Stages of Autoimmunity
Autoimmune Disease are Diseases such as Lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Hashimoto’s and Multiple Sclerosis, where the body gets ‘confused’ and the immune system starts attacking self-tissue leading to symptoms and organ/tissues destruction. In fact, there are over 100 such diseases and they are within the top 10 diseases, which are the leading causes of death in young females. Autoimmune Diseases can also progressively lead to disability.
Autoimmune diseases are a clinical interest of mine, I myself have three of them (lucky me!) and I constantly spend time researching them. My latest research on how the Borrelia Burgdorferi, or the Lyme Disease bacteria, triggers autoimmunity is going to be soon published in my upcoming book – ‘Lyme in the Limelight’.
There is still so much that we do not know about autoimmunity and what triggers the immune system to turn on itself causing ‘horror autotoxicus’ (you can imagine what that means!), a term first used when these diseases were discovered in the early 1900s. To this day, despite the ongoing research the known cause for only one – Celiac Disease, has been found to be Gluten, the inflammatory protein found in wheat and other grains.
Most people often assume that Autoimmunity develops overnight, which is wrong. You don’t just wake up one morning with Rheumatoid Arthritis, Lupus, Graves, Psoriasis………..This is the final stage, where for years your immune system might have been confusingly attacking self tissue, sometimes for as long as a decade, and the disease has ‘finally’ manifested itself through tissue destruction – whether it is the lining of your joints, the myelin sheath around your nerves, your skin, kidneys, thyroid gland…….and so on.
So, what are the stages of Autoimmunity and why early detection is so important? I cover all this in the paragraphs below:
It is important to understand that autoimmunity can have a spectrum – and most people do not develop autoimmunity overnight. By the time you get diagnosed with an autoimmune condition such as Rheumatoid Arthritis or Multiple Sclerosis there is already some damage to bodily parts such as the lining of your joints and your nerves. Before this stage you might have had what is called ‘silent’ autoimmunity, where the antibodies to these tissues were present, sometimes as far back as a decade before the tissue destruction has begun!
The next stage after ‘silent’ autoimmunity (where there are antibodies to tissues, but no symptoms) is called Autoimmune Reactivity, stage two if you like. Here in addition to positive antibody testing you start having some symptoms, sometimes non-specific such as fatigue or gut issues/food sensitivities. The third and final stage, is called ‘Autoimmune Disease’ where you have positive tests, enough body destruction to be seen on an MRI or Ultrasound and likely more severe symptoms.
My point is that the sooner you start to manage potential autoimmunity, the better, don’t wait until there is tissue damage and your doctor has finally ‘labelled’ it! If you already have an autoimmune condition and you think it is too late – you are wrong. Having one autoimmune condition predisposes you to others, it is time for damage limitation!
Can you test for it? Testing for autoimmune reactivity to tissues can be complicated and is best done through Registered Nutritionist or a Functional Medicine Doctor. Nonetheless, here are some of the tests that I find helpful, when I work with autoimmunity and Lyme Disease clients:
- Antinuclear Antibodies (ANA) Panel. The ANA test looks for antinuclear antibodies in the blood. If the test finds antinuclear antibodies in the blood, it may mean there is some antibody attack against self-tissue (even if you don’t have symptoms). It will not be able to directly pinpoint where the attack is directed or what type of Autoimmune Disease you are likely to develop, although some doctors often link positive panels to an autoimmune disease called Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) also simply known as ‘Lupus’.
- Multiple Autoimmune Reactivity Tests. These tests are done through an American lab called Cyrex and I really like this test as it measures the reactivity towards several bodily tissues such as Insulin + Islet Cell Antigen (potentially leading to insulin related autoimmunity), Myelin Basic Protein (which plays a vital role in the myelination of nerves in the nervous system) and Thyroid Peroxidase (an enzyme vital for the functioning of the thyroid gland). Even if you have some reactivity, you might not have symptoms yet, but this is my point – it is best to ‘catch’ autoimmunity as soon as possible. It is more specific than the ANA testing as it might give you a clue to vulnerability of particular organs or tissues the autoimmune reactivity is directed at.
- Intestinal permeability or ‘leaky gut’ tests: These looks for antibodies against the proteins that make up your gut lining (Occludin and Zonulin), as well as bacterial toxins that can cause inflammation, called lipopolysaccharides, (LPS), which usually come from pathogenic bacteria that lives in the gut. Having intestinal permeability, is a significant predisposing factor for developing autoimmunity, however, the test itself is not diagnostic for autoimmune reactivity or the development of autoimmune disease. Nonetheless, sometimes I find it helpful for gut healing strategies and for client compliance!
- Genetic testing – HLADQ2 and HLADQ8: Genetic testing is not diagnostic by any means on its own too, because genes do not always express. However, having said that there are two particular genes – HLADQ2 and HLADQ8, which increase the likelihood of developing autoimmunity.
- Other tests: Other non-specific tests such as CRP (C-reactive protein is an inflammatory protein), Homocysteine levels (this inflammatory amino acid is linked to heart disease and destruction of the blood-brain barrier and dementia, but also tends to be elevated in people with autoimmunity), and methylation tests (such as MTHFR genetic testing) might also pinpoint issues with a bodily process called Methylation that regulates a healthy immune system, brain, hormones, and the gut!
Where to start? If you want to find out whether you may have started developing immune system re-activity or track antibody results considering working with a professional who can order these tests for you, interpret them and suggest lifestyle changes.