Did you know that if you're a woman and over 50, you're at extra risk of getting an autoimmune condition?
Autoimmune conditions occur when your immune system starts to attack and damage your own tissue and organs. And there are over 80 different types, often coming in clusters, meaning if you have one type of autoimmune condition then you might be prone to developing more.
Autoimmune conditions can affect various body systems, including the thyroid (eg Hashimoto's and Graves disease), skin (eg psoriasis), joints (eg Rheumatoid Arthritis), hormones (eg Type 1 Diabetes, endometriosis) and gut (eg Coeliac disease). Or multiple organ systems such as Lupus
While genetics is a risk factor, it's usually a culmination of factors that contribute to the condition including stress, gut health, hormonal imbalances and your environment.
Which means that we can do something about it!
Autoimmunity and Menopause: What’s the link?
You may think you have enough on your plate with menopause (and you are right!) but this time in our lives can create a perfect storm for auto-immune conditions to flourish and with multiple overlapping symptoms (like lethargy, dry skin, hair loss, insomnia, mood swings), it’s easy to confuse them and perhaps fob them off as “just the Menopause”.
The truth is that during the menopausal transition, oestrogen levels decline, which can impact the gut and immune system and increase the risk of autoimmune disease. Research has shown that women are more likely than men to develop autoimmune diseases (70% of all autoimmune conditions affect women), and the risk increases after menopause.
Key drivers/risk factors for autoimmune conditions
We know that hormone changes in menopause can switch on the inflammatory response and in some, autoantibody production. But what are the other risk factors? While the causes of autoimmunity are complex and multifactorial, there are several key factors that can contribute to its development and progression.
- Genetics; Yes, having a family history of autoimmune disease can increase your risk of developing one as well. But genetics is only one piece of the puzzle. In fact it's thought genetics only account for a small percentage of autoimmune diseases, the rest is all down to diet and environmental factors!
- Toxins: Research is showing that toxic exposure plays a key role. Whether that’s the plastic that wraps our daily sandwich, our household and personal products or the over-reliance on convenience food, it all contributes to our toxic load. Pile on common environmental toxins, such as heavy metals, pollution and pesticides and they can all disrupt the immune system and trigger autoimmune reactions.
- Stress: Chronic stress in all its forms can also contribute to an autoimmune state. For some it could be a stressful work or personal relationship, for others a nutrient deficient diet, full of processed foods, feeling unfulfilled or lonely, or even just simply poor quality sleep. Most likely it’s a combination of factors, all adding to our stress load on the body, increasing cortisol production over time and subsequently our resistance to it.
- Leaky Gut: Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria that play a critical role in regulating the immune system. When the gut microbiome is disrupted, due to factors such as poor diet, antibiotics, toxins and stress, it can lead to leaky gut syndrome (where your gut lining is too porous) and increased inflammation, which can trigger autoimmune reactions.
- Diet: Food can trigger and exacerbate autoimmunity in a number of ways. In general the Western diet doesn’t do us any favours! The ultra processed nature of it, making it nutrient deficient and high in poor quality/altered fats and sugar whilst low in plant based and fermented foods – make it a huge contributor to unwanted inflammation within the body. Then we have specific foods like gluten and dairy which can be responsible for triggering inflammation and autoimmunity in some people due to a genetic predisposition or an intolerance built up over time.
Conventional Treatment For Autoimmune Conditions
If you've got a problem with your skin, you'll get referred to a dermatologist for treatment. If it's your thyroid, an endocrinologist. Your joints, a rheumatologist. You get the picture.
The problem is that autoimmunity is by nature a problem with your immune system. None of these specialists are looking for the root cause (which is in your GUT!). And if you're unlucky enough to have multiple AI conditions (which is sadly common), you're going to have a hard time getting the various specialists to work together on your behalf. You'll likely get passed around the system and put on multiple drugs.
We use functional health tests to look for the root cause of autoimmune conditions. That way we can target the origin of the issue, rather than just try to manage symptoms.
Tests we often use include comprehensive blood tests that measure inflammatory markers, antibodies, and nutrient levels. Also other functional tests such as stool analysis, hormones, DNA and toxin testing all of which can also provide valuable insights into what's contributing to the overactive immune response.
Natural Ways to Manage Symptoms
Whether you investigate the root cause or not, there are some key natural interventions that focus on reducing inflammation, supporting the immune system, and addressing the underlying drivers of autoimmunity.
1/ DIET – a nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory diet can be helpful in reducing inflammation and supporting your gut and immune function. This may involve eliminating common foods such as gluten and dairy, as well as focusing on whole, unprocessed foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Additionally, consuming probiotic-rich foods, such as fermented vegetables and kefir, can help to support gut health and improve immune function. Try bone broth and collagen to heal the gut lining.
2/ REDUCE TOXINS – this may involve switching to natural household and personal products, avoiding pesticides and other chemicals in food, limiting plastics and filtering your water. Exercise, heat therapy, massage and adequate hydration are great ways to support your liver and natural detoxification pathways along with nutrients such as N-acetyl cysteine and milk thistle.
3/ MANAGE STRESS – chronic stress can lead to inflammation and immune dysregulation, which can trigger autoimmune reactions. Cordon off non negotiable self-care time every day, whether that’s a 10 minute meditation or a walk in nature. Taking magnesium and an adrenal formula with adaptogens such as ashwaghanda and rhodiola can help too.
4/ REBALANCE YOUR MICROBIOME – you can take a good quality probiotic, but it's best to invest in a comprehensive stool test to investigate any specific underlying infections that could be triggering the immune system (eg bacteria, virus, yeast, parasite). And then you can adopt a more specific protocol that's tailored to what your gut needs.
5/ SUPPLEMENT with immune supporting and anti inflammatory nutrients including B vitamins, zinc, selenium, Omega-3, Vitamin D and other vital nutrients. Check out our favourite supplement brands HERE.
What works for you will depend on what YOUR causal factor is, and that could be different for everyone. Adopting these natural protocols can really help dampen your immune response and manage flare ups, however if you can go further and get personalised help it can make all the difference. Of course this comes at a cost because this is only available privately, but this level of support can be life changing.
If you're ready to go deeper and get help, contact us for more information on our health tests and 1-1 support.