You may have heard that women are four times more likely to develop an autoimmune condition than men. Or perhaps that black and Latina women are more prone to autoimmune conditions such as Lupus, Diabetes, and Rheumatoid Arthritis.
Conventional medicine attributes it to genetics and hormones in women with two X chromosomes, but is that the full explanation?
An unlucky hand? Bad genes? Let’s look at the evidence.
BIPOC people have suffered at the hand of white people for centuries, and not just in America, but globally. Racism, exploitation and deception have been rampant throughout history and still continue today.
Generational trauma perpetuates a long-term stress response among many people of color.
Research shows that parents’ trauma exposure can influence children, shaping their experiences from an early age—even before birth.
People who experience racism regularly are more likely to develop autoimmune diseases. This is because their bodies are constantly under attack from environmental triggers, like racism or discrimination. Continuous stress response dysregulates their nervous system, leading to inflammation and autoimmune conditions.
Systemic racism impedes people of color from advancing socio-economically, resulting in low-income communities with limited access to healthcare, quality food, and healthy housing.
Affording healthy, organic, whole foods and having access to clean water is a often-overlooked privilege. However, the affordability of cola compared to water compels communities to opt for chemical alternatives, highlighting the economic challenges they face in accessing healthier options.
People living in low-income communities have to work harder, often two or three jobs as the wages are not enough to support themselves, much less a family. Often coupled with a lack of sleep, this overwork places a significant burden on the body.
Many underestimate sleep’s impact on health. Noise, light, pollutants, and fear disrupt sleep schedules, potentially shortening our lives.
Toxins in Urban Environments
People living in urban areas are exposed daily to air pollution—airborne toxins like ozone can trigger inflammation that leads to autoimmune conditions such as asthma or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Those living near railway lines are also exposed continuously to glyphosate (aka Roundup). This commonly used herbicide is sprayed up to once a week to keep weeds off train tracks.
Not to mention, industrial waste sites are often found near low-income neighborhoods and expose nearby populations to toxic chemicals daily. This has been linked with increased rates of autoimmunity among people living in these areas.
Homes are often poorly-built and poorly-ventilated adding to chemical exposure and even noise pollution adds to daily stress as inner city areas tend to be louder, more densely populated and have less access to green spaces. These stressful conditions increase the risk of developing an autoimmune condition enormously and are frequently overlooked by the medical community.
Lack of Information
Many people of color live in places where they don’t have access to medical care or information about health. In the United States, where healthcare is privatized, this means that these families can’t afford insurance and have to go without medical care. This is a problem because people of color are often diagnosed with autoimmune diseases late, or not at all, until the disease has reached an advanced stage. Or, if they are diagnosed, cannot afford treatments. This can lead to poorer outcomes for those affected by autoimmune diseases such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), psoriasis, fibromyalgia and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
A Healthy Distrust of the Medical System
Throughout history, people of color have been used as guinea pigs by the medical community. The birth control pill that we know today was tested for years on low-income Puerto Rican women without informing them of possible side effects and without any medical care to treat these side effects. Some of these women died but their deaths were never investigated and complaints about the pills’ side effects were dismissed as “unreliable.”
A couple of decades earlier, the Tuskegee Study took place on low-income black men. The aim of the study was to see what happens when syphilis is left untreated. Participants were promised medicine but were instead given a placebo, or doses of ineffective treatments such as arsenic and mercury in exchange for free medical exams, meals, and burial assistance. About a decade later, a cure for syphilis was found, but not one of the participants was given the cure and many died years later from syphilis itself, or its related complications.
This treatment by the medical system has rightfully left many wary and distrustful and reluctant to seek care when ill.
What You Can Do
As autoimmune advocate Angie Alt says: Community Care is Self-Care. Healing thrives not in isolation but within the embrace of community.
We can support our community by listening to our shared experiences, amplifying diverse voices, and advocating for change. We can also support organizations that are working to address health disparities and improve access to care for marginalized communities.
Personally, I love what the Autoimmune Association is doing in our space. And if you’re looking to hear more about community and celebration when it comes to living with chronic illness, check out Chronicon founded by the ever-resilient Nitika Chopra.