From pollution to processed foods, find out what can cause your body to attack itself and how to prevent it

autoimmune disorder

An autoimmune disorder or Disease(AD) is when your immune system begins to attack your body as if it were a foreign object rather than protecting it. “It accomplishes this by releasing proteins known as auto-antibodies, which attack the organs. This also causes a lot of inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation is a common symptom of autoimmune disorders. It then affects different parts of the body depending on the type of autoimmune disorder,” explains Nahid Khilji, founder of Health Hatch, a wellness company.

Type-1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, SLE, lupus, psoriasis, inflammatory bowel disease and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis are all examples of autoimmune diseases. “The signs and symptoms of autoimmune diseases are highly subjective and range from mild to severe depending on the individual and the type,” says Khilji. Common symptoms include joint pain and swelling, constant fatigue, skin disorders/ issues, frequent feeling chills, digestive health issues, swollen glands and muscle pain, to name a few. Many factors cause autoimmune disorders, which include genetics, hormones and the environment.

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Your surroundings matter

Environmental factors are a major contributor to the rise in AD cases. “Various environmental toxins, such as mercury, silica, pesticides and tobacco have been linked to autoimmune diseases. These elements [result in an increase in] chemical-reactive oxygen species [in the body], which induces an autoimmune response, and they also can damage/ affect DNA, causing a variety of health issues,” says Khilji, adding, “Another consideration is pollution. According to an AIIMS study, 18 per cent of normal subjects had auto-antibodies [in their blood], and the chances of developing [this condition] were higher in people who lived within 200m of a main road—essentially, where the pollution was high.”

Do you get sick often?

Frequent infections, as well as major bacterial/ viral infections, can act as a trigger for a variety of autoimmune diseases. “Not everyone who has such an infection will develop AD, but those who are genetically predisposed are at a higher risk. Infections can trigger a pro-inflammatory response in the body. It interferes with the way our immune system works and makes it difficult [for the immune system] to distinguish [healthy cells from] invaders,” says Khilji.

Gut instinct

Experts suggest that there is a link between poor gut health and autoimmune diseases. “However, there are several mechanisms at work here. Long-term exposure to the aforementioned environmental factors can result in gut microbiome dysbiosis, which means that ‘good bacteria’ in the gut are outnumbered by ‘bad bacteria’, resulting in inflammatory responses as well as a slew of autoimmune diseases,” explains Khilji.

Keep moving

Any type of physical or psychological stress can activate various immune system pathways and contribute to the development of autoimmune diseases. “Lack of physical activity or a sedentary lifestyle is linked to autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, SLE, Sjogren syndrome, gout and others. Physical activity boosts immunity and anti-inflammatory responses,” says Khilji. He recommends that people invest 30 to 45 minutes of their time in an exercise like brisk walking and strength training, four to five times a week.

Shedding extra kilos is also important if you want to steer clear of AD-related issues. “High body [fat] per cent (obesity) indicates an inflammation level in the body, [and] even low-grade chronic inflammation can mediate immune response over some time,” adds Khilji.

Get your snooze on

Another factor is inadequate sleep. “Rest and sleep aid in healing. It promotes a supportive function, particularly to the immune system, which protects the body from infections and inflammation. Sleep deprivation is linked to an increased risk of autoimmune diseases,” says Khilji.

Processed foods

Frequent consumption of processed foods is linked to an increased risk of autoimmune diseases. “Toxic chemicals [used] in the food processing industry (added colours and preservatives) can damage tissue and release auto-antigens which induce an inflammatory response in the body,” says Khilji.

Prevention is key

There are several things you can do to prevent autoimmune diseases. Start by soaking your fruits and vegetables for 10-15 minutes in salt water or washing them with rice vinegar or baking soda. “They are effective ways to reduce the number of pesticides in the food we eat,” says Khilji. A diet rich in antioxidants also helps to reduce overall inflammation. “This protects the body against oxidative damage which is caused by reactive oxygen species. Such a diet includes seasonal fruits and vegetables on a day-to-day basis. Different coloured fruits and vegetables provide different polyphenols and vitamins and minerals which help in improving your immune response. Including nuts and seeds in your diet also helps in increasing your overall antioxidant levels. Increasing your protein intake is another way to improve your immune response,” says Khilji.

“High stress can also lead to an increase in cytokine production which in turn can lead to a prognosis of AD,” adds Khilji. You can also manage stress by taking help from a counsellor or indulging in activities you enjoy such as gardening, dancing or singing.

The symptoms of autoimmune disorders also change over time. It is also possible to put such disorders into remission by making lifestyle and dietary changes. “There is, however, no cure. We can reduce the severity of the symptoms and put them to rest. This requires a more holistic approach and a proper strategy to ensure that all aspects of your lifestyle are addressed,” says Khilji.

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