The 6 Best Ways to Reduce Your Risk of Autoimmune Disorders

Autoimmune disorders affect up to 50 million Americans, and their prevalence is increasing[1][2].

Women have a much greater likelihood of autoimmune disorders than men. Most autoimmune diseases occur two to ten times more often in women. Autoimmune diseases are one of the leading causes of death in young and middle-aged women in the US[3][4].

In this article, you’ll learn how your immune system works, causes and warning signs of autoimmunity, and steps you can take today to reduce your risk of autoimmune disease.

What are Autoimmune Disorders?

Autoimmune disorders are a group of disorders where your body attacks normal, healthy cells by mistake.

Your immune system is a specialized network of cells and organs. The following eight components defend your body from viruses, bacteria, cancer cells, and foreign substances:

  • The thymus gland
  • Immune hormones
  • Antibodies
  • White blood cells
  • Bone marrow
  • Spleen
  • Lymphatic system
  • The immune complement system

For people without autoimmune disease, their immune system distinguishes between healthy, normal cells and infected cells or foreign invaders. But if you have autoimmune disease, cells called regulatory T cells fail to keep your immune system in check. As a result, damage occurs to your body.

In addition to tissue damage, autoimmune disorders can also result in other harmful effects. These effects include abnormal organ growth and altered organ function.

There are over 80 known autoimmune diseases. Here are some of the most common examples:

  • Rheumatoid Arthritis
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Chronic Lyme Disease
  • Lupus
  • Crohn’s Disease
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease
  • Psoriasis
  • Type 1 Diabetes

While some autoimmune diseases are rare, others, like rheumatoid arthritis, are common. Autoimmune diseases are the leading cause of disability in Americans.

Signs of Autoimmune Disorders

The signs and symptoms of autoimmunity can vary depending on the disorder and the tissues it targets. Regardless, autoimmune reactions always involve inflammation and tissue damage as your body attacks its own cells, tissues, and organs due to malfunctions in your immune system.

Additionally, it’s possible to experience autoimmune issues prior to full-blown autoimmune disease. Here’s what to look for:

  • Inflammation
  • Joint pain, stiffness, or swelling
  • Muscle aches
  • Abdominal pain
  • Digestive issues
  • Fatigue
  • Low-grade fever
  • Swollen glands
  • Rash
  • Malaise
  • Symptoms that come and go (flare-ups)

The most likely areas of your body to be affected by autoimmune disease are your blood vessels, connective tissues, joints, muscles, skin, red blood cells, and endocrine glands like your thyroid or pancreas.

Autoimmune disease can develop in progressive stages. Therefore, it’s critical that you pay attention to these signs, even if you don’t currently have a diagnosed autoimmune disorder. Early intervention may allow you to prevent or even cure autoimmune disorders before they worsen[5].

If you experience these symptoms, ask your doctor to assess them and follow up with the appropriate tests.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a single, specific test to diagnose autoimmune disease. However, a combination of your medical history and lab work may allow your doctor to rule out or identify the presence of autoimmune disorders.

Causes of Autoimmune Disease

Autoimmune disease can vary in its manifestation, but there may be some common factors behind the current rise in autoimmunity.

While autoimmune disorders can run in families, scientists think that environmental conditions, not genetics, play the biggest role in causing autoimmune disease.

Read on to learn about the most likely culprits.

Inflammatory Diet and Autoimmune Disease

An inflammatory diet is low in fruits and vegetables but high in omega-6 fatty acids, grains sugars, and other processed and refined carbohydrates. When you eat an inflammatory diet your risk of autoimmunity, obesity, heart disease, cancer, and other serious health problems that involve inflammation goes up.

In adults, consuming more than two sweetened beverages per day doubles the risk of autoimmune diabetes, and each additional seven-ounce serving increased the odds an additional 15%[6].

In a study of young children, scientists found low-fiber, high-sugar, ultra-processed foods that are ready to heat in the package increase inflammation, allow unhealthy gut bacteria to multiply, and may lead to “leaky gut,” increasing the risk of autoimmune disorders[7].

