Autoimmune Disease Triggers: Mold, Metals, and Gluten

Autoimmune Disease Triggers

Identifying autoimmune disease triggers and causes can be a lot like solving a puzzle. This intricate network of cells, tissues, organs, and chemical messengers protects us against bacteria, viruses, and other foreign invaders—that is, when it functions effectively. But sometimes our immune system can malfunction. When this happens, our own immune cells make a mistake and attack the very cells that they are meant to protect. This abnormal immune response is known as autoimmunity.

While researchers have many theories about the causes of autoimmunity, including: genetics and even injury, today we are going to focus on the lesser known environmental and infectious triggers of autoimmune disease.

What is Autoimmune Disease?

Autoimmune disease affects 23.5 million Americans. Interestingly, women get autoimmune diseases at a rate of about 2 to 1 compared to men — 6.4 percent of women vs. 2.7 percent of men. (1) But what is autoimmunity? As we discussed above, your immune system is network of cells, tissues, organs, and chemical messengers that work in unison to protect your body from germs, bugs, and even toxins. We are exposed to a significant number of these foreign invaders every single day. When the immune system perceives a dangerous invader it activates an inflammatory immune response. However, this process (in a healthy body) is not a disorganized invasion. It is a strategic advance on the harmful pathogens that have entered the body. A healthy immune system consistently and accurately activates and deactivates, distinguishing between the invaders and your body’s own cells.

During autoimmunity, your immune system cannot make this differentiation between the pathogen and your own cells and tissues. The immune (or inflammatory) response becomes too great for the body to function healthily. When certain tissues and organs are attacked, like the thyroid for instance, our body’s regular processes break down, causing us to feel sick, gain weight, and lose energy.

Types of Autoimmune Disease

While there are many types of autoimmune disease, the following are the most common:

  • Type I diabetes
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
  • Psoriasis/psoriatic arthritis
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Addison’s disease
  • Graves’ disease
  • Sjogren’s syndrome
  • Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
  • Myasthenia gravis
  • Autoimmune vasculitis
  • Pernicious anemia
  • Celiac disease

Causes/Triggers of Autoimmune Disease

Researchers don’t know exactly what causes autoimmune disease. Many doctors consider your genes to be the driving factor behind autoimmunity. And while genetic predisposition is definitely an issue, somebody with these genes may not experience any symptoms at all. Therefore, genes are important, but they aren’t the only factors involved in autoimmune disease.

So, what sparks these genes to activate an autoimmune response in some people but not others? Certain underlying infections from bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi can induce an autoimmune attack on the body. When your body is unable to identify and locate the hidden pathoen, your immune system stays in the “on” position, attacking everything in its way, including your healthy tissues.

But there are other triggers like stress, injury, and most importantly for today’s discussion, environmental triggers that can induce autoimmune disease:

  • Mold
  • Heavy Metals
  • Gluten

A Note on Covid-19 and Autoimmunity:

We also know that infections, like  Covid-19, can trigger autoimmunity in the body. While there is still much to learn about Covid-19, scientists suspect that there is a degree of “molecular mimicry” occurring with the coronavirus. This means that the proteins within the coronavirus are so similar to those within the cells of our own body that the immune system is becoming confused and attacking everything in its wake. The “cytokine storm” that is happening to Covid patients is a hyper-activation of the immune system, exactly what happens with patients with an autoimmune issue.

How Can Mold Exposure and Toxicity Trigger Autoimmune Disease?

Toxic mold exposure has been identified as a potential trigger for inflammatory reactivity (or autoimmunity). Mold can form anywhere that moisture allows it to spread, so it can be found almost everywhere in our environment. Much of the mold we encounter daily is relatively harmless. Certain types of mold, however, can be highly problematic when it comes to our health. This is because molds produce chemicals called mycotoxins that can go completely undetected by our senses. Mycotoxins are chemicals that, when ingested or inhaled can have serious effects for certain individuals. Mycotoxins are highly inflammatory to the immune system, and they rapidly deplete antioxidants in the body like glutathione, and vitamins A, C, and E.

Some of the early symptoms of mold exposure/toxicity can include: fatigue, breathing difficulties, dizziness, memory problems, racing heartbeat, acid reflux, and anxiety. These symptoms are very often brushed off as minor symptoms of stress, lack of sleep, or even just normal symptoms of aging.

See all of the symptoms associated with mold mycotoxin exposure here.

Sometimes one person living in the same house with the same exposure to mold may not experience the same (or even any) symptoms as their housemate. And that same housemate may never experience any autoimmune symptoms were it not for the trigger of the mold within his/her environment. This is when genetic predisposition can become evident. An adverse reaction to mold can be a trigger for many autoimmune conditions, notably: Hashimoto’s (autoimmune thyroid disease) and asthma.

How Do Heavy Metals Trigger Autoimmune Disease?

