Autoimmune diseases are becoming more common, but few of us truly understand what they are and the risk factors to developing one. While there is still much that is unknown about autoimmune diseases, it is important to know the information that IS available, because these conditions are more prevalent than you might think. Today we’ll look at the basics of how an autoimmune disease works, some common autoimmune diseases and treatments, as well as statistics and risk factors.
Autoimmune Disease…The Confused Army
Your immune system is your body’s army at the ready. This army is ready to protect you at the first sign of an attacking bacterium, parasite, virus, or cancerous cell. It is still unknown exactly why, but when you have an autoimmune disease, the army gets confused and attacks the castle it is sworn to defend instead of the invading force. In these conditions, the auto-immune system becomes overactive, attacking and damaging itself and decreasing the body’s ability to fight future invasion. The body is now vulnerable to infection.
Responding to unknown triggers, the immune system begins to produce antibodies. These antibodies then attack the body's own tissues instead of fighting infections. The body is now under multiple attacks, both from within and outside.
A Quick Look at the Stats
Autoimmune disease is common. About 1 in 15 people in the U.S. have an autoimmune condition, meaning it’s likely you personally know someone suffering from one. Right now, women are more likely to have autoimmune diseases, making up 78% of all cases. These diseases can be fatal, ranking in the top 10 causes of death for women ages 64 and younger. Due to the seriousness of these common conditions, it’s important that you know the risk factors in developing an autoimmune disease.
While it’s unclear exactly what causes autoimmune diseases, there are some common risk factors that may increase your chances of developing one of these conditions. These risk factors include:
- Being female
- Having certain infections
- Side effects of medications
- Exposure to toxins
- Having one autoimmune disease increases your risk of developing a secondary or third one
- Having relatives with an autoimmune disease
Since autoimmune diseases can be genetic, we recommend that you talk to your doctor if you know of a relative that has been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.
Autoimmune Diseases and How They Behave
There are currently over 100 known autoimmune diseases. Here is a short list of common conditions, what they affect, and possible treatment options.
- Lupus- With lupus, the body develops antibodies that attach to tissues like joints, lungs, blood cells, nerves, and kidneys. Treatment is often an oral steroid to reduce immune system function.
- MS (multiple sclerosis)- In MS, the immune system attacks nerve cells. This causes pain, blindness, weakness, coordination issues, and muscle spasms. The onset of these symptoms can be sudden and last from minutes to months.
- Rheumatoid arthritis- Patients with RA have bodies that produce antibodies that attach to the lining of the joints, resulting in swelling, inflammation, and pain. Untreated RA gradually causes permanent joint damage and is often accompanied by deformity, especially in the hands and feet.
- Type 1 diabetes- With this disease, the antibodies created attack and destroy insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. The result is that patients require insulin injections to survive.
Other common diseases include Hashimoto’s and Grave’s, which both affect the thyroid, Crohn’s and celiac, which both affect intestines and GI, and psoriasis that affects the skin.
Many of these conditions are traditionally treated with steroids and other pharmaceuticals to suppress immune function; however, this leaves the body without the defense system it needs. Many people have gone into remission using diet and supplementation. One notable case is that of Dr. Terry Wahls, author of The Wahls Protocol. Dr. Wahls was the first doctor to take a modified Paleo diet to clinical trials after beating progressive MS with paleo principles and functional medicine.
Knowing how common auto-immune diseases are, as well as knowing the risks, arms you to be proactive in protecting your health.