Autoimmunity Explained

By Mila McManus, MD

According to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, there are more than 150 different diseases on the autoimmune spectrum[i].  In America, almost one in six people have an autoimmune disease.  To understand autoimmunity, it is necessary to start with discussing foreign invaders and inflammation.

Inflammation is designed to be a necessary process. It is a natural response when the body identifies a foreign invader or threat.  Examples of threats include:

  • Injury
  • Microbes, such as bacteria, viruses, molds or parasites
  • Chemicals and heavy metals
  • Undigested food particles that have made their way into the body through a leaky gut

When a threat is detected, the body creates antibodies to find and mark the invaders. Antibodies attach to, and highlight, the foreign invader so that the immune system can see it and attack it.  Inflammation is the result of the battle within.  Under healthy circumstances, once the threat is removed, the battle is won, and the inflammation dissipates.

Antibodies find the foreign invader by identifying the unique protein molecules of the invader. This can be complicated, much like trying to distinguish poison ivy from another green, leafy plant.  You have to know what distinguishes poison ivy from other plants that look very similar.

Problems arise when foreign threats multiply and/or become persistent.  As small battles turn into full blown war, inflammation, stress and confusion increases. The immune system is now hyper sensitive and operating in high alert.  Antibodies begin to make mistakes and fail to distinguish the nuanced differences between the proteins in healthy, human tissue and the proteins of the foreign invader.  Mistakenly, antibodies attach to human tissues (for example, thyroid tissues or joint tissues), marking them for attack, and causing the immune system to attack its own. This is autoimmunity.

Autoimmunity develops over time, in a sequence, from chronic, on-going exposure and inflammation. As tissue damage accumulates, degenerative processes escalate, and symptoms are increasingly manifesting. The autoimmune process moves from unnoticeable to an organized disease pathology.

Autoimmune diseases can strike many parts of the body, making symptoms vary widely, and making diagnosis sometimes difficult.  Interestingly, the same foreign threat can manifest differently in different people. For example, a gluten sensitivity may result in compromised brain function for one person.  In the next person, it may manifest as constipation, while yet another person, as liver disease and neuropathy. For yet another, it may affect the thyroid. Some suggest that the place of attack is simply your weakest link in overall health, caused by genetics, lifestyle factors or environmental factors.

Conventional Medicine will tell you it is genetic, and nothing can be done except to minimize the severity of symptoms. You will be directed to a specialist who treats the specific damaged tissue.  Standard treatment protocols involve reducing inflammation with steroids, biologics, and even cancer drugs such as methotrexate.

Functional Medicine will seek to stop the cascade of events which lead to autoimmunity.  The root of the problem lies first with the foreign invasion and resulting inflammation. A Functional physician will address the entire chain of events rather than one tissue that has been attacked.  For example, important interventions include:

  • Addressing gut health
  • Identifying and reducing toxic burden
  • Uncovering and addressing food sensitivities and allergies
  • Supporting and strengthening immune function
  • Identifying if pathogenic microbes are involved and address them
  • Improving diet and nutrition in general
  • Obtaining a genetic profile to address mutations that affect how the body functions

Other supportive modalities include:

If you want to read  more about autoimmunity, we recommend the following books:

Brain Maker by David Perlmutter, MD

Plant Paradox by Steven Gundry, MD

Wahls Protocol by Terry Wahls, MD

The Autoimmune Fix, by Tom O’Bryan, DC, CCN,DACBN


[i] American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, “list of Diseases: Autoimmune and Autoimmune-Related Diseases,” http://www.aarda.org/autoimmune-information/list-of-dieases/.

By |2019-07-29T13:47:24-06:00July 25th, 2019|Articles, General|
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