High levels of processed foods in Western diets may be causing a global rise in autoimmune diseases, according to experts.
Leading researchers at the Francis Crick Institute in London have found that more people are suffering because their immune systems cannot tell the difference between healthy cells and foreign viruses or bacteria.
Efforts to uncover the cause of this worrying trend are being made by James Lee and Carola Vinuesa, both leading separate research groups at the biomedical research institute.
More than 4 million people in the UK suffer from at least one autoimmune disease, with scientists suggesting environmental factors as a catalyst in the worldwide rise – around nine per cent each year.
Lifelong autoimmune issues, where the body’s defences attack normal tissue and organs, are incurable and include more than 100 diseases such as type one diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.
Cases began increasing around 40 years ago in the West and have now begun emerging globally, Lee told the Observer, such as a recent increase in inflammatory bowl disease.
He said: “Human genetics hasn’t altered over the past few decades. So something must be changing in the outside world in a way that is increasing our predisposition to autoimmune disease.”
Vinuesa supported Lee’s hypothesis and called attention to the Western diet of fast food that lack nutrition and affect a person’s microbiome, which are microorganisms in our gut that affect bodily functions.
She said: ““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.”
Vinuesa also highlighted that while environmental factors play a role there are “certain genetic” dispositions that make people more susceptible to these diseases. The focus is on understanding “the fundamental genetic mechanisms that underpin autoimmune diseases and make some people susceptible but others not,” she said.