Sterile Childhood Environments and Autoimmune Disease

According to the “hygiene hypothesis,” there may be such a thing as a home that’s too clean, especially for children. Because many parents are concerned about infections, they use disinfectants and other antibacterial cleaners. Unfortunately, these products may increase the lifetime risk of allergies, asthma, and other autoimmune disorders in children.

Early life infections with some bacteria, viruses, and parasites can prevent autoimmune disease later in life[8]. Additionally, children may also receive important gut bacteria from their environment, which are absent in sterilized homes and day cares[9].

In infants, the first year of life is a critical period for immune system development. A 2014 study found that young children who were exposed to certain household allergens and microbes within their first year were less likely to develop allergies, asthma, and wheezing, but not when they were instead exposed after the first year[10].

Vaccines and Autoimmune Disease

Vaccination is a controversial subject, but there is evidence that exposure to some vaccines heightens the risk of autoimmune disorders like lupus[11].

Vaccines work by “tricking” the immune system into believing it has an infection. To this end, doctors administer vaccines in hopes of preventing future infections by familiarizing the immune system. But in effect, some vaccines may accidentally induce autoimmunity by overstimulating the immune response[12][13].

Along with vaccines themselves, some scientists think vaccine adjuvant ingredients like aluminum and mercury may also induce autoimmune disorders in certain people[14].

Patients with prior autoimmune reactions to vaccines, a medical history of autoimmune disorders, a history of allergic reactions, or a family history of autoimmune disease are at higher risk of vaccination-induced autoimmune reactions[15].

Mitochondrial Damage and Autoimmune Disease

Your body contains over 100 quadrillion mitochondria, tiny organelles found in most of your body’s cells. Consequently, mitochondria, which resemble bacteria, are responsible for producing the energy your cells and organs need to function correctly.

Mitochondria are very sensitive to oxidative stress, inflammation, and environmental disruption. Thus, when your mitochondria are damaged, the cells they fuel do not work properly.

In view of recent research findings, scientists now think that mitochondrial damage caused by inflammation also contributes to the development of autoimmune disorders[16]. Because mitochondria play a role in controlling the function of immune cells, damaged mitochondria can allow a harmful increase in immune function, resulting in autoimmunity[17].

Disrupted Circadian Rhythms and Autoimmune Disease

Your circadian rhythms are your body’s natural daily rhythms. They control what time you wake up, when your body produces hormones, the time you get hungry, and when you feel sleepy.

Along with other critical processes in your body, they also play a role in your immune function[18]. As a result, irregular circadian rhythms and poor sleep can increase your risk of autoimmune disease, and result in more severe symptoms in existing autoimmune disorders[18].

Sleep apnea, a common sleep disorder, heightens the risk of autoimmune disease by 91%[19]. Moreover, other sleep disorders can raise the risk of autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and Type 1 Diabetes by as much as 47%[20][21].

Air Pollution, Pesticides, Toxins and Autoimmune Disease

According to one study of twins, the genetic predisposition to autoimmune disorders explains less than 24% of autoimmune disease cases. That means environmental factors play a significant role in the majority of cases[22].

Exposure to environmental triggers like air pollutants, pesticides, microplastics, and other toxins markedly raises your risk of developing autoimmune disorders[22].

Low Vitamin D, Insufficient Sunlight and Autoimmune Disease

Research shows autoimmune diseases are more likely to occur in late fall, winter, and early spring, when sunlight is lowest[23]. Existing autoimmune disorders are also more severe at those times.

Because your body makes vitamin D from the ultraviolet portion of the natural sunlight spectrum, your vitamin D levels are lowest during those times of year[24]. Vitamin D deficiency is a risk factor for autoimmune disease.

Multiple sclerosis, lupus, psoriasis, and rheumatoid arthritis all follow seasonal patterns. They’re also more likely to occur in people who receive less sunlight throughout the year, or live in higher latitudes[25].

