in Brooklyn, New York, explains that having an autoimmune disorder most likely comes down to a genetic predisposition to erroneously release too many antibodies that then attack an individual’s system.

“I always give patients the analogy of having a bad quality-control inspector at a factory that doesn’t pull the ‘irregulars’ off the assembly line,” Bard says.

In fact, research has found a number of identifiable genetic markers to a variety of autoimmune disorders. One theory says is that autoimmune diseases are likely the result of a combination of factors: a genetic predisposition, plus a trigger. Some potential triggers, says Audrey Christie, a nurse and holistic wellness practitioner, could be:

  • Environmental toxins
  • Sleep issues
  • Stress
  • Nutrient deficiencies
  • Certain medication (over-the-counter and prescription)
  • Digestive system issue

Because these are often rare diseases we’re discussing, and because the presentation of these diseases can vary from person to person, there may not ever be a clear-cut answer about what causes each person’s autoimmune disease.

Every person is unique and “there is no one pattern that defines the cause,” says Christie.

What About Vaccines?

While we may not know exactly what causes autoimmune diseases (likely because there are different causes for different conditions and people), we do have a pretty good idea of what doesn’t cause them.

“Vaccines do not cause autoimmunity,” Bard says. “This is genetically ingrained in you. Anything that triggers your immune system to make antibodies (i.e. illness, vaccines) can unmask the genetic predisposition responsible for the disease.” For example, a strep infection is a common first-time psoriasis trigger.

Because some people may notice their symptoms after getting a vaccine, it’s understandable why some might think the immunization caused them. But it’s important to understand the different dynamics at play, and that a genetic predisposition could be triggered by any number of things—so a vaccine isn’t to blame.

A study published in the journal Pediatrics explored the potential of vaccines contributing to a variety of autoimmune diseases, and concluded that, “Vaccines are probably more likely to prevent or modify than cause or exacerbate autoimmune diseases.”

And Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia writes, “Numerous studies have examined many different vaccines. To date, none have consistently been shown to cause autoimmune diseases.”

When it comes to whether a person with a genetic predisposition to an autoimmune condition will become triggered, Bard says, “It’s a numbers game mixed in with luck.” If you’ve got the genetic predisposition, it may be a matter of time before something triggers it.

Focusing on Healing

If you or a loved one has been recently diagnosed with an autoimmune condition, it’s natural to want to know the cause. But that’s not an answer you may ever be able to find for sure. And the more important question is how to best find your way to healing.

Christie says she wants to bust the myth that autoimmune conditions are a sign of weakness in the body. “It’s simply not true. The body is strong, resilient, with an incredible anatomy, physiological mechanisms, and even a little magic, too,” she says. “Framing your body as weak because you suffer from an autoimmune disease deeply affects your mindset.” Instead, try to focus on what you can do to keep your body as strong and healthy as you can. This includes following your medical treatment plan and making healthy lifestyle choices.

Your body is strong, you are capable, and with the help of your healthcare practitioners, you can find answers that will allow you to feel in control of your body once more.

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