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Does Weight Influence Autoimmune Dysfunction?

Have you or someone you know been diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder? Chances are - yes.

In fact, some 50 million Americans today have one or more autoimmune related disorders. 

Why are we seeing such a rapid climb in these diagnoses? While genetics appear to predispose many of us, experts now believe that the development of these disorders must be set in motion or "triggered" by other external factors such as environmental exposures and lifestyle choices. Obesity and excess weight can also figure into our risk for autoimmune dysfunction.


New to the term “autoimmune disorder”? Let’s first address the "immune" aspect. The body’s immune system helps cells recognize “invaders” (e.g. bacteria, viruses, allergens, etc.) and attack them to keep us healthy. The immune system is our first line of defense against anything the body perceives as harmful.

A typical response from our immune system is inflammation; however, as quickly as it increases, it naturally decreases. Inflammation under normal circumstances lives out a particular arc in the immune response and then tapers off.

Autoimmune dysfunction occurs when the body becomes confused and attacks itself as if it were an unknown invader. During this time, the body in general stays in a chronic state of inflammation.

We often blame health ailments on high cholesterol, cardiovascular dysfunction, or an off-kilter metabolism, but the underlying contributor to nearly all chronic conditions and diseases is inflammation.

Long story short, autoimmune disease describes a slew of conditions in which the body starts to actually attack its own tissues—brain, pancreas, thyroid, gut, skin, etc. Inflammatory diseases include anything from arthritis, allergies, and asthma to autoimmune disorders. In fact, there are over 80 autoimmune disorders. Rheumatoid arthritis, type I diabetes, celiac disease, multiple sclerosis, lupus, Crohn’s disease, and inflammatory bowel disease are among the most prevalent.

How does body fat play a role?

Excess weight does more than just change our physical appearance.

Excess weight actually increases internal inflammation because fat cells secrete chemicals that disrupt metabolism and promote inflammation! Being overweight also puts you at higher risk for other conditions such as type II diabetes, which is pro-inflammatory as well.

Additional factors that increase inflammation can include: overconsumption of plant-based oils and refined foods, environmental allergies, food sensitivities, tobacco use, certain medications and antibiotics, etc.

In other words, each inflammatory factor in the body has an additive effect, increasing the overall amount and impact of inflammation on our health, and thereby increasing our risk of autoimmune dysfunction/diseases (very serious conditions).

To make matters worse, once we start down this slippery slope, it’s difficult to turn back. Eating the wrong types of fats (plus too many processed carbohydrates) causes overproduction of certain hormones. High levels of these specific hormones signal the body to produce more of our “stress hormone” (cortisol), which then further increases inflammation.

The more excess fat you carry, the greater the amount of inflammation you may have. From there, the more inflammation that is present, the greater the risk for autoimmune dysfunction!

Unfortunately, conventional “treatment” for many of these conditions (or their symptoms, really) are anti-inflammatory drugs (i.e. Advil, ibuprofen, steroids, etc.). To some degree, they suppress the inflammation and its side effects such as pain, swelling, headaches, etc. While these drugs can help you feel better (in the short-term) and carry on with daily activities, think of a raging fire analogy.

Do you stop a fire by getting rid of the smoke? No. You’d be masking the problem instead of actually “putting out the fire” so to speak. The same is true with mitigating inflammation.

Are these medications actually treating the cause of the inflammation?

How do I put out this fire?

How do we escape this cycle and start to decrease inflammation, avoid autoimmune dysfunction, and (let’s be honest) lose weight?! As previously mentioned, once our internal “coal” is lit and inflammation begins, there are a multitude of factors that can make that “coal” further ignite and cause our bodies to spiral into a state of chronic inflammation and autoimmune dysfunction.

The sooner we can either prevent these factors and/or decrease our exposure, the sooner we can give our immune system time to “cool off” and decrease our inflammatory response(s). There are many factors that could be practiced, but the primary places to start include:

  1. Increase intake of omega-3 fatty acids and decrease consumption of omega-6s
  2. Increase intake of vegetables and fruits (antioxidants)
  3. Take a quality probiotic daily
  4. Aim for 10,000 steps per day
  5. Manage stressors
  6. Get 7-8 hours of sleep each night

Losing body fat can ultimately aid in cooling off that inflammatory response because of our fat’s secretion of those pro-inflammatory chemicals. Simultaneously, fat loss is a side-effect of getting your health in check. When it comes to excess weight and autoimmune dysfunction, the two factors are interconnected and the full picture multifaceted. The most effective path is bettering your lifestyle to improve your health, which will in turn decrease body fat and lower related inflammation.

All too often we focus on the “what” and not the “how.” My clients have had the greatest success when their goal is not weight loss, but rather correcting 1-2 daily habits that impact their overall health. Our positive behavior change, thankfully, can become its own powerful cycle!

Thanks for reading today. Have you been diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder and want to know more about its interaction with your weight loss process? See one of our registered dietitians today.

In health, Becca Hurt, MS, RD, Program Manager of Life Time Weight Loss

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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