11 Common Triggers of Autoimmune Disease

Autoimmune conditions have exploded to epidemic proportions over the last few decades; out of the approximately 316 million currently living Americans, an estimated 50 million of those are affected by some sort of autoimmune disorder. To put that in perspective, cancer, a disease which affects approximately 1 in 3 Americans each year, has only been diagnosed in 14 million currently living people at some point in their lives.  Compared to the 4% of our population who have had some form of cancer in their lives, a staggering 15% are currently living with autoimmune disease.  What was once a rarity is now commonplace.

Autoimmune conditions are showing no signs of stopping either. People with one autoimmune condition are at a greater risk of acquiring another; a term called poly-autoimmunity, in which they have multiple autoimmune conditions at the same time.

Today there are close to 100 recognized autoimmune diseases, and an additional 40 disease processes that have an autoimmune component. Autoimmune conditions can effect every system in the body, but the two seen most frequently are Celiac and Autoimmune Thyroid disease.

The Autoimmune Perfect Storm

Why is this all happening now? Hopefully you are realizing that these are not just diseases of “bad” genes, because we have seen repeatedly that even individuals with spotless family health histories are succumbing to cancer or autoimmune disease.  The multifaceted autoimmune puzzle may start with a genetic susceptibility, but we also have to look at three important epigenetic, or environmental factors:  Toxins, Gut Stress and Food Intolerances. 

From full-blown autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s, celiac or Hashimoto’s disease to common “autoimmune spectrum disorders” like acne, or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), it’s important to know what the potential “land mines” are that can turn on an inflammatory-immune response in your body:

Read on for the top triggers that can flare up an autoimmune response and cause devastating symptoms in the body.
1. Gluten

The infamous “G” word is a protein that’s found in wheat, barley, spelt, rye and other grains. This protein is linked in many different studies to an increase risk of autoimmunity.

Many people and their doctors believe you have to have celiac disease to be gluten intolerant. When their labs for Celiac come back negative, they are told that avoiding gluten is not necessary. This antiquated misinformation keeps many people struggling with an autoimmune condition very sick.

For many with autoimmunity it doesn’t have to be a piece of bread or pasta to cause damage either. Foods cross-contaminated with gluten can be like gasoline on a fire for many people with already sensitive autoimmune conditions.

2. Gluten-free grains

Many people with autoimmune problems already avoid gluten, but still consume foods like corn, oats and rice. As well-intentioned as that decision may be, these grains can be just as damaging as gluten, or even more damaging.

The proteins in these grains are very similar to gluten, which can be like a game of Russian roulette for someone suffering from an autoimmune condition. Just like gluten sensitivities, symptoms do not have to be gastrointestinal in nature. A flare-up of any autoimmune symptom can occur with exposure to grains.

3. Quinoa

A favorite in the health community, pseudo-grains like quinoa are high in proteins called saponins which can damage the gut lining, causing an immune response in the body. Soaking and rinsing quinoa can reduce the gut-damaging effect, but for many autoimmune conditions this is not enough. If there is any question as to whether your body is adversely affected by this pseudo-grain, it is best to just cut it out of your diet completely.

4. Stress

Stress has many far-reaching effects on your health; one of them is your immune system. Research has found chronic mental stress to be a potent trigger for autoimmune diseases.

Many people notice the onset of their health problems during a rough time in their life, when their mind and body are under a significant amount of stress. Caring for an aging parent, the loss of a loved one or a divorce can be the tipping point for an autoimmune response.

5. Toxins

Our environment has been bombarded with toxins that were unknown as little as 100 years ago. Studies have repeatedly shown that toxins play an irrefutable role in autoimmune cases such as autoimmune thyroiditis. Not only is there direct damage from the toxin structure itself to worry about, but the body’s reaction to the presence of the toxin as well, such as stress and inflammation.

6. Sugar

It should be no surprise that sugar is on this list, but we’re not just talking about the stereotypical junk food. There are many “healthy” junk foods that have become popular in the health food community that can trigger or exacerbate autoimmune conditions just as much as their unhealthy counterparts. 

Healthier-sounding terms like “organic turbinado sugar” or “agave nectar” on a food label may sound more earthy and natural, but sugar is still sugar to the immune system. In contrast to cane sugar Agave Nectar, touted as a miracle sugar replacer until fairly recently, is composed of 70-90% fructose, which can only be processed in and by the liver.  Possessing this higher concentration of fructose means that agave consumption puts significant strain on the liver because this is where the entire burden of fructose metabolism falls, whereas cane sugar places only 20% of the metabolism responsibility on the liver.  The metabolic pathway of fructose also creates a long list of waste products and toxins, which we now know feed the autoimmune superhighway.  

7. Dairy

Casein, the main protein found in milk and other dairy products, can be a trigger for runaway inflammation in the body. Removal of the dairy proteins in ghee or clarified butter can be a safer alternative for some people. Some autoimmunity disorders can also handle fermented dairy, like grass-fed whole yogurt or kefir.  

8. Nightshades

A plant group that consists of tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, eggplants, goji berries and some spices contains alkaloids in their skin which can cause an inflammatory response in the body.


Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, or SIBO, occurs when normal bacteria of the microbiome grow from the large intestines where they belong into the small intestines. This can lead to a number of localized autoimmune spectrum conditions such as IBS and acid reflux. Chronic SIBO can also lead to a leaky gut which can then cause autoimmune problems throughout the body.

10. Weakened microbiome

The majority of your immune system resides in what’s referred to as the microbiome. This highly sophisticated gut ecosystem consists of trillions of bacterial colonies. Your microbiome controls not only your immune system but your brain, hormones and genetic expression.

Parasitic, yeast and fungal infections have all been implicated in a variety of autoimmune-type conditions such as Parkinson’s and M.S. It’s also important to note that you don’t necessarily have to be experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms to be affected by these pathogens.

11. Leaky gut syndrome

Functional medicine considers an increased permeability to the gut lining, or a “leaky gut,” a precursor to autoimmunity. All of the above-mentioned triggers can lead to leaky gut syndrome. Because of this, a leaky gut can be seen as a causal trigger, but also the effect that proceeds from an autoimmune condition.

When your gut is damaged undigested food proteins and bacterial endotoxins can pass through the protective gut lining into the blood, repeatedly turning on an immune response throughout the body, which over time can turn into an autoimmune reaction.

In summary, finding out your individual underlying triggers can save you from the years of unnecessary suffering that millions with autoimmune conditions go through. Our skilled practitioners can help you pinpoint your exact triggers so you don’t have to play the guessing game and waste valuable time that could be better spent enjoying your health rather than fighting for it.