Heavy metal exposure is an often overlooked autoimmune disease trigger. Heavy metals like mercury can cause stress on the liver, kidneys, and thyroid, while impairing the brain and nervous system.

Heavy metal toxicity can be both acute and chronic. If you’ve been exposed to a large amount of metal at once,  your symptoms may include extreme symptoms, such as: confusion, numbness, nausea, vomiting, or falling into a coma. However, heavy metal toxicity can be caused by more chronic or long-term exposures from:

  • Metal (amalgam) fillings
  • Pollution
  • Drinking water
  • Foods
  • Medicines
  • Ingestion of lead-based paints
  • Pesticides
  • Some vaccinations
  • and more…

Heavy Metal toxins are linked increases in metabolic syndrome (like Diabetes) through their interference with glucose and cholesterol metabolism (which also induces insulin resistance). The interface between the metabolic and immune systems has been of great interest recently. Alterations in the immune-metabolic crosswires in the body are showing to contribute to the development of autoimmune diseases.  (2)

For many people, targeting the detoxification of heavy metals can help to slow or reverse the disease process because it addresses one of the underlying causes of autoimmune disease, specifically autoimmune skin diseases, connective tissue diseases, bullous diseases, vitiligo, psoriasis, lichen planus, chronic urticaria, and atopic dermatitis.

Learn about treating Heavy Metal Toxicity here.

How Can Your Gluten Trigger Autoimmune Disease?

Your digestive health and microbiome plays a very important role in your immune system. Your microbiome consists of microbes in your digestive tract that are both helpful and potentially harmful. Most of these microbes benefit your body and immune system. In a healthy gut, good and bad microbes coexist without problems. However, if there is a disturbance in that balance—brought on by infectious illnesses, a bad diet, or the prolonged use of antibiotics or other bacteria-destroying medications—dysbiosis occurs (a microbial imbalance), stopping these normal interactions. As a result, the immune system is compormised, and the body may become more susceptible to disease.

Gluten is a mizture of proteins found naturally in grains, like wheat, barley, and rye. One of the proteins in gluten, “gliadin,” can be harmful to some people.

In people who have no issues with gluten, the proteins are absorbed. In those with a gluten sensitivity, the intestinal lining identifies gliadin as a dangerous substance and produces antibodies to attack it. In people with celiac disease, this response is extremely dangerous. However those with a gluten sensitivity can produce more mild symptoms, symptoms that they may excuse as normal  or attribute to other causes.

Some Symptoms of Gluten Sensitivity:

  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea, constipation, and foul-smelling feces
  • Abdominal pain
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Skin issues
  • Depression
  • Weight loss/gain
  • Joint/muscle pain
  • Brain fog
  • And more

Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disease already, but having it can actually make you more susceptible to other autoimmune diseases.

Gluten and Thyroid Autoimmune Disease

The molecular structure of gliadin (the protein in gluten discussed above) closely resembles that of the thyroid gland. When gliadin breaches the protective barrier of the gut, and enters the bloodstream, the immune system tags it for attack. These antibodies to gliadin can also cause the body to attack your thyroid tissue.

This can set off a chain reaction that goes a little something like this: eating a diet full of gluten can affect your gut lining, which can cause leaky gut, which can leak gliadin into your bloodstream, which the body then attacks and then becomes confused, attacking your thyroid tissue because it thinks it is gliadin, which can lead to autoimmune thyroid disease (Hashimoto’s). Phew! That’s a mouthful. But, it is literally a simple item that you put into your mouth that can trigger these highly complex reactions in your body.

Symptoms of Autoimmune Thyroid Disease (Hashimoto’s):

  • Fatigue
  • Weight gain
  • Edema (puffiness caused by excess fluid trapped in the body’s tissues)
  • Trouble tolerating cold
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Constipation
  • Dry, thinning hair
  • Hair loss
  • Heavy or irregular menstrual periods and trouble becoming pregnant
  • Memory problems
  •  Slowed heart rate

Removing Autoimmune Disease Triggers

As mentioned above, there is no one cause of autoimmunity in the body. The immune system is a highly complex machine in which genetics, environmental triggers, stress, injury, infections, and even our gut play a role. However, it is important that we continue to research and discuss these potential triggers of autoimmune disease. And, it is even more important that we do our part to mitigate exposures to these triggers in our environment, and to remove these pathogens from our bodies when we are exposed.

If you’re interested in learning more about these autoimmune disease triggers, below are some articles that may be of interest:

If you think you have been exposed to mold, heavy metals, or have a gluten sensitivity or autoimmune disease and would like to be tested, please call: 561-283-1166 to schedule an appointment with me today.

In Vibrant Health,

Elizabeth Tringali, PA-C

About Tringali Vibrant Health

Founded by Functional Medicine Expert Elizabeth Tringali, PA-C, Tringali Vibrant Health is a Functional Medicine and Integrative Practice that looks for the root causes of your health issues to restore optimal, VIBRANT health.

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