Although I have heard of autoimmune diseases/disorders, I have never really understood what they are and why they occur. As we all know, humans possess an immune system. Its main function is to defend our bodies from germs and other foreign invaders. The immune system is composed of special cells and organs that deal with invaders and allergens by creating antibodies to fight off infection or the foreign intruders. In order for this defense to be mounted, the body’s immune system must recognize what is “self” (i.e., what belongs to the body) and what is “non-self” (what is foreign to the body). As you read on about the immune system, do keep in mind that as much as 80% of one’s immune system is centered in the gut.
What Happens When The Immune System Does Not Recognize The Difference?
Autoimmune disorders occur when the body fails to tell the difference between “self” and “non-self”. When this happens, the body makes antibodies that are directed towards the body’s own tissues. These autoantibodies attack the normal cells by mistake.
One of the components of the immune system is the regulatory T cells. These help regulate the immune system. When autoimmune disorders occur, these regulatory T cells fail in their function. The result is damage to various organs and tissues that are termed autoimmune disease. There are more than 80 known types of autoimmune disorders; and the type with which a person may suffer depends on the type of body tissue affected.
Examples of Some Autoimmune Diseases
Rheumatoid arthritis. The immune system produces antibodies that attach to the linings of joints. Immune system cells then attack the joints, causing inflammation, swelling, and pain.
Lupus. People with lupus develop autoimmune antibodies that can attach to tissues throughout the body. The joints, lungs, blood cells, nerves, and kidneys are commonly affected in lupus.
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The immune system attacks the lining of the intestines, causing episodes of diarrhea, rectal bleeding, urgent bowel movements, abdominal pain, fever, and weight loss. Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease are the two major forms of IBD.
Multiple sclerosis (MS). The immune system attacks nerve cells, causing symptoms that can include pain, blindness, weakness, poor coordination, and muscle spasms.
Type 1 diabetes mellitus. Immune system antibodies attack and destroy insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.
Guillain-Barre syndrome. The immune system attacks the nerves controlling muscles in the legs and sometimes the arms and upper body. Weakness results, which can sometimes be severe.
Chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy. Similar to Guillian-Barre, the immune system also attacks the nerves in CIDP, but symptoms last much longer. About 30% of patients can become confined to a wheelchair if not diagnosed and treated early.
Psoriasis. In psoriasis, overactive immune system blood cells called T-cells collect in the skin. The immune system activity stimulates skin cells to reproduce rapidly, producing silvery, scaly plaques on the skin.
Graves’ disease. The immune system produces antibodies that stimulate the thyroid gland to release excess amounts of thyroid hormone into the blood (hyperthyroidism). Symptoms of Graves’ disease can include bulging eyes as well as weight loss, nervousness, irritability, rapid heart rate, weakness, and brittle hair.
Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Antibodies produced by the immune system attack the thyroid gland, slowly destroying the cells that produce thyroid hormone. Low levels of thyroid hormone develop (hypothyroidism), usually over months to years. Symptoms include fatigue, constipation, weight gain, depression, dry skin, and sensitivity to cold.
Myasthenia gravis. Antibodies bind to nerves and make them unable to stimulate muscles properly. Weakness that gets worse with activity is the main symptom of myasthenia gravis.
Vasculitis. The immune system attacks and damages blood vessels in this group of autoimmune diseases. Vasculitis can affect any organ, so symptoms vary widely and can occur almost anywhere in the body.
What Can Be Done to Ward Off Autoimmune Diseases?
Genetics may play a role in causation of autoimmune disorders, but several environmental factors may also be important in causing autoimmune disorders. These include exposure to solvents, chemicals, viral and bacterial infections, sunlight, etc. As previously stated, at least 80 different autoimmune diseases have been identified to date, and an additional 40 illnesses are suspected to have an autoimmune component, according to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA). Autoimmune conditions are chronic and can affect every organ in the body, crossing almost all medical specialties, including gastroenterology, cardiology, neurology, rheumatology, gynecology, dermatology, and endocrinology.
The prevalence of autoimmune disorders is rapidly rising and now affects an estimated 23.5 million Americans, 75% of them women. In fact, autoimmune diseases are now among the top 10 leading causes of death in American women under the age of 65. Emerging research shows that most autoimmune conditions may share a common root hiding in the intestinal lining of individuals with autoimmune diseases, even years before the symptoms manifest.
Most all the research and reading I do to learn about diseases of the body point to a central fact that must not be ignored and can readily be addressed: establish and maintain a healthy gut!
This post is filled with a great deal of information which I hope answers some questions for any visitor suffering from an autoimmune disease. As always, your comments are welcomed.
Goldman, L. Cecil Medicine, Saunders, 2007.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on August 7,2016
Firestein, G. Kelley’s Textbook of Rheumatology, W.B. Saunders Company, 2008
Autoimmune Statistics. American Autoimmune-Related Disease Association website: http://www.aarda.org/autoimmune_statistics.php.