I’ve just read this article on Alternet Health – and I think it is a must-read, so please spread the word.

In a nutshell, there is a growing epidemic of autoimmune diseases affecting the Western world which almost nobody has heard about! To give some idea of the scale, one in 12 people in the USA (24 million) develop an autoimmune disease, and the figures are even higher for women – one in nine!

In fact, women are eight-times more likely to develop an autoimmune disease than develop breast cancer. EIGHT TIMES!

Put another way, (using figures from the USA) while 2.2 million women are living with breast cancer and 7.2 million women have coronary disease, an estimated 9.8 million women are afflicted with one of the seven more common autoimmune diseases: lupus, scleroderma, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, Sjögren’s, and type 1 diabetes. All of these can lead to potentially fatal complications.

And these figures are growing, alarming scientists around the Western world. Lupus has tripled in the last four decades, MS is rising at at 3% per year. Type 1 diabetes (where the immune system attacks the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas) has increased five-fold in the last 40 years. And while some increases can be explained by better detection, scientists are convinced that there is an underlying environmental cause, or set of causes.

The article interviews Donna Jackson Nakazawa, author of The Autoimmune Epidemic: Bodies Gone Haywire in a World out of Balance who says:

The top scientists I interviewed for my book agree that something in our environment — something far beyond a better ability to diagnose these diseases — is causing this health crisis. They are convinced that the cause of this epidemic — which is world-wide, by the way — lies primarily in our environment and in all the toxins, pesticides, heavy metals and chemicals that have become a part of our everyday living. We all carry a “body burden” of toxins in our bloodstream, even babies. Several studies show that chemicals commonly used in household cleaners, cosmetics and furniture are present in infant fetal cord blood. This doesn’t sound healthy, does it? But even if we agree that this soup of chemicals within us is harmful, what do we do about it? Talking about the autoimmune epidemic is a bit like talking about global warming before the movie An Inconvenient Truth was released. For the longest time, we couldn’t see, or didn’t want to see, that the smallest rise in temperature would melt the polar ice caps. Likewise, we don’t want to know that the ways we’re polluting our environment are also harming our bodies and our immune cells. In the international medical world, the scientists who study autoimmune disease call this epidemic “the global warming of women’s health.” Yet the reality that the environment plays a major role in triggering these diseases hasn’t yet trickled down to the rest of the population.

She goes on to list some of the studies and chemicals implicated. When asked why it is that some people are affected and anothers not, she says:

That’s because of a phenomenon I call the “barrel effect.” Each person, with his or her unique genetic composition, is exposed to a myriad combination and level of autogens depending on what they encounter in their day-to-day lives through the air they breathe and what they come into contact with through their skin. This toxic stew consists not only of chemicals and heavy metals, but additives in our highly processed diet and viruses and bacterial agents to which we’re exposed — all of which combine to impact our immune system. Chronic stress, which releases cortisol into our body, also plays a role in triggering these diseases as do women’s reproductive hormones — which is why women are three times more likely than men to come down with an autoimmune disease. As long as your barrel is less than full, however, your immune system is still able to deal with what it confronts every day. But once the immune system becomes overburdened it can begin to send misread signals, causing the immune system to make costly mistakes and attack the body itself. Unfortunately in modern life we’ve created a perfect storm of factors — a plethora of chemicals, heavy metals, processed food additives, viral hits and stressors — for today’s autoimmune epidemic to take hold. So much of what we encounter in twenty-first century life is causing our barrel to fill to the brim — and spill over. At that point, disease strikes.

I find the analogies with global warming interesting, because it seems that both problems have their roots in the kind of industrial economies and lifestyles we have created, and both problems point to the need to adopt simpler life-styles. Less stress, more meditation, and eating simple healthy food seems to be the key. Avoiding known inflammatory foods such as wheat, dairy and gluten, as well as processed foods, can help. I wrote previously about the role that probiotics also play in shutting down the body’s immune system after it has done its defensive work, and I was interested that the author of this article also points to the benefits of probiotics.

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