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Autoimmune: The Lowdown on a Rising Risk

Autoimmune disease can be defined as the body’s immune response responding in an unhealthy manner. The body begins to “attack” itself as it can’t differentiate between its own cells and foreign cells. Autoimmune diseases often (but not always) coexist with inflammation. It is a major healthcare problem in South Africa, as it is estimated to affect collectively 5% to 8% of its citizens. Autoimmune diseases are amongst the top ten leading causes of death in women and female children.

Gluten damaging the intestinal villi
Gluten, a protein found in cereals, damages the intestinal villi in people with coeliac disease. Credit: Sebastian Kaulitzki/SPL


The main autoimmune diseases in South Africa:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis: Antibodies attach to the linings of joints. Immune system cells then attack the joints, causing inflammation, swelling, and pain.
  • Thyroiditis: Inflammation with swelling of the thyroid glands, leading to fatigue, intolerance to cold, weight gain, muscle cramps and constipation. Signs are a slow heart rate, dry skin and a low body temperature.
  • Biliary cirrhosis: The bile ducts are damaged by fibrous scar tissue, leading to symptoms of severe itching, fatigue, dry eyes and mouth. Osteoporosis often develops rapidly.
  • Sjögren’s syndrome: Located mainly in the upper body, it is diagnosed usually by its symptoms: dry mouth and eyes, difficulty swallowing, dental problems and joint stiffness.
  • Psoriasis: Thought to be due to an overactive immune system causing T-­cells to collect in the skin. This leads to skin cells reproducing rapidly, producing loose silvery and scaly plaques on the skin surface.
  • Multiple sclerosis: The immune system attacks nerve cells, causing symptoms including pain, blindness, weakness, poor co-­ordination (especially when walking), urination difficulties and muscle spasms.
  • Lupus: People, mainly females, with lupus develop antibodies that attach to tissues throughout the body. The joints, lungs, kidneys and nerves are commonly affected. Symptoms are: muscle and chest pain, mouth ulcers, joint swelling and fever. A facial (‘butterfly’) rash and hair loss commonly occur.
  • Inflammatory bowel diseases: In Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis the gut lining becomes inflamed, with episodes of abdominal pain, urgent bowel movements, diarrhoea, bleeding from the rectum, fever, and weight loss.
  • Type 1 diabetes: Antibodies attack and destroy insulin-­producing cells in the endocrine part of the pancreas. Symptoms include excessive urination, severe thirst, weight loss, blurred vision and fatigue.


Common symptoms

Each autoimmune disease will have varying areas of compromise and varying degrees of individual severity, but in general, most autoimmune share similar symptoms. According to Hopkins Medicine, common symptoms of autoimmune disease include:

  • Fatigue
  • Joint pain and swelling
  • Skin problems
  • Abdominal pain or digestive issues
  • Recurring fever
  • Swollen glands


Common causes

The exact cause of autoimmune disease is not known, but there are certain known factors that contribute to the development of some common disorders. Genetic characteristics (race, gender, ethnicity), environmental factors, certain viruses or bacteria can in some ways be linked to the development of an autoimmune disease as well as overuse of antibiotics.


Why a rise?

A study led by Frederick Miller from the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences analysed levels of antinuclear antibodies (biomarkers for autoimmune disease) in the blood serum of more than 14,000 people over a 25-year period. It also correlated this data to variables such as:

  • sex,
  • age,
  • ethnicity,
  • weight,
  • smoking history, and
  • alcohol consumption


The results found that concentrations of antinuclear antibodies increased from 11% in early samples in the late 1980s and early 1990s to almost 16% in the final ones in the 2010s.


Currently worldwide, as well as in South Africa, the numbers are still rising. Speculation suggests our environments, as well as our Western Diets, may be slowly killing us, and recently, research is looking into Covid19 and its impact on the rise of autoimmune.


Now what?

Specific support applies to a specific autoimmune disease.

It takes the form of:

  • Specific dietary advice for patients.
  • Adopting an Integrative Medical approach to the management of the patient’s disorder.

At Made To Thrive, we offer a multitude of science based tests that look into your own personal data, from full blood tests to qualitative assessments. A complete analysis of your specific data helps us design a health journey you can partake in that is tailor made for you.


General support applies to all autoimmune diseases.

This takes several forms:

  • Eat healthy, well balanced food.
  • Get regular physical activity.
  • Ensure you get rest and good quality sleep as this allows the body’s tissues and joints time to detoxify and repair.
  • Actively reduce stress; anxiety brought on by stress can trigger a flare up in some autoimmune diseases. Our health coaches have great techniques they can teach and walk through with you to help you learn how to get on top of your stress.


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