How Much Of Autoimmune Disease Is Genetics Vs. Environment?
People struggling with unexplained autoimmune symptoms can go years without being diagnosed, and even then are given very little options from mainstream medicine. They're told there is very little, if anything, they can do about their health problems, that their problem is strictly due to genetics. Their only option is to take medications to suppress the immune system or manage symptoms.
Is this true? Are autoimmune conditions solely due to genetics, with no solution? Let me give you a functional medicine perspective.
Nature or Nuture?
There's no debate over whether or not autoimmune conditions have a genetic component. A variety of autoimmune conditions tend to be found throughout families. But with an increase in just about every autoimmune condition in the last few decades, genetics alone do not give us the answer.
The old view of genetics was that it was an immutable force, that if your family had a certain health problem, it would be just a matter of time before you got the same disease. Today, science takes into consideration the field of epigenetics, the environmental factors that affect your DNA expression. Our bad and good genes are turned on and off by the world around us and the choices we make in life.
One Stanford study, published in 2015, looked at 210 healthy twins. Some were identical and others were fraternal. Identical twins share almost all the genetics, while fraternal twins have about 50% of the same genes. Because of this, studying twins is a great way for researchers to distinguish between genetic and environmental factors.
Looking at different aspects of the twin's immune systems, what the scientists found was remarkable:
- 58% of the immune system was almost completely determined by environmental and lifestyle factors.
- 19% of the immune system was largely influenced by environmental and lifestyle factors
That means 77% of the immune system was determined by things we can control! The foods we eat or don't eat, toxins, exposure to germs, stress levels and medications are the determinants of the majority of our health.
Our Genes Are Living In A New World
The past 100 years have brought about rapid development in our world. When compared with the entirety of human history, the last few decades have seen a plethora of new chemicals, foods and toxins introduced in a short period of time. Our genes haven't undergone a similar change. The change of the world around us has caused a mismatch between our DNA and the DNA of the new world around us. This theory is at the heart of many autoimmune studies.
Take your Th17 cells, for example. They're a part of our immune system. In a healthy individual they fight bacteria and fungi, but an overreaction of these cells are linked to autoimmune diseases.
Researchers found that a high-salt diet negatively affected Th17 cells and increased autoimmune problems. Our fast food society, is filled with salt. In this case there was a mismatch between the immune system and high amounts of salt. This seems to be one of the many triggers that can cause an inflammatory autoimmune response in genetically susceptible individuals.
What we are or are not exposed to determines our genetic expression and immune system. Though our current period in human history has brought its share of problems, be encouraged that we're living in a time like no other in terms of access to information. While autoimmune conditions are rising, so is the information and research on how to overcome them.
We are at the forefront of understanding the immune system and functional medicine is at the cutting edge of applying autoimmune research in your life in a practical way. This allows you to learn exactly what your immune triggers are and gives you natural tools to put your autoimmune response into remission.