The Autoimmune Epidemic by Donna Jackson Nakazawa
Bodies gone haywire in a world out of balance and the cutting-edge science that promises hope
An autoimmune diagnosis comes hand-in-hand with a cascade of questions. How did this happen to me? Why me, and why now? And what am I supposed to do next? When I was diagnosed with RA at the age of 23, these questions haunted me and were not answered adequately by my doctor. Instead, I had to set out to piece together the puzzle of my autoimmune disease on my own.
The Autoimmune Epidemic by Donna Jackson Nakazawa has been immensely informative in my quest for answers, and I believe it can be for anyone struggling to understand an AI diagnosis. This book explores the environmental factors implicated in the onset of autoimmune disease. The author posits that as the use of chemicals has increased in the past 40 years, so has the incidence of autoimmune disease. In fact, autoimmune disease has tripled over the past few decades.
The statistics quoted in the book are astounding. One in 12 Americans – one in nine women – will develop an autoimmune disease in their lifetime. Due to misdiagnosis, which often accompanies autoimmune conditions, this number is likely higher – it is quite normal for AI patients to see 6 doctors before they receive a correct diagnosis. In comparison, one in 20 Americans will have heart disease and one in 14 will have cancer. Yet, though the proportion of those who will be affected by AI disease is greater than that of cancer, cancer research receives ten times as much annual research funding. For how common AI diseases are, many people cannot name a single one.
Much of the book’s content surrounds a number of illustrative “case studies” (my phrase, not the author’s), involving both specific patients as well as specific researchers and doctors pursuing answers to the many questions autoimmunity poses. The studies and situations highlighted in the book underscore how exposure to toxins in our environment can cause our immune systems to confuse “self” and “non-self.”
There are over 80,000 chemicals registered in the US, many of which have received little research into the effects they have on the people that come into contact with them. Nakazawa proposes that just as companies are required to disclose known cancer causing agents in their products – “carcinogens” – we must also name and recognize those substances that could possibly cause autoimmune disease. She proposes “autogens.” These autogens range from heavy metals like lead and mercury to possible endocrine disruptors like BPA.
Autogens are everywhere – in our mattresses, in the air we breathe, in the water we drink. If so many people are exposed to them, then why do only some people get an autoimmune disease? Nakawaza offers a metaphor called “the barrel effect-” in the same way one drop of water can cause a barrel to suddenly overflow, so can one trigger cause an autoimmune reaction that has been building from exposure to toxins, stress, and other factors. Genetic susceptibility to AI diseases would make one person’s barrel start out much fuller than the next.
It is impossible to completely avoid all toxins and chemicals. So what is a person to do, especially those who already have autoimmune disease or know that it runs in their family? I was happy to see that the first defense against autoimmunity that the author talks about is diet and using food as medicine. She emphasizes a whole foods, gut healing protocol. She also talks about ways to avoid exposure to known autogens. I’ve read most of the advice before from other sources – using natural cleaning and beauty products, avoiding plastic and BPA-lined cans, and purchasing organic foods if at all possible.
For me, The Autoimmune Epidemic created almost as many new questions as it did answers, begging further research and sleuthing into what may have caused my “barrel” to overflow two years ago. This book was instrumental in expanding my knowledge of how our environment affects our immune systems and it can be a helpful tool for anyone seeking to gain a deeper understanding of autoimmunity.