Illustrations by Kouzou Sakai

Why Are Autoimmune Diseases on the Rise?

Changing environments, extraordinary stress, and the autoimmunity epidemic

Tessa Love
Published in
12 min readApr 10, 2019


SStacy Verdick Case was ill with a host of disparate symptoms. She suffered from joint pain, heart palpitations, and severe fatigue. Doctors tried to address her symptoms, prescribing her the anti-anxiety drug Xanax, attending to her acid reflux, or telling her to exercise. But no one could figure out the root of her underlying health problems.

“Every time they’d look for the cause, there was no cause,” Case says. “Being treated has been a nightmare.”

It took nearly three years and dozens of doctors before Case got a diagnosis: Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes inflammation of the thyroid and a number of associated problems, like fatigue and weight fluctuation.

While Case’s disease is rare, autoimmune diseases are not — and neither is the difficulty of her journey to reach a diagnosis. It can take a person an average of five years and five doctors to get diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, according to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA) — despite the fact that some 50 million Americans suffer from one. Autoimmunity is now one of the most common disease categories, ahead of cancer and heart disease. And while rates of the latter are falling, autoimmune diseases are being diagnosed with such frequency that some medical experts are calling it an epidemic.

“There’s still a lot of mystery associated with autoimmune disease,” says Kathleen Gilbert, an immunologist and retired professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system turns on itself and attacks the body’s own cells and tissues. Beyond that, however, there’s little consensus on why this happens, what can be done to stop it, or even what diseases can be classified as autoimmune.

Researchers largely assume that the cause of the rise can be pinpointed to changes in our environment, which in turn are causing changes in our bodies. Over the past 100 years, humanity has drastically altered the way we lived for the majority of existence. And while advancements in technology and living conditions lead us to believe we should be…