Autoimmune Diseases: Underlying Causes

Autoimmune diseases are illnesses characterized by an overactive immune reaction in which the body attacks its own tissues and cells as if they were foreign invaders.

Normally, the human immune system is designed to protect the body by reacting to invading microorganisms, such as viruses or bacteria. In its defense of the body, it produces antibodies, also known as immunoglobulins (Ig for short). These Ig antibodies are proteins with specific structures, which under normal conditions, only attack and kill invading germs.

But in autoimmune disorders, these antibody proteins go rogue and attack the very tissues and organs that they are meant to protect. In other words, rather than simply attacking and killing invading germs, the body’s immune system attacks the body itself, causing inflammation, organ damage and in severe cases, death.

This overactive immune response is associated with over 60 autoimmune disorders, and more are suspected and under research. Some of the more well-known immunity-related illnesses include:

  • Celiac Disease
  • Crohn’s Disease
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 1
  • GERD – Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease
  • Guillain-Barré Syndrome
  • Hashimoto’s disease
  • Lupus, both Discoid and Erythematosus
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Myasthenia Gravis
  • Narcolepsy
  • Polymyositis
  • Psoriasis
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis and Psoriatic Arthritis
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Vasculitis

What Causes Autoimmune Disorders?

Over the past 20 years, autoimmune disease research has discovered a related set of factors that link these illnesses.

One of these factors is intestinal permeability or a “leaky gut“. In a normal human gut, the cells lining the intestinal wall act as a barrier that allows only properly digested fats, proteins, and starches to pass through and enter the bloodstream. There are several methods of nutrient transport. The first two, diffusion and a mechanism called active transport, move vitamins, minerals, and normal nutritive molecules through the cells on the wall of the intestine.

However, substances can also pass beyond the intestinal wall in the spaces between the intestinal cells. Normally, these spaces are sealed tightly, but when the intestinal lining is irritated by some external trigger, the junctions between the cells loosen and begin to “leak” larger foreign proteins from the intestines into the blood. The immune system reacts by creating aggressive antibody cells to attack these foreign invaders.

In addition, the leaked molecules may act as “mimics” of normal body proteins. In a process called “molecular mimicry”, parts of these foreign proteins may look chemically similar to self-proteins found in other areas of the body. When activated to attack the foreign proteins, the antibodies mistake similar self-proteins as foreign and attack them as well.

As the intestinal wall is compromised by the external trigger and becomes increasingly irritated, it becomes more permeable or “leaky” and a condition is known as “leaky gut syndrome” develops. It is this “leaky gut syndrome” which is associated with the autoimmune antibody reaction and the disorders which develop.

Alessio Fasano, M.D. directs the Mucosal Biology Research Center and the Center for Celiac Research at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Much of his research focuses on the relationship between intestinal permeability and autoimmune diseases.

He and his research team have discovered a molecule, which they named zonulin. Zonulin is involved in the regulation of intestinal cell wall permeability. Dr. Fasano’s research has linked zonulin to the pathogenesis of a series of autoimmune diseases, including type 1-diabetes, celiac disease, and multiple sclerosis. Dr. Fasano writes:

“Discovery of zonulin prompted us to search the medical literature for human disorders characterized by increased intestinal permeability…much to my surprise.. many autoimmune diseases – among them, celiac disease, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and inflammatory bowel diseases – all have as a common denominator aberrant intestinal permeability”.

In other words, all of these autoimmune diseases start or are worsened by a leaky gut. Increasing the levels of zonulin increases the permeability of the intestinal wall.

Other factors include a genetic predisposition toward the disease which develops, but the autoimmune response seems to be triggered by gut permeability and the leakage of foreign proteins that mimic self-proteins into the bloodstream.

Factors Associated with an Increase in Zonulin

Several studies have identified the factors which increase zonulin in the gut and loosen intestinal cell wall permeability. One of the factors is grain consumption, especially wheat, rye, and barley. Consumption of wheat introduces a protein called gluten, and specifically, a sub protein called gliadin into the gut. These substances cause an increase in zonulin, which results in an enlargement of the spaces between the cells in the intestinal wall.

In this study, Fasano’s team concluded that “Gliadin induces zonulin release in intestinal epithelial cells in vitro. Activation of the zonulin pathway by PKC mediated cytoskeleton reorganization and tight junction opening leads to a rapid increase in intestinal permeability.”

In another study, Dr. Fasano’s team wrote that “Based on our results, we concluded that gliadin activates zonulin signaling irrespective of the genetic expression of autoimmunity, leading to increased intestinal permeability to macromolecules.”

Even more troubling, a German research team has found that an increase in zonulin is positively correlated to the severity of the human brain and spinal cancers called gliomas.

Treatments for Autoimmune Disorders

Autoimmune diseases are typically treated with medications that reduce the body’s immune response. But there are serious side effects to these medications, including an extreme increase in the risk of developing cancer.

It seems to be the better choice would be to avoid the consumption of grains and grain-based foods, such as bread, crackers, cookies and other wheat products. This would include the avoidance of most processed foods, and turning a deaf ear to the recommendations of the USDA’s Food Pyramid.

Resources for Further Reading

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