What is autoimmune disease?
Autoimmune disease develops when your immune system, which normally defends your body against infections, treats your body’s healthy cells as foreign and attacks and destroys them. Although there are many different types of autoimmune diseases which can affect many different organs, at their core they are all similar in that they are an immune response caused by systemic inflammation that leads your body to attack itself.
Some of the parts of the body that can be affected include: the heart, the brain, nerves, joints, muscles, skin, eyes, lungs, kidneys, endocrine glands and blood vessels.
What Causes the Immune System to Attack Healthy Cells?
The cause of autoimmune disease is unknown however there are a number of theories as to what triggers an autoimmune response. These include: genetic predisposition, geographic and climatic factors, hormonal influences, allergens, bacterial or virus infection, drugs, chemical or environmental irritants/toxins, an inflammatory diet (there is a link between autoimmune diseases and diet and chronic inflammation can be tied to food sensitivities) and stress. Although many of these factors may play a part, the essential pathological abnormality has not been determined.
You may also be more susceptible to an autoimmune disease if a member of your family has an autoimmune condition e.g. some conditions like multiple sclerosis run in families and having a close relative with one autoimmune disease means you’re more likely to develop an autoimmune disease.
Autoimmune Diseases Harm “Self” Tissue
Autoimmune diseases result from an individual, producing antibodies, which go onto attack the individual’s own cells. Normally antibodies are produced by the so-called B cells to defend the individual from viruses, bacteria and other harmful invaders which are foreign. We do not have an explanation for the reason antibodies may be produced against “self”.
“Cross reactive” antigens occur when one antigen e.g. a foreign one, is so similar to another (of the individuals own) that when the T cells stimulate the B cells to produce antibodies these can attack the “self” tissue in a misguided attempt to defend what has been wrongly perceived to have been a potentially harmful invader. This ‘attack’ results in inflammation in the host tissues and it is this inflammation which is the hallmark of autoimmune disease.
What are the Symptoms of An Autoimmune Disease?
Symptoms can vary widely and depend on the autoimmune disease. There may also be periods where symptoms get worse or go into remission.
Some of the common symptoms are listed below:
- Feeling extremely tired or fatigued. Fatigue is the most common sign of autoimmune disease
- Joint and muscle pain or tremors
- Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet
- Weight loss and weight gain
- Digestive problems (abdominal pain, bloating, tenderness, heartburn, cramps, constipation, blood or mucus in your stool, diarrhea)
- Dry eyes, mouth or skin
- Problems sleeping
- Low blood sugar
- More susceptible to infections e.g. common colds, ear and throat infections and sinus problems
- Difficulty concentrating or focusing and memory problems
- Anxiety or depression
Autoimmune Disease Statistics
- Around 400,000 people in the UK with type 1 diabetes and this rate is growing at a rate of 3% per annum
- 700,000 people affected by rheumatoid arthritis
- At least 115,000 people with Crohn’s disease
- 127,000 for prevalence of MS with the number of people affected by the condition growing at a rate of 2.4% per year
- An estimated 8,400 people have Addison’s disease
- Lupus is thought to affect up to 50,000 people
In the US the National Institutes of Health estimates up to 24 million Americans are suffering from autoimmune disease. Other organisations like the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association estimates the figures closer to 50 million.
Autoimmune disease is one of the top 10 leading causes of death in female children and women in all age groups up to 64 years of age.
More Than 100 Types of Autoimmune Disease
Some of the most common ones are:
Thyroid disease occurs when your thyroid gland produces abnormally high amounts of thyroid hormones (hyperthyroidism) called triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4) causing the muscles and soft tissues within the eye socket to swell. This pushes the eyeball forward and causes various eye symptoms.
In about three in every four cases, an overactive thyroid is caused by a condition called Graves’ disease where the immune system attacks the thyroid and causes it to become overactive.
Graves’ disease mostly affects young or middle-aged women and it often runs in families.
Another thyroid condition is called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis which is caused by the immune system attacking the thyroid gland, which makes the thyroid swell and in turn causes it to become damaged.
As the damage to the thyroid increases it is unable to produce adequate quantities of thyroid hormone which leads to hypothyroidism causes a decrease in metabolism, an increase in tiredness, a gain in weight, dry or gritty eyes, dry skin, hair loss to name a few. Hashimoto’s thyroiditis can take months or years to manifest itself as it progresses slowly.
