What Causes Autoimmune Disease?

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Healthy immune function is one of the most important factors of wellness. When working correctly, the immune system protects the body from an array of illnesses. However, chronic immune malfunction can cause serious lifelong health issues such as type 1 diabetes, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and rheumatoid arthritis. These and other autoimmune disorders often cause a significant decline in overall quality of life. Therefore, limiting the risk of developing autoimmune disorders should be a priority for all. To do so, we must understand the basics of autoimmune disease and be familiar with factors that may contribute to its development. 

The Basics of Immune Function

During a healthy immune response, the immune system recognizes harmful bacteria, germs, or viruses in the body and dispatches fighter cells to eliminate them. Once the threat has been eliminated, the cells are deactivated, and the body returns to its normal state. However, immune malfunction, specifically that caused by autoimmune disorders, can dysregulate immune activity resulting in harm and dysfunction throughout the body.

What is Autoimmune Disease?

An autoimmune disease is an impactful form of immune malfunction that may trigger an excessive immune response, keep the immune system chronically activated, or even cause the immune system to attack healthy bodily tissue. For example, in the case of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, the immune system misidentifies a protein in healthy thyroid tissue as dangerous. This triggers an assault against the thyroid, resulting in long-lasting and often irreparable damage to the thyroid gland. This misidentification is a key factor in autoimmune dysfunction.

The most common areas affected by autoimmune dysfunction are the thyroid, intestine, skin, brain, and pancreas. However, autoimmune dysfunction can affect virtually any part of the body. Because of this, patients with autoimmune disease may experience a wide range of symptoms that are shared with or similar to other conditions. This often delays diagnosis and treatment. However, depending on the condition, a patient may present easily identifiable symptoms that expedite diagnosis.

Causes of Autoimmune Disease

Research shows that multiple factors may contribute to the development of an autoimmune disease. Below are some of the most common factors that may increase the risk of autoimmune malfunction. 


Autoimmune disorders affect approximately 23.5 million Americans, with the vast majority of this group being women. Women are diagnosed with autoimmune disorders more than twice as often as men. Research is being done to uncover why women are so much more likely to develop an autoimmune disorder, but there is no definitive answer.

One theory for the increased occurrence in women is an increase of hormonal factors. Studies show that many cases of autoimmune dysfunction occur during child-bearing years between the ages of 14 and 44, where hormone levels fluctuate most. Other times of significant hormonal change, such as during perimenopause, pregnancy, or hormone replacement therapy, are also associated with a greater risk of autoimmune dysfunction.

Poor Gut Health and Leaky Gut

The gut houses most of the immune system. Poor gut function has a significant impact on immune function. One of the most common forms of intestinal dysfunction resulting in autoimmune disease is leaky gut syndrome

Leaky gut is caused by a loosening of the tight junctions in the intestine. This allows undigested particulates, molecules, and toxins to escape the gut and enter the bloodstream. As these substances are carried throughout the body, they trigger an autoimmune response. Often leaky gut causes chronic immune activation, which ultimately exhausts the immune system. This significantly increases the risk of developing an autoimmune disorder.

Chronic Stress

Chronic emotional or physical stress is associated with a greater occurrence of autoimmune disease. When the body experiences sustained physical or emotional stress, the body’s natural stress response is triggered. This causes the body to enter a heightened state of activity. In this elevated state, immune function kicks into high gear to protect against immediate threats. If maintained at this level, the immune system can quickly exhaust itself, increasing the risk of malfunction and subsequent autoimmune disease.

Genetic Factors

Research shows that genetic factors and family history are important indicators of individual risk for autoimmune disease. Those who have family members with autoimmune diseases including lupus or multiple sclerosis (MS) have a greater risk of developing these conditions. However, individuals can have family members with an autoimmune disease and never develop one themselves.

Underlying Infections

For many years, research has shown a strong connection between underlying chronic infections and the occurrence of autoimmune disease. Perhaps the strongest link is between multiple sclerosis (MS) and viruses. 

MS has been linked to several viruses that affect the central nervous system–particularly human herpesvirus 6 (HHV6). Several studies have found a direct connection between the two. One study involving a collection of MS patients found that 73 percent of the test population had HHV6 in their nervous system and 54 percent had the virus present in their blood. This association is difficult to discount or overlook. 

MS may also have a strong connection with Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that cause Lyme disease. Two studies found a high rate of Lyme infection, 38 and 20 percent, respectively, among their MS patients. Experts posit that because of the limitations of testing, these numbers may be even higher. Further research is required to confirm the connection between MS and Lyme. 

Protecting Yourself from Autoimmune Disease

Several factors may contribute to the development of autoimmune diseases. Being familiar with the most common factors such as gender, gut health, stress level, genetics, and underlying infections can help you better assess your own risk. If you are living with any of these promoters of autoimmune malfunction, learn more about autoimmune disease, common causes, and what you can do to prevent it. 

At Holtorf Medical Group, we train our physicians to provide you with cutting-edge testing and innovative treatments to find the answers you deserve and a treatment plan that is personalized to your specific condition. If you’ve been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease but aren’t receiving the care and treatment you need, call us at 877-508-1177 to see how we can help you!


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About Holtorf Medical Group

The Holtorf Medical Group specializes in optimizing quality of life and being medical detectives to uncover the underlying cause of symptoms, rather than just prescribing medications to cover-up the symptoms. We are experts in natural, prescription bioidentical hormone replacement and optimization, complex endocrine dysfunction, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and Lyme disease.

We’ve dedicated our practice to providing you the best in evidenced-based, integrative medicine that’s not only safe and effective, but provides measurable results.