Are you Suffering from an Autoimmune Disease?
When an intruder invades your body—like a cold virus or bacteria on a thorn that pricks your skin—your immune system protects you. It tries to identify, kill and eliminate the invaders that might hurt you. But sometimes problems with your immune system cause it to mistake your body’s own healthy cells as invaders and then repeatedly attacks them. This is called an autoimmune disease. “Autoimmune” means immunity against the self.
The Immune System
Your immune system is the network of cells and tissues throughout your body that work together to defend you from invasion and infection. You can think of it as having two parts: the acquired and the innate immune systems.
The acquired (or adaptive) immune system develops as a person grows. It “remembers” invaders so that it can fight them if they come back. When the immune system is working properly, foreign invaders provoke the body to activate immune cells against the invaders and to produce proteins called antibodies that attach to the invaders so that they can be recognized and destroyed. The more primitive innate (or inborn) immune system activates white blood cells to destroy invaders, without using antibodies.
Autoimmune diseases refer to problems with the acquired immune system’s reactions. In an autoimmune reaction, antibodies and immune cells target the body’s own healthy tissues by mistake, signalling the body to attack them.
What are Autoimmune Diseases?
Autoimmune diseases can affect almost any part of the body, including the heart, brain, nerves, muscles, skin, eyes, joints, lungs, kidneys, glands, the digestive tract (important to eat healthy), and blood vessels.
The classic sign of an autoimmune disease is inflammation, which can cause redness, heat, pain, and swelling. How an autoimmune disease affects you depends on what part of the body is targeted. If the disease affects the joints, as in rheumatoid arthritis, you might have joint pain, stiffness, and loss of function. If it affects the thyroid, as in Graves’ disease and thyroiditis, it might cause tiredness, weight gain, and muscle aches. If it attacks the skin, as it does in scleroderma/systemic sclerosis, vitiligo, and systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), it can cause rashes, blisters, and colour changes.
Many autoimmune diseases don’t restrict themselves to one part of the body. For example, SLE can affect the skin, joints, kidneys, heart, nerves, blood vessels, and more. Type 1 diabetes can affect your glands, eyes, kidneys, muscles, and more.
No one is sure what causes autoimmune diseases. In most cases, a combination of factors is probably at work. For example, you might have a genetic tendency to develop a disease and then, under the right conditions, an outside invader like a virus might trigger it.
The list of diseases that fall into the autoimmune category includes:
- alopecia areata
- autoimmune hemolytic anemia
- autoimmune hepatitis
- diabetes (type 1)
- some forms of juvenile idiopathic arthritis
- Graves’ disease
- Guillain-Barré syndrome
- idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura
- myasthenia gravis
- some forms of myocarditis
- multiple sclerosis
What are my Treatment Options?
The treatment depends on the disease, but in most cases one important goal is to reduce inflammation. Sometimes doctors prescribe corticosteroids or immunosuppressive drugs. You may wish you have a nutritionist take a look into your diet.