Like Graves’ disease Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is usually seen in women aged 30 to 50 and can run in families.
Systemic Lupus Erythematosus
Lupus is a complex and chronic condition autoimmune condition that can affect various parts of the body. Like other autoimmune diseases the immune system starts to attack healthy cells, including the skin, joints, and organs. Symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening.
There are two forms of lupus: discoid lupus, which only affects the skin, and systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), which affects the skin and joints. It can also involve internal organs including the heart, lungs, brain and kidneys.
Some of the symptoms of lupus include extreme fatigue, joint pain, skin rashes, weight loss and fever.
Type 1 Diabetes
Diabetes mellitus commonly referred to as diabetes causes a person’s blood sugar level to become too high. The amount of sugar in the blood is controlled by the hormone insulin, which is produced by the pancreas (a gland behind the stomach).
Type 1 diabetes results from damage to the pancreas caused by the immune system. This damage means the pancreas is unable to produce any insulin hence glucose cannot be moved from the bloodstream into the body’s cells.
Type 1 diabetes can be inherited so the autoimmune reaction may be genetic. If you have a relative e.g. a brother or sister with type 1 diabetes then you have about a 6% chance of also developing the condition. The risk for someone who doesn’t have a close relative with type 1 diabetes is just under 0.5%.
Symptoms can range from drinking more water than usual (and passing more urine), developing infections, loss of weight, tiredness and blurred vision.
Multiple sclerosis is a neurological condition and autoimmune disease that affects the Central Nervous System (CNS) (the brain and/or spinal cord) causing a wide range of potential symptoms with muscular control, sensation or balance and vision.
In MS, the body’s immune system attacks the nervous system and the inflammation which results from the attack leads to the destruction of the myelin sheath that protects the nerve fibres. The damage caused interrupts healthy communication between the brain and the rest of the body, slowing down or completely stopping messages from being sent.
In rheumatoid arthritis the immune system attacks the cells that line your joints causing pain, swelling and stiffness. Over time, this can damage the joint, the cartilage and the bone.
The symptoms usually affect the hands, feet and wrists but other parts of the body can also be affected e.g. the eyes, mouth and skin. Further complications can occur such as Sjögren’s syndrome (SS), also known as dry eye syndrome. Sjögren’s syndrome affects the salivary and lacrimal glands, which supply moisture to the eyes and mouth.
In this article we’ve mentioned a few of the many autoimmune diseases however there are many more including: Polymyalgia Rheumatica (which causes inflammation of the temporal arteries in your head); Coeliac disease is a common digestive condition where the small intestine becomes inflamed and unable to absorb nutrients and Addison’s disease (also known as primary adrenal insufficiency or hypoadrenalism) is a rare disorder of the adrenal glands to some others where there is no autoimmune link at the moment e.g. Fibromyalgia and Myalgic Encephalopathy.
Theory of Autoimmunity
The theory which I find most plausible is related to the influence of animal protein.
The main protein of cow’s milk is casein. When a child is exposed to cow’s milk at a young age antibodies may be produced against the casein (hence milk allergy), but the casein, an antigen, is very similar to some of the child’s’ own tissue antigens and on subsequent exposure to milk the individual may produce antibodies to its own ‘self’ tissues, with consequent inflammation, resulting in autoimmune disease affecting that tissue.
It is likely that other proteins, especially animal proteins to which an infant has been exposed, can similarly lead to inappropriate antibody responses by the body to its own tissues.
Treating Autoimmune Disease
While there are no cures for autoimmune disorders, there are various methods for helping to improve symptoms including exercising regularly, reducing stress through relaxation techniques such as yoga or massage as stress can worsen the immune response and getting plenty of rest.
However because the fundamental process in all autoimmune diseases is the inflammation which results from the antibody-antigen reaction and because inflammation is a result of free radical damage, I strongly believe that eating a balanced and healthy diet rich in fruit and vegetables, which provides a constant source of a wide range of good quality antioxidants, necessary to neutralise the damaging effects of the free radicals which are responsible for the inflammation in this and all other autoimmune diseases, is likely to reduce systemic inflammation and therefore lessen the need for the often toxic medications currently employed in the treatment of chronic inflammatory diseases.
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