What causes autoimmune diseases? Insights from Companion Health

What causes autoimmune diseases? Insights from Companion Health

By Published On: April 3rd, 2024Categories: Article, Chronic Illness

1 in 5 Americans have an autoimmune disease, a case where your immune system is overactive, causing it to attack and damage your own tissues. While there are more than 100 different autoimmune diseases identified, some of the more commonly known diseases include:

  • Lupus
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease (Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis)
  • Hashimoto’s Thyroid Disease
  • Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
  • Type 1 Diabetes

While genetic predisposition can play a role in the development of autoimmune diseases, various environmental factors have been identified as potential triggers for autoimmune responses. 

At our concierge functional medicine clinic in Charlotte, North Carolina, we treat clients with all different types of autoimmune diseases with success. This article examines the diverse triggers and mechanisms behind autoimmune diseases, and specific ways of treating them.

What Triggers Autoimmune Disease?

Traditionally, autoimmune disorders were thought to have strong genetic underpinnings, and it’s true that genetic or inherited factors can increase one’s chance of developing an autoimmune disease. However, contemporary research suggests that environmental and lifestyle factors play a pivotal role in initiating and exacerbating these conditions, namely through inflammation. Among the myriad environmental triggers identified, viruses, bacteria, toxic mold, pollutants, and certain dietary components such as gluten and dairy have also come under increased scrutiny. Not to be overlooked, lifestyle factors such as chronic stress, poor sleep, and lack of movement are likewise at play.

It’s important to remember that because each individual has their own genetic makeup, medical history and lifestyle, no two cases will look exactly alike. But one common factor for all is the gut, which plays a big part in the area of autoimmunity, and which is often overlooked in conventional medicine. 

The Role of the Gut in Autoimmune Diseases

The gastrointestinal tract, often referred to as “the gut,” serves as our body’s primary interface with the external environment. It boasts a delicate ecosystem comprising a single layer of intestinal cells fortified by a symbiotic relationship with gut bacteria. 

This gut-associated immune system acts as a vigilant guardian, discerning between harmless substances and potential threats. What does that mean? Very simply, this means that our gut is a gatekeeper—it lets important nutrients into our bodies and keeps out the “bad stuff”. But sometimes our gut lining gets compromised and our whole system moves out of balance. Things that shouldn’t get into our bloodstream do, and our bodies may over/underreact to what gets in. To make matters worse, under these conditions, we may not absorb key vitamins and minerals as well, which can add even more fuel to the fire.

Take gluten, for instance. For some individuals, gluten bears a molecular resemblance to components of thyroid tissue, sparking an autoimmune response upon ingestion. Gluten prompts the release of zonulin, a protein that can compromise the integrity of intestinal cells by weakening the “tight junctions” between the single cell membrane that is our gut. Consequently, the barrier function of the gut falters, allowing toxins and other harmful substances to permeate into the bloodstream.

The Domino Effect of Autoimmunity

Once the immune system identifies gluten as a threat, it may erroneously target other tissues and organs in the body. This phenomenon, known as molecular mimicry, underscores the interconnectedness of autoimmune disorders. And while there is mixed data on the correlation of gluten intolerance and risk of autoimmune disorders, there is data supporting those with autoimmune disorders feeling better on a gluten free diet.

Treating Autoimmune Disorders with a Functional Medicine Approach

Navigating autoimmune disorders from a functional medicine perspective involves employing a holistic approach that seeks to address the root causes of the condition rather than merely attempting to alleviate symptoms. Functional medicine practitioners recognize the interconnectedness of various bodily systems and understand that autoimmune diseases often stem from imbalances within these systems. By delving into the client’s medical history, lifestyle factors, environmental exposures, and genetic predispositions, functional medicine practitioners aim to identify triggers that may be contributing to autoimmune responses.

Specifically addressing the example given above, functional medicine practitioners will search for clues such as a higher than normal presence of zonulin by way of diagnostic testing.

Conclusion: Personalized Plans and Communication 

In the functional medicine model, restoring balance and optimizing overall health are paramount. Treatment involves a personalized plan that incorporates a combination of dietary modifications, targeted supplementation, stress management techniques, and lifestyle adjustments tailored to the individual’s unique needs. By focusing on enhancing the body’s innate healing mechanisms and supporting optimal functioning of the immune system, functional medicine empowers clients to take an active role in managing their autoimmune conditions.

Not to be overlooked,, functional medicine emphasizes and values the importance of collaboration between clients and practitioners, fostering a partnership built on mutual respect, trust, and open communication. At Companion Health, a provider and a health coach work together to create a “care team”  for each client. Not only does this team approach facilitate more frequent, deep communications, but it also helps clients take the baby steps needed  to feel their best.

Through ongoing monitoring, education, and support, functional medicine practitioners guide clients on their wellness journeys, putting them in the driver’s seat by equipping them with the tools and knowledge needed to make informed decisions about their health. By addressing the underlying imbalances and promoting holistic well-being, functional medicine takes a different but successful approach to navigating the complexities of autoimmune disorders in an effort to let the body heal and come back to a place of well-being.


1) https://autoimmune.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/1-in-5-Brochure.pdf

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About the Author: Kiran Dodeja Smith

Kiran Dodeja Smith
Kiran Dodeja Smith is a health coach, blogger, and marketing expert who has been interested in health & fitness since the age of 16. After moving to Charlotte in 2000, she worked with a regional bridal publication before creating her own local print magazine, Little Ones, which she successfully ran for 8 years. She is a lifelong learner who keeps a pulse on the latest health and lifestyle trends and has over 13 years-worth of experience teaching group exercise classes.

This is for general informational purposes only and does not constitute any practice of medicine or professional health care services of any type. The use of information on this blog is at the user’s own risk. The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, for diagnosis, or for treatment. Please seek the care of your health care professionals for any questions or concerns.