Autoimmune disease is the scourge of the modern era. It happens when your body goes haywire and begins attacking itself, resulting in many uncomfortable symptoms and health problems. There are over 80 types of autoimmune diseases and they affect millions around the world.
In this article, you will learn what autoimmune diseases are, what causes them, what their symptoms and common types are, how to diagnose them, and how to treat them.
WHAT IS AN AUTOIMMUNE DISEASE?
In a healthy body, your immune system can tell the difference between its own cells and foreign cells. It protects its own healthy cells from invaders, like bacteria and viruses. If you have an autoimmune disease, your body can’t differentiate between its own cells and invaders. When your immune system mistakenly attacks your body and causes health problems as a result, it is called an autoimmune disease. Some autoimmune conditions, such as type 1 diabetes, target one organ only, others, such as lupus, affect the entire body. (1)
WHAT CAUSES AUTOIMMUNE DISEASE?
The exact cause of autoimmune diseases is not fully clear yet. The investigation is ongoing to fully understand it.
Autoimmune conditions affect twice as many women as men and often start during childbearing years between 14 and 44. Some autoimmune diseases are more prevalent among certain ethnicities. For example, lupus is more common among Black and Hispanic individuals. Certain autoimmune conditions, such as lupus and multiple sclerosis (MS) may run in families as well.
It seems that diet, lifestyle, and environmental factors likely play a role in the rise of autoimmune diseases.
The Western diet, high in refined sugar, processed foods, and unhealthy fats, can lead to inflammation in the body and trigger autoimmune diseases.
Environmental factors, such as infections and exposure to certain chemicals can play a role as well.
Some believe that the modern day extreme fear of germs, too much attention to hygiene and overuse of antiseptics can make children’s immune systems weaker and overreact to harmless substances later in life. (2, 3, 4, 5)
COMMON AUTOIMMUNE DISEASES
There are over 80 different autoimmune diseases identified so far. There may be more that are unknown. Here are the 14 most common autoimmune diseases (6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13):
- Type 1 diabetes: In type 1 diabetes, the immune system attacks and kills insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Insulin plays an important role in regulating blood sugar. Blood sugar issues can lead to all kinds of problems, including weight, heart, kidney, and nerve issues.
- Rheumatoid arthritis (RA): Osteoarthritis tends to affect the older generation, however, RA can start at a young age, even in your 30s. As the immune system attacks the joints, RA leads to stiffness, pain, soreness, warmth, and redness.
- Psoriasis/psoriatic arthritis: Psoriasis an autoimmune condition that affects the growth of skin cells, speeding it up, leading to red, scaly patches and skin plaque. In 30 percent of people, it can also lead to psoriatic arthritis that causes pain, stiffness, and swelling in the joints.
- Multiple sclerosis (MS): MS damages the protective coating around nerve cells, called the myelin sheath that interrupts the messages between the brain and the body. This disease leads to numbness, weakness, balance problems, and trouble walking.
- Lupus: Lupus affects the entire body, including the joints, kidneys, heart, and brain. It can lead to pain, rashes, and fatigue.
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD): IBD is the inflammation of the intestinal lining. Two common types of IBD are Crohn’s disease. causing inflammation at any part of the GI tract, and ulcerative colitis, affecting the large intestine and rectum.
- Addison’s diseases: Addison’s disease affects the adrenal glands, leading to hormonal problems, low blood sugar, fatigue, weight loss, and weakness.
- Graves’ disease: Graves’ disease is an autoimmune condition that affects the thyroid gland. As the thyroid produces too many hormones, weight loss, rapid heartbeat, nervousness, and heat intolerance arise.
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis: Hashimoto’s also affects the thyroid gland, but leads to slow hormone production, weight gain, sensitivity to cold, fatigue, hair loss, and goiter.
- Sjögren’s syndrome: Sjögren’s syndrome affects the joints and the lubrication of the mouth and eyes.
- Myasthenia gravis: Myasthenia gravis affects the nerves in the brain that control your muscles, leading to muscle weakness, fatigue, swallowing problems, and issues with facial movement.
- Vasculitis: Vasculitis affects the blood vessels, allowing less blood flow.
- Pernicious anemia: Pernicious anemia affects the intrinsic factor, a protein that helps B12 absorption, leading to low red blood cell count. This is more common among older people.
- Celiac disease: When people with celiac disease eat gluten, their immune system attacks its intestines, causing inflammation. People with celiac must avoid gluten completely. This is not to be confused with gluten allergy or sensitivity.
SYMPTOMS OF AUTOIMMUNE DISEASES
While symptoms vary condition to condition, some symptoms – especially early signs – can be very similar. They may include:
- Achy muscles
- Swelling and redness
- Hair loss
- Tingling and numbness in feet and hands
- Trouble concentrating
- Low-grade fever
- Skin Rashes
Some autoimmune diseases have specific symptoms. Type 1 diabetics may experience extreme thirst and weight loss. IBD comes with bloating, abdominal pain and diarrhea. Psoriasis has specific rashes.
Some autoimmune diseases, such as RA and psoriasis can go into remission. Symptoms may disappear for months or years, then suddenly flare up and come back for days, months, or years again. Other autoimmune diseases don’t come and go. Celiac disease must be addressed every hour of the day – gluten must always be avoided regardless of symptoms.
WHEN TO SEE A DOCTOR
If you experience any of these conditions, you need to visit a doctor. You will likely need a specialist. Gastroenterologists treat celiac and IBD. Endocrinologists work with patients of Graves’ disease, Hashimoto’s and Addison’s disease. Dermatologists can address psoriasis. Rheumatologist’s help patients with RA. Your general practitioner can direct you to the best specialist that can diagnose and treat your specific condition. (14, 17, 18)
DIAGNOSIS OF AUTOIMMUNE DISEASES
Diagnosis and testing depend on the autoimmune condition. For most conditions, there is no single test, but an assessment of symptoms and some other testing that can help lead to a diagnosis. An antinuclear antibody test (ANA) can help to identify the likelihood of an autoimmune condition. Your doctor may check for inflammation markers. With IBD, you may need a colonoscopy, and celiac requires a specific blood test. (14, 15, 16, 17, 18)
TREATMENT OF AUTOIMMUNE DISEASES
There is no cure for autoimmune diseases. Treatment can control the overactive immune response, lower inflammation, reduce symptoms, and in some cases, lead to remission.
Treatment depends on the type of autoimmune condition itself. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and immuno-suppressing drugs are often used. Type 1 diabetics need insulin. The treatment of psoriasis may involve using topical treatments.
In celiac disease, avoiding gluten at all costs, including cross-contamination, is essential.
Dietary and lifestyle changes can make an enormous difference in the outcome of most autoimmune conditions. Removing refined sugar, processed foods, artificial ingredients, and inflammatory foods is important. Eating an anti-inflammatory, fiber-rich, and nutrient-dense whole foods diet rich in greens, vegetables, and fruits is important. Getting regular exercise can also help you feel better. Identifying and avoiding dietary, environmental, and lifestyle triggers can also make a huge difference. (17, 19)
If you suspect that you have an autoimmune condition, visit your doctor for proper diagnosis and finding the right treatment. Dietary and lifestyle changes, avoiding triggers, lowering inflammation, and in some cases, the use of the right medication lower your symptoms, and even help you to experience remission.