Spike in autoimmune diseases blamed on fast food: scientists
Disorders of the immune system are on the rise everywhere thanks to the global popularity of the so-called Western diet.
Autoimmune diseases including type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis have spiked in recent decades, according to scientists James Lee and Carola Vineusa at London’s Francis Crick Institute.
Lee and Vineusa have devoted their study to investigating the cause of such illness, which they believe can be blamed on the recent pervasiveness of fast foods, which “lack certain important ingredients.”
“Numbers of autoimmune cases began to increase about 40 years ago in the West,” Lee told the Guardian’s Observer in a new interview. “However, we are now seeing some emerge in countries that never had such diseases before.”
Lee pointed to cases in Asia and the Middle East, which has seen the biggest recent upswing in [inflammatory bowel disease] — which has felt the boom of the fast food industry during that time.
“Before that they had hardly seen the disease,” he said.
Vineusa said there’s no stopping the “global spread of fast food franchises.”
“So instead, we are trying to understand the fundamental genetic mechanisms that underpin autoimmune diseases and make some people susceptible but others not.”
Autoimmune diseases arise out of the immune system’s inability to differentiate invading organisms from local tissues, prompting immune defenses to attack healthy cells, too. Inflammation due to repeated immune response can cause long-term damage to the affected organs and tissues.
Today, an estimated 24 million Americans — nearly 7% of the population — suffer from one of this group of illnesses, according to the US National Institutes of Health. Their studies have shown an increase in the prevalence of autoimmune disease biomarkers in those aged 12 and up, from 22 million Americans between 1988 to 1991, to 41 million between 2011 and 2012.
“Human genetics hasn’t altered over the past few decades,” Lee explained. “So something must be changing in the outside world in a way that is increasing our predisposition to autoimmune disease.”
Said Vineusa, “Fast-food diets lack certain important ingredients, such as fiber, and evidence suggests this alteration affects a person’s microbiome – the collection of micro-organisms that we have in our gut and which play a key role in controlling various bodily functions.”
“These changes in our microbiomes are then triggering autoimmune diseases, of which more than 100 types have now been discovered,” she added.
Vineusa assured that the consumption of fast food wasn’t a guarantee someone will develop these illnesses.
“If you don’t have a certain genetic susceptibility, you won’t necessarily get an autoimmune disease, no matter how many Big Macs you eat,” she said.
These enigmatic diseases are dictated by individual genetic variants, which scientists hope to identify so more targeted therapies can be developed. For inflammatory bowel disease alone there are “more than 250” variants known today — up from just less than a dozen counted when Lee and Vineusa began their research years ago.
“We have lots of potentially useful new therapies that are being developed all the time, but we don’t know which patients to give them to, because we now realize we don’t know exactly which version of the disease they have,” Vineusa explained.
They remind us that there are currently no cures for these diseases.
“Growing numbers of people face surgery or will have to have regular injections for the rest of their lives,” said Lee. “It can be grim for patients and a massive strain on health services. Hence the urgent need to find new, effective treatments.”