What Exactly Is an Autoimmune Disease?
In a healthy person, the immune system can tell the difference between foreign invaders — such as bacteria and viruses — and the body’s own healthy cells and tissues. But in someone with an autoimmune disease, the immune system mistakes healthy cells for foreign invaders.
As a result, the immune system attacks and destroys healthy tissue. This can damage any part of the body, including organs, joints, skin, and nerves.
The symptoms of autoimmune disease vary depending on which part of the body is affected. They can range from mild to severe and often come and go over time depending on the severity of the condition.
There is no one cure for autoimmune diseases, but treatments are available to help manage symptoms, prevent complications, and help those who are suffering get back on the path toward a happy, healthy life.
Prevalence of Autoimmune Diseases
Autoimmune diseases are some of the most common chronic conditions in the United States. It is estimated that more than 24 million Americans suffer from one or more of these disorders.
Also, it should be noted that women are more likely to develop an autoimmune disease than men.
In fact, about 75% of people with autoimmune diseases are women. Autoimmune diseases also tend to run in families, so you may be more likely to develop one if you have a close relative with the condition.
Why Are These Diseases So Common?
The prevalence of autoimmune diseases has been on the rise in recent years. Scientists don’t know exactly why this is, but there are a few theories.
One theory is that we are living longer and, as we age, our immune systems become less able to distinguish between healthy cells and foreign invaders. Additionally, the foods we eat and the environment we live in may play a role in the development of these conditions.
For example, processed foods and artificial ingredients can disrupt the gut microbiome, which may lead to inflammation and an increased risk for autoimmunity.
Additionally, exposure to toxic chemicals and pollutants has been linked to autoimmune diseases.
What Causes Autoimmune Diseases?
The exact cause of autoimmune diseases is unknown. However, they are thought to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
Some people may be born with a predisposition to developing an autoimmune disease. This means that they are more likely to develop the condition because of the genetics passed down to them through their family.
However, not everyone with the genes for autoimmune disease will go on to develop the condition. Something else must trigger the disease.
Possible triggers include:
- Environmental factors: Exposure to certain viruses or bacteria may trigger the development of an autoimmune disease.
- Immune system abnormalities: People with certain immune system disorders, such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, are more likely to develop other autoimmune diseases.
- Infections: Some infections can trigger an autoimmune response. For example, the Epstein-Barr virus, which causes mononucleosis, has been linked to multiple sclerosis and lupus.
- Medications: Certain drugs, such as beta-blockers and lithium, can trigger an autoimmune response.
- Stress: Emotional or physical stress can trigger the onset of some autoimmune diseases.
- Hormones: Changes in hormone levels, such as during pregnancy, can trigger an autoimmune response.
Common Autoimmune Diseases
There are more than 80 types of autoimmune diseases. Let’s take a closer look at some of the more common conditions and their symptoms:
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disorder that affects the joints. It can also affect other parts of the body, such as the skin, eyes, and lungs.
- Joint pain and stiffness
- Swelling and redness in the joints
- Weight loss
There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, but treatments are available to help relieve symptoms and prevent joint damage. These include medication, physical therapy, and surgery.
Lupus is a chronic inflammatory disorder that can affect any part of the body. The most common symptoms are fatigue, joint pain, and skin rashes. Lupus can also cause problems with the kidneys, heart, lungs, and brain.
- Joint pain
- Skin rashes
- Weight loss
Lupus is a chronic condition with no cure. Treatment focuses on relieving symptoms and preventing flares. Common medications used to treat lupus include anti-inflammatories, steroids, and immunosuppressants.
Multiple sclerosis is also a chronic inflammatory disorder that affects the nerves. It can cause a wide range of symptoms, from mild to severe.
Common symptoms include:
- Muscle weakness
- Problems with balance and coordination
Multiple sclerosis can also cause vision problems, bladder problems, and difficulty thinking or remembering.
There is no cure for multiple sclerosis, but treatments are available to help manage symptoms and slow the progression of the disease. These include medication, physical therapy, and lifestyle changes.
Type 1 Diabetes
Type 1 diabetes is a chronic condition in which the pancreas produces little or no insulin. Insulin is a hormone that helps the body use sugar for energy. Without insulin, sugar builds up in the blood and can damage organs, nerves, and blood vessels.
Symptoms of type 1 diabetes include:
- Excessive thirst
- Frequent urination
- Extreme hunger
- Weight loss
There is no cure for type 1 diabetes, but it can be managed with insulin therapy, diet, and exercise. Complications of type 1 diabetes include heart disease, kidney disease, and nerve damage.
Celiac disease is a chronic condition that damages the small intestine. It is triggered by eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. When people with celiac disease eat gluten, their immune system reacts by damaging the small intestine. This can cause nutrient malabsorption and a wide range of symptoms.
Symptoms of celiac disease include:
- Weight loss
- Abdominal pain
The only treatment for celiac disease is a strict gluten-free diet. This means avoiding all foods that contain gluten. People with celiac disease must be careful to read food labels and avoid hidden sources of gluten.
Autoimmune Thyroid Diseases
Autoimmune thyroid diseases are a group of conditions that affect the thyroid, which is a small gland in the neck that produces the hormones that regulate metabolism.
Autoimmune thyroid diseases occur when the body’s immune system attacks the thyroid gland, and this can cause problems with hormone production, resulting in a wide range of symptoms, including:
- Weight loss or gain
- Dry skin
- Hair loss
Common autoimmune thyroid diseases include:
Graves’ disease is one of the most common forms of autoimmune thyroid disease. It occurs when the body produces too much thyroid hormone. This can cause symptoms such as weight loss, anxiety, and irritability.
Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is another common autoimmune thyroid disease. This disease results when the body produces too little thyroid hormone, which causes symptoms such as fatigue, weight gain, and depression.
Autoimmune thyroid diseases are treated with medication, surgery, and lifestyle changes. The goal of treatment is to restore hormone levels to normal and relieve symptoms.
In some cases, people may need to take thyroid hormone replacement for the rest of their lives.
Get the Treatment You Need for Your Auto-Immune Condition at the Stengler Center for Integrative Medicine
If you’re struggling with an autoimmune condition, the team at the Stengler Center for Integrative Medicine can help!
Dr. Mark Stengler and his team offer a comprehensive approach to treatment that combines the best of conventional and naturopathic, holistic medicine.
The first step is to schedule a consultation with the Stengler team.
During your consultation, we will review your medical history and perform a physical examination. Part of the examination may include laboratory tests or imaging studies to diagnose your condition.
Once our experienced, compassionate team has diagnosed your condition, we will develop a treatment plan that is tailored to your individual needs. Your treatment plan may include a combination of medication, lifestyle changes, and nutritional supplements.
The team at the Stengler Center for Integrative Medicine is committed to helping you find the relief you need from your auto-immune disorder, so please reach out! We want you to know that we are here for you.
To learn more, contact us and schedule your consultation today!