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One in 12 Americans has been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, including rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, celiac, type 1 diabetes, or any one of some 80 other conditions in which the body attacks its own tissues. 

This alarming rate of autoimmunity is new — and on the rise. Researchers have observed a worldwide surge in recent decades: Mayo Clinic reports that U.S. lupus rates alone have nearly tripled in the last 40 years. 

The increase is too rapid to be attributed to genetics, which change slowly. The more likely trigger, experts say, appears to be environmental: some combination of toxins, stress, and poor nutrition. 

While many conventional physicians generally consider autoimmune conditions incurable, integrative practitioners have reported notable successes using diet, detoxification, and mind–body strategies to treat and even reverse these diseases.

The autoimmune epidemic was the focus of this year’s Institute for Functional Medicine conference, where we asked several experts what they think everyone needs to know about autoimmunity. This is what three leading researchers had to say. 

Top Takeaways

Helen Messier, PhD, MD, CCFP, medical director of Healix Health in Vancouver, B.C.

“The most important thing to understand about autoimmunity is that it’s not a life sentence. It’s something that’s reversible. 

“More often than not, it’s microbiome and gut health that are the root causes for many autoimmune diseases. A healthy microbiome is a balanced microbiome. You need enough good and bad bacteria, because they stimulate the immune system and keep it ready to go.

“If you can understand what’s affecting your microbial health, identify it, and address it, you can reverse autoimmunity. It’s not like you catch autoimmune disease and you have it forever.”

Terry Wahls, MD, clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa

“The vast majority of risk [for autoimmunity] is not your genes, which might increase your risk by 1 percent. The vast majority of your risk is how your lifetime of diet, lifestyle, and environmental and infection exposures interact with your genes. That’s what leads to autoimmune diagnosis, and you have a whole lot of control over that.

“Food is part of your environment, stress is part of the environment, physical activity is part of your environment, self-talk is your environment, your social networks are your environment — and you control all of those.”

Alessio Fasano, MD, W. Allan Walker Chair in Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition at Massachusetts General Hospital and director of the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children

“The timeline of these [autoimmune] epidemics is way too short to blame genetics. So, the increase in autoimmunity most likely is due not only to the fact that some people are genetically predisposed, but that we have changed the environment way too fast for us to adapt.

“In autoimmunity, the immune system fights your own body, rather than fighting an enemy. But when an enemy is defeated, the immune system [should] turn off the weaponry. I think you can do the same for autoimmunity — turn off the weaponry. We cannot edit the human genes, but we can affect one of the four key additional elements involved in inflammation: gut permeability; the immune system, which is hypervigilant; microbiome composition and function; and/or nutrition.”

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