An estimated 50 million people in the United States live with one or more known autoimmune diseases. Of this number, over 75 percent are women. Autoimmune diseases are among the top 10 causes of death among women under the age of 65, and the fourth-largest cause of disability among women of all ages.
What is autoimmune disease?
Autoimmune Diseases include a variety of illnesses and chronic disorders in which the body’s immune system begins to attack its own tissues.
Under normal conditions, the immune system protects us by recognizing foreign invaders such as bacteria and viruses and launching an attack. When a body suffers from an autoimmune disease, the immune system becomes confused and begins attacking healthy tissue as if it were an infectious organism.
One thing that makes autoimmune disease unique is that it can attack any part of the body. Another is that many of the illnesses included under the umbrella of the autoimmune label are rare. This, along with the diverse nature of the disease, makes it more difficult for the medical profession to understand and treat.
Potentially, a registry of persons with autoimmune disease would allow access to a broader pool of patients, allowing researchers to conduct more definitive studies.
What are the most common autoimmune diseases?
There are over 80 different types of illnesses linked to autoimmune disorders. Some of the more common include:
Multiple sclerosis (MS)
MS is a progressive disease of the central nervous system. Its course is unpredictable and symptoms vary widely among those affected. Over 400,000 people in the United States have MS, but of those, about 45 percent are not severely impaired. One of its most common symptoms is fatigue.
Type 1 Diabetes
In this disease, the body attacks the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas so that it stops producing insulin. Diabetes is usually diagnosed in children or young adults, but it can strike at any age. In the United States alone, 40,000 people a year are diagnosed with this disease. It’s predicted that 5 million people, including 600,000 young adults, will be affected by the year 2050.
Lupus can affect any part of the body, from the skin to internal organs. Its course includes periods of flares and remissions and varies in intensity from mild to life-threatening. It’s estimated that approximately 1.5 million people in the United States have lupus, with more than 16,000 new cases reported each year. Women between the ages of 15 and 44 are most likely to develop lupus, though it can also occur in men, children and teens.
Rheumatoid arthritis causes a thickening of tissue lining inside the joints, resulting in joint pain and swelling that if left unchecked, can cause permanent damage to cartilage and bones. Most prevalent in the knees, ankles, elbows, wrists, hands and feet, it will usually affect both sides of the body in the same region. In the United States, Approximately 1.5 million people suffer from Rheumatoid Arthritis. It’s most common in people between the ages of 30 and 60. The difference between men and women is startling: women are three times as likely to be affected.
What causes autoimmune disease?
There is a lot of speculation as to the cause of autoimmune disease. A common belief is that genetics may predispose families to these disorders. Interestingly, different family members may all have autoimmune diseases that manifest as a variety of different illnesses or chronic conditions.
While there is agreement that genetics is an underlying factor, there’s still little understanding as to what triggers these particular genes. Infections, viruses and prescribed drugs have been identified in certain illnesses.
Another theory focuses on the systemic inflammation that causes the immune response. Likely factors include heavy metal toxins, mycotoxins from molds and chronic inflammation from food sensitivities (such as gluten intolerance).
What are the symptoms of autoimmune disease?
Because so many different illnesses and conditions fall under the umbrella of autoimmune disease, there is no universal list of symptoms. Changes in your body, unusual symptoms or especially a combination of multiple symptoms may indicate the possibility of an autoimmune disease. Some things to watch for include:
- Tremors, joint and muscle pain or weakness
- Numbness or tingling in extremities
- Brain fog, inability to concentrate or focus, insomnia
- Unexpected weight gain or loss
- Heat or cold intolerance, sun sensitivity
- Recurrent rashes or white patches on skin
- Hair loss
- Abdominal pain, diarrhea, blood or mucus in stools
- Increased thirst, dry eyes, mouth, or skin
As these symptoms may also be indicative of other conditions, it’s always a good idea to see a professional health practitioner if you have concerns about your health.
Is there a cure for autoimmune disease?
There is no standard cure for autoimmune disease. Because of the chronic nature of these conditions most conventional treatments use medications to focus on one or more of the following three goals:
- Symptom relief
- Replacement therapy for substances the body no longer to produce
- Suppression of the immune system
Some medical professionals believe the key to healing autoimmune disease lies in treating the underlying cause of the systemic inflammation that causes the body to attack itself. This approach includes identifying and treating infections and allergens, removing heavy metal toxins, using nutrients to calm the immune response and stress relief.
Finding the Right Care
If you suspect you have autoimmune disease, find a health care professional who will work with you in the management and treatment of your condition.
Because these diseases differ for each person, it’s important for you to become familiar with your body and how it works. This allows you to monitor your condition and help your practitioner determine the best way to treat it.
With proper care and treatment, autoimmune disease can be successfully managed — keeping flare-ups to a minimum and offering sufferers the opportunity to maintain a fairly normal lifestyle.