What Causes Autoimmune Disease?

For some of us, understanding how we ended up with one or more autoimmune diseases can be a really helpful piece of the recovery puzzle.

I wanted to put this together for you so that you can start to connect some dots for yourself.

Three things have to be present for an autoimmune disease to develop:

  1. The genetic platform, which we can’t do much about

  2. Environmental triggers like certain bacterial and viral infections, or exposure to toxins, chemicals, mold, etc.

  3. Diet and lifestyle – diet can either improve or impair our immune system’s function, as the immune system is a huge nutrient hog


If you’ve been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease your first thought is probably, “How the hell did this happen?” On average, it can take 4 different doctors over the course of 4 years to get an accurate diagnosis – all the while, you may have had unexplained symptoms, and doctors that think you’re a hypochondriac! Compounded by the fact that approximately 75% of all autoimmune disease sufferers are women, and women are less likely to be taken seriously by health professionals than men when it comes to pain! At this point, you may actually feel relieved to have finally gotten a diagnosis. (You may also be confused, pissed off, depressed, sad, or feel totally alone – all of these things are super common!)

To answer your question about HOW this happened, your parents’ genes actually play a role in developing autoimmune disease – BUT – they aren’t the only factor. This means that autoimmune diseases can run in the family, and in fact, it is actually very common. Let’s look at celiac disease, for example. About 1 in 100 in the general population might have celiac, but the odds of it being within a family is about 1 in 22. In the case of Celiac disease there certainly are the HLA DQ2 or HLA DQ8 genes that most doctors will still tell you are required for a person to be diagnosed with Celiac. However, my GI nurse friend told me that they are now seeing patients without those genes, whose intestinal lining has been so damaged by gluten and other factors, that they fit the diagnostic criteria for celiac.

Although, an autoimmune disease is different than a genetic disease. For a genetic disease, just one or two genes can mutate and put you at risk, whereas with an autoimmune diseases you don’t just recieve one autoimmune gene. In fact, you receive a bundle that could put you at a higher risk for developing an autoimmune disease. This means that common genes underlie multiple autoimmune diagnosis, so if you have a close relative with an autoimmune disease, your chances of developing an autoimmune disease are increased, but not necessarily for that specific disease. This is why many family members might have similar diseases, but don’t all suffer from the exact same one.

Epigenetics – new scientific field of study – tells us that genes load the gun, but environment pulls the trigger. This is especially true in autoimmune disease. We are constantly impacting how our genes EXPRESS, with our diet, exercise habits, stress, even our thought patterns! Environmental exposures can also turn genes on and off as well, which you will see below.


Genetics actually only account for one-third of your risk for developing an autoimmune disease. Your genes can play a role in autoimmune diseases, but the environment is a HUGE component. When your immune system is exposed to pathogens, chemicals, and substances every day they can turn those autoimmune genes on, stimulate the immune system to overreact, or create nutrient deficiencies or imbalances that deprive your immune system of the ability to regulate itself.

Chemical exposure includes obvious things like, Agent Orange, other chemicals from chemical warfare, or a toxic waste leak at the chemical plant that you work at – but for people with those “autoimmune genes”, things like pollution, pesticides and herbicides (in foods and also using them in your yard or garden), household cleaning products and personal-care products can all be triggers.

Your body can become easily confused with the proteins in certain bacterial and viral infections that you can be exposed to day to day; from food poisoning, the water supply, or just bad hygiene. Some chronic viral infections have been linked to autoimmunity – as in the case of Epstein-Barr Virus (the virus that causes mononucleosis) and lupus. (Fun fact: some prescription drugs can also induce lupus, but if you discontinue the prescription in time, the disease can be reversed.)

Specifically, gut bugs (we’ll talk more about this in another blog post) can confuse your immune system. Gut bugs are parasites that through the process of molecular mimicry, can confuse the immune system into creating antibodies towards our own tissue.

Parasites also engage in molecular mimicry for good measure. Gross, I know. Some studies have been conducted that actually show that “the association between parasites and autoimmunity could be manifested by the development of pathogenic anti-parasitic antibodies and cytotoxic T cells that attack and damage self-tissues as a result of molecular mimicry between host and parasites”. According to this study, immunosuppression can actually result and the homology between self and antigens can cause the parasites to protect themselves.

Obvoiusly, you can’t do much about your family history or past exposures. However, the good news is that you CAN avoid toxins and get treated for any kind of gut bugs that are infecting you… and the even BETTER news is that you can adjust your diet and lifestyle to reverse many of your symptoms.


A main component that people often overlook is how a poor diet can actually contribute to your development of an autoimmune disease. It can create nutrient deficiencies, exacerbation in your kidneys, and cause your immune system to over-activate. Lack of sleep and movement, drug exposure, as well as chronic and unmanaged stress can also cause an increase in your development of an autoimmune disease.

I’m sure everyone can understand how critical your diet is in basically every area of health. It is ESPECIALLY critical in autoimmune disease. Nutrient deficiencies are no joke. A lack in vitamin A, B vitamins, vitamin D, vitamin K2, Omega 3s, Iron, Magnesium, Selenium, and Zinc can cause reactions in your body that can contribute to your development of an autoimmune disease. This is why it is incredibly important to make sure you are maintaining a diet that meets all of your nutrition needs.

Lastly, geography can also play an enormous role in autoimmune disease. People living in the Pacific Northwest have a higher risk in developing autoimmune diseases due to the lack of sunlight which can cause vitamin D deficiency.

A comprehensive and holistic approach is necessary for managing autoimmune symptoms, but again, the exciting thing is that often with diet and lifestyle modifications we can actually reverse symptoms, not just manage them!

The big takeaway here is to focus on the things we DO have control over – limiting toxic exposure, dealing with acute and chronic infections appropriately, getting enough sleep, eating a nutrient-dense diet that helps to reduce inflammation instead of causing it, and managing our stress level.

Do you have family members that also have autoimmune diseases? Have you pinpointed any of your specific triggers? Let me know in the comments!

Remember – don’t let the good be the enemy of the perfect! When we know better, we do better. Do your best and don’t stress about the rest.