6 Ways to Prevent Autoimmune Disorders

#1: Avoid These Toxins

Air pollution, uranium, lead mercury, cadmium, synthetic estrogens including hormonal birth control, agricultural or residential pesticides, and excessive alcohol use all increase your risk of developing an autoimmune disease[26][27][28].

Epidemiological studies show that exposure to urban air pollution or agricultural pesticides can double your risk of autoimmune disorders like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis[29][30][31]. Therefore, if you live in an urban area or a rural area around farms that use pesticides, your best option for preventing autoimmune disease may be to move to a different location.

Scientists have also found that using cosmetic products like lipstick and nail polish can increase your risk of developing autoimmune disease[32]. If you use cosmetic products, consider switching to natural options without eosin, phthalates, and halogenated chemicals.

#2: Eat an Anti-Inflammatory Diet

You can reduce your risk of autoimmune disease by eating an anti-inflammatory diet[33][34].

An anti-inflammatory diet excludes trans fats, omega-6 fatty acids, sugars, and grains. On the other hand, it contains plenty of whole food protein sources, fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil and omega-3 fatty acids from fatty fish.

While eating sugars, grains, and omega-6 fatty acids increases inflammation in your body and raises your risk of autoimmune disorders, functional foods like extra virgin olive oil, omega-3 fatty acids, and leafy green vegetables reduce inflammation and lower your risk of autoimmunity[35][36][37][38][39][40].

Turmeric, spicy foods, chocolate, and red wine in moderation also reduce your risk of autoimmune disorders[41].

#3: Maintain a Healthy Weight

Being overweight or obese raises your risk of developing autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, and inflammatory bowel disease. However, you can lower your risk by losing weight if needed and maintaining a healthy weight[42][43][44][45][46][47].

In addition to eating an anti-inflammatory diet, research shows that calorie restriction and intermittent fasting can reduce inflammation in your body. Cutting calories and fasting can help prevent autoimmune issues like arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and Type 1 Diabetes[48].

If you want to lose weight and reduce your risk of autoimmunity, focus on eating healthy foods all the time, engaging in regular physical activity, and fasting for 12-16 hours a few times a week.

#4: Focus on Gut Health

Published research shows that there’s a link between your gut microbes and the development of autoimmune diseases like Type 1 Diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and multiple sclerosis[49][50].

You can improve your gut health by avoiding grains and sugars, eating plenty of dietary fiber from fruits and vegetables, and taking prebiotic and probiotic supplements.

Additionally, some studies show that having a pet or sharing a bed with someone else can enhance your microbiome and reduce your risk of autoimmune disease[51][52][53].

#5: Quit Smoking

Smoking doubles your risk of multiple sclerosis and raises your risk of other autoimmune diseases like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and autoimmune thyroid disease by causing inflammation in your body, altering your immune function, and damaging your DNA[54][55][56][57].

But the good news is that there are now a wide range of smoking cessation aids available that can improve your odds of stopping permanently. If you want to quit smoking, you can try nicotine patches, nicotine gum, counseling, free smartphone apps, support groups, or hypnotism.

#6: Get Enough Sleep

Being sleep-deprived, sleeping on an inconsistent schedule, or getting poor-quality sleep all raise your risk of developing autoimmune disease[58][59][60].

But you can enhance your sleep quality and lower your risk of autoimmunity by getting seven to nine hours of sleep each night, avoiding screen-time two to three hours before bed, sleeping in a cool, dark bedroom, and maintaining consistent sleep and wake times.

The Takeaway

Autoimmune disorders currently affect about 50 million Americans and are becoming more common, but you can significantly reduce your risk by avoiding environmental toxins, eating an anti-inflammatory diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and getting enough sleep at night.

Your lifestyle and environment, not your genes, are the main determining factors in your risk of autoimmune disease.

Because autoimmune diseases appear to develop in progressive stages, you should speak to your doctor for testing if you experience symptoms like inflammation, joint pain, fatigue, low-grade fever, rash, or flare-up symptoms that come and go.

Image credit: Ilmicrofono Oggiono, CC-BY-2.0.