Understanding Autoimmune Diseases


Photo: Lynn Kasztanovics

As part of my research on vegetarian diet, I recently dove into the fascinating book “The China Study“. It was written by Dr. Campbell, a researcher who has spent the past 30 years studying the effects of animal proteins on health.

In addition to simply presenting the numerous studies by various researchers in a meaningful way, the book does a great job of explaining the most common dangerous diseases, in layman’s terms.  I finally have a basic grasp of the workings behind cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and the various autoimmune diseases.

I believe that the best way to understand and retain something new is by teaching it.  Here is my stab at explaining the basics of these diseases using very simple terms.

I hope this can be helpful to you in gaining some clarity around these health topics that are foreign to most of us.  Through understanding, we can appreciate the intricate workings and intelligence of our bodies; thus empowering ourselves to make better, more conscious and responsible lifestyle choices.

Let’s start with autoimmune disease.


I find autoimmune disease to be the most disturbing amongst the other diseases discussed; particularly, due to its insidious nature of self-attacking, and the lack of treatment options.  About 3% of Americans have an autoimmune disease, estimating a total of 8.5 million people.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is one of the high profile autoimmune diseases that caries with it devastating results.  “It is a lifelong battle involving a variety of unpredictable and serious disabilities. MS patients often pass through episodes of acute attacks while gradually losing their ability to walk or to see. After ten to fifteen years, they often are confined to a wheelchair, and then to a bed for the rest of their lives.

Other well studied autoimmune diseases include Type 1 diabetes, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. All in all there are forty varying types in this disease group.  Regardless of name, they all share a common behavior in which the immune system attacks our body’s own cells, causing destruction to our body’s integrity.

Basic Workings of Our Immune System

Our immune system is not an organ, but a series of cells and processes working together to fight off foreign cells in our blood stream.   The individual soldiers in this battle against foreign invaders are the white blood cells.  There are various types of white blood cells, each with its own specialization.

Our bone marrow is like the main recruiting center for soldiers. It is in the marrow of bones where stem cells are made.  Some of these cells get released directly into the body for use.  These are called B-Cells. Some of these cells travel to the thymus (organ in our chest) before getting finalized into T-Cells.

The foreign invaders in our body are called Antigen, they are protein molecules which can be a virus or a bacteria that is potentially corruptive to our body.  Each antigen has a unique identity based on the sequence of amino acids which makes up the protein.  Their identities are comparable to difference faces on people.

When a foreign invader is detected, these white blood cells team up into groups to create a customized defense against the invader.  They do so by creating a protein that mirrors the shape of the invader (antigen), such that it fits perfectly onto the antigen and destroys it in a “kiss of death”.

Each time a new antigen is encountered, a new mold is created. The molds are then re-used for future captures of antigens of the same type.   Names for some molds are B-cell antibodies and T-cell-based receptor proteins. Fancy!

Subsequent attacks on antigens with existing molds mean that they can be destroyed faster and less painful.   This is the basis for Immunization: introducing a tiny dose of a foreign virus, so our body will create the appropriate molds and will know how to deal with them next time.

Autoimmune Diseases: Military Gone Crazy

Problems happen when our soldiers cannot distinguish between invader proteins from our body’s own proteins. Molecular mimicry is when invader cells look the same as our own cells. Meaning, molds created to attack the invader cell will also fit into our own cells.

The actual cause of confusion is still unknown, and the process is extremely complex. Scientists believe the antigens that trick our body into attacking our own cells may be found in food.  Here is one possibility:

  • Digestion after eating food
  • Some proteins are not broken down into amino acid parts
  • Slips into blood stream from intestine
  • Treated as foreign invaders by white blood cells
  • Molds created to destroy them
  • Starts into motion the self-destructive process

Cow’s milk is one of such food which supplies several foreign proteins that mimic the proteins found in our bodies.

Normally, our body is smart enough to distinguish which cells are foreign, even if they look similar. Sort of like the soldiers having safe guards against friendly fire.   The way that this system breaks down is still not understood. However, many studies have shown that a “western diet” (high animal protein, cholesterol, refined carbohydrates) is strongly associated with disease incidence.

What we do know is that this self-destructive process is common to all autoimmune diseases.

  • Type-1 Diabetes – Immune system attacks the pancreas used to create insulin in our body. Insulin is used to redirect glucose (blood sugar) to other parts of body. As a result, the body has an overflow of blood sugar.
  • Multiple Sclerosis (MS) – Immune system attacks the myelin sheath used to insulate nerve fibers which connects our central and peripheral nervous system to the rest of our body. As a result, the electrical signals “short-circuit”, and the messages/commands will not be properly carried from our brain to various body parts; thus gradual loss of control over our body.
  • Arthritis – Immune system attacks the joint tissues.

