The prevalence of autoimmune disease appears to be increasing. While nearly four fifths of people with autoimmune conditions are women.
Of course whether someone develops an autoimmune condition depends on many factors. We know that genetics have an influence on who is more likely to develop a disease. Yet the research shows that genetics account for less than 10% of disease. What is clear now is that non-genetic factors are more important.
The World Health Organisation recently said that more than 50% of deaths are caused by environmental factors. Such factors include air pollution, smoking and diet.
Researchers are talking about a new concept called the exposome. This is defined as the sum of all non-genetic exposures in the lifetime of an individual. It includes all the factors that may have an influence on our health, from the moment we are conceived.
We know for example, that food choices, our home and work environment, and lifestyle all affect health. But, the exposome also includes internal factors, such as our metabolism, our hormones and the diversity of our microbiome.
So, could sex hormones explain why women more at risk for autoimmune disease? Current research shows hormones do indeed influence the immune system. And through this influence also affect autoimmune disease risk.
Of course it is normal for a woman to make oestrogen. Especially during her reproductive years. Men also make some oestrogen, though not as much as women. But we are all exposed to oestrogens in our environment as well. In fact because they are widespread they may pose a much bigger threat.
Sources of oestrogen-like compounds in our environment
- phytoestrogens – foods such as soy and other legumes, contain natural plant oestrogens
- mycoestrogens – food contaminants produced by fungi
- meat, eggs and dairy from animals given hormones
- xenoestrogens – synthetic chemicals such as pesticides, plastics, surfactants and detergents
- metalloestrogens – from heavy metals
- medications – including contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy
The natural plant oestrogens are believed to have beneficial effects, and prevent disease. But synthetic environmental oestrogens are a global problem. What’s more they accumulate in our bodies, especially in fat tissue. They can be released from fat tissue during starvation. They can also be spread to our babies during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
So how can we minimise the risk?
We can minimise our exposure to environmental toxins. Eat organically grown foods where possible. If you need to prioritise, spend your money on organic animal produce. Use household products that are environmentally friendly. And avoid storing food or drinks in plastic containers. This would go some way towards reducing our exposure.
We could also optimise elimination of oestrogens from our body. Our main detoxification organ, the liver, helps to remove oestrogen from our body. Some micronutrients are crucial for this process to occur. I talk more about this here. So, look after your liver. Make sure you eat a balanced and nutrient dense diet and supplement where necessary.