Autoimmune disease involves a process whereby the immune system mistakes part of the body as a foreign invader, and mounts an attack against it, damaging tissue. The most common autoimmune diseases include type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, celiac disease, psoriasis, lupus, and Grave’s and Hashimoto’s diseases.

Prevalence of autoimmune disease is on the rise. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates as many as 23.5 million Americans may be afflicted with at least one autoimmune condition, up from 8.5 million in 1996. But even this estimate is low, since those numbers only consider 24 autoimmune conditions, when these illnesses actually number over 80.

Though genes do play a role in autoimmune diseases (they tend to run in families), environmental triggers are also involved and contribute to the increase in prevalence rates, according to Fred Miller, director of the Environmental Autoimmunity Group at the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences. “Our gene sequences aren’t changing fast enough to account for the increases,” Miller says. “Yet our environment is—we’ve got 80,000 chemicals approved for use in commerce, but we know very little about their immune effects. Our lifestyles are also different than they were a few decades ago, and we’re eating more processed food.”

Environmental triggers of autoimmunity include: chemicals, infections, stress, hormones, drugs, diet, weight gain and behavior. Of these, chemicals are particularly concerning due to their prevalence in the environment and to the lack of safety testing and regulation. The following toxins have been linked to autoimmunity: polyaromatic hydrocarbons (found in air pollution), heavy metals (lead and mercury), trichloroethylene (an industrial solvent that contaminates our water and air) and asbestos (found in building materials of older buildings).

Studying the link between environmental toxins and any illness is difficult, but because there are so many autoimmune disease, and because each one has different features, studying the link between chemicals and each illness is particularly difficult. Scientists are calling for better ways to link autoimmune diseases together, as occurs with cancer, to increase funding and understanding of what factors trigger this complex of diseases.

In the meantime, reducing toxin exposure, following a healthy diet, and supporting the seven channels of elimination—colon, liver, lungs, lymph, kidneys, skin and blood—with regular internal cleansing is recommended to help reduce toxic burden.