Based on reputable research studies in relation to nutrition, the consumption of animal-based foods, especially cow’s milk is associated with greater risk of autoimmune diseases.  This is especially apparent and well-documented in Type-1 Diabetes, a devastating disease found in children.  Here’s a quote from the result of one study, “All of the diabetic children had levels of cow’s milk antibodies that were higher than those of all the non-diabetic children.” (read more on page 187 of China Study).

I find it deeply troubling to learn that something we’ve socially believed to have been an essential staple for “good health and strong bones” may cause one of the most devastating diseases a child can develop.

What are your thoughts on the topic? Have any disturbing health or food facts you want to share with us?


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17 Responses (15 Comments, 2 Trackbacks ):


  1. 1

    Hey Tina,
    well being a doctor I couldn’t resist jumping into this one!

    I haven’t read the book China Study but I certainly am aware of Campbell’s important work, and his research study itself is unique in its scope.

    One of the frustrations of trying to figure out the optimal lifestyle for humans is that we are incredibly complex and positive and/or negative changes can take years or decades to surface. It’s very hard to make incontrovertible causal connections with any lifestyle modification and health for these reasons. BUT……. various lines of research certainly do point toward a basically more phytonutrient dense, less processed, less meat, more “natural” diet as the way to go. Another good book which looks at another Asian population from a different angle is The Okinawa Program.

    Have a great day,

  2. PeaceLoveJoyBliss


    This analysis is quite interesting, especially the part of about molecular mimicry. In tandem with undue stress on the mind and body, confusion in the immune system seems to arise as a result. There’s so much to know about diet, the body, and health, and so much we need to know.


  3. 3

    It is very upsetting indeed to hear that the very milk that we feed our children to make them strong and keep them healthy could be causing them to become so sick.

    I was diagnosed a year ago with Lupus…. one of the autoimmune diseases you mentioned in this post. Mine is the most severe as it is attacking my central nervous system and brain. Even though I was finally diagnosed a year ago…. I had been sick for a couple years before that until they finally diagnosed me with Lupus. I have asked myself, “Why did this happen to me” so many times over the last few years.

    Thank you for the great post. :)

    Shana Albert

  4. Christoffer



    A nice little write-up there Tina, thank you. I try and reason logically about food related issues. Milk comes from the cow, which is produced to feed the calf… where exactly does the human fit in here?

    Meat is slightly different… but this becomes a more ethical question. My reasoning is: If a person hunts, kills, skins, processes and does all the work related to meat eating himself… I kinda have no problem with it. It’s been a conscious decision and I have to respect that, while I certainly do not agree with it.

    Anyway, back to the topic. It is my humble opinion that many of the diseases we know today are human “made”. Stress, bad health (both food and exercise), all this radiation (phones, microwaves etc.) and so forth. I believe that much can be cured through exercise and through dietary change.

    Thanks for a great blog, lots of interesting, positive reading… we need more of that.

    Let me now share something with you: http://www.odemagazine.com/

    It’s an amazing magazine that focuses on all the good things in life, positive news and inspiring people and projects. Think you’d like it!

  5. 5

    Hi Tina!

    I agree that autoimmune diseases are scary because of the self attacking. I live with one and it feels like such a betrayal. I’m grateful for my health on a daily basis. I pay attention to nutrition and exercise regularly and I appreciate that I’m able to do that. But I can’t help thinking, “why are you attacking me when I treat you so well?” Compared to other autoimmune diseases I’ve got it easy but I have noticed that with age I’m prone to other autoimmune diseases and slowly these symptoms have started to appear.

    I’m the editor of the blogs at blog.healthtalk.com which is a blog community all about autoimmune diseases (MS, psoriasis, RA, cancer, Crohn’s disease, Colitis etc). Our bloggers and their readership are always bringing up new symptoms or co morbidities which is good to discuss and great for support but I just hope that I’m not doing the First Year Med Student thing where everything I read I become paranoid and think, “Oh I have that.” I’m a big believer that the mind can help you or make you worse when it comes to healing.

    I’m gonna recommend to our bloggers that they read this post. Thanks for bringing up.

  6. 6

    I love “The China Study” and I am glad you are helping to spread the word about it. :) I recently forced my boyfriend to read it, and he thanked me because he now has a better appreciation for broccoli.

    In any case, I love how you explained it. I think protein has been overhyped, and I’m glad everyone is finding out more about it. :)

  7. 7

    Hi Tina,

    This is very interesting information. I am aneamic and I have fibromyalgia. I hesitate to give up red meat for the extra iron it provides. I am tempted to do so, but even on Doctor prescribed liquid Iron, I am still very low. I have given up eating all processed foods and we live on a diet of lean meats, whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, either grown in our garden or purchased from local sources as often as possible.

    I am very concerned about auto-ammune issues so I read this with great interest. What does your research indicate for women in their mid years to get the extra calcium and vit. D to prevent bone density loss. Was that addressed?

  8. 8

    Wow… I am fairly sure this isn’t the case with my daughter (who was diagnosed with autoimmune hemolytic anemia over labor day weekend), but I find it ironic to find such a post as I am very against cows milk. (I don’t go the the level of not letting my kids have it and such.)

    However, I have always viewed it as unnatural and generally unhealthy. It isn’t something we would “naturally” consume. (For any out there going to holler about the benefits of vitamin D and calcium, take a look at the content of those in green leafy veggies…

  9. 9

    The China Study definitely changed my life. I wasn’t struggling with any auto immune diseases, but my body was gaining weight so easily and I felt tired, cranky, not myself.

    I thought it was just aging.

    Then I turned to a vegan diet and I’ve lost about 15 pounds without having to count a single calorie, without giving up yummy tastes (vegies and fruit are what make meals flavorful!) and I have more energy than ever in my life.

    I couldn’t recommend this change more highly!

  10. 10

    no one seems to note that chronic fatigue immune dsyfuntion syndrome also fits in with this. and lots and lots of people have this :( it may not kill you like aids but it can kill your quality of life. just spreading the word…

  11. 11

    Wendi Kelly– I have no science to back this up with but something I found interesting about my three pregnancies had to do with anemia. I was a meat-eater during with my first and craved steaks and burgers. I was anemic during that pregnancy and had a lot of trouble with blood loss during labor. I was a vegetarian by the time I got pregnant again and I never cheated. I craved bean burritos. I thought for sure I would be anemic again even though beans have a ton of iron. I had eaten more meat than I had beans for sure. Well I wasn’t anemic, not even close. Also, my daughter tested perfectly in her iron levels even though the pedi insisted she would need an iron supplement since she was breastfed and not eating meat. During my third pregnancy I was still nursing and I began to crave meat again. I had it about once a week. That time I couldn’t stomach the burritos and I ate fish as well. I was anemic. It wasn’t as severe as my first. I never craved meat again after I gave birth and I’ve had no problems with my iron levels since. My body seems to have a harder time absorbing the iron when it’s from an animal. Perhaps giving up meat won’t make it worse for you, but better.

  12. 12

    Thank you for your article on autoimmune diseases.
    I in particular found this most profound since I’ve done research on diet and these diseases.

    “The way that this system breaks down is still not understood. However, many studies have shown that a “western diet” (high animal protein, cholesterol, refined carbohydrates) is strongly associated with disease incidence.

    What we do know is that this self-destructive process is common to all autoimmune diseases.”

    On my website goes into detail what foods fight inflammation. You may wish to view these.

    Thank you!

    Regards, Sandy

  13. 13

    Hey, hope this comment works I’m still new to this whole blogging thing.
    great post! I discovered your blog while
    Googling other people’s weight loss experiences. I’ve actually just started blogging about
    my weight loss success story – I lost over 30 pounds in a month
    with a diet I developed!

    I would love it if you could stop by my weight loss blogand tell me what you think.
    Warmest wishes,

  14. 14

    I have read the “China Study” and also Daniel Reids books, Tao of Health, Sex, and Longevity.

    I have been a Tao follower for over 40 years and did not even know that I was doing that. Yet when it comes to health, I have found that many of the ideas that was expressed 4000 years ago are very true today.

    Curiously in regard to milk, when I was teaching, our high school has now come to the conclusion, especially in health education that milk is no longer the benefactor that we thought it would be. As I think back to the late 70s, when John Connally, former Sec. of Treasury and presidential hopeful, made a big pitch for the milk industry, this should have raised a lot of suspicion about the milk industry.

    Our own personal health should be our number 1 job and we should not be lead around by mass media without questioning the benefits through our own factual research.

  15. Larry Nomer


    Due to incomplete digestion not all of the protein that one eats is completely broken down to amino acids. Protein fragments get into the bloodstream and are treated as invaders.

    Of course animal protein fragments are much closer in structure to our own bodies than plant proteins. So it seems quite logical that if one eats a lot of animal protein then there is a greater chance that the immune system when fighting the foreign protein will accidentally attack a similar part of your own body.

    And indeed the incidence of all auto-immune diseases is much higher in countries eating a diet high in animal protein.

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