What is it? An autoimmune disease is a condition in which your immune system mistakenly attacks your body. The immune system normally guards against germs like bacteria and viruses. When it senses these foreign invaders, it sends out an army of fighter cells to attack them. Normally, the immune system can tell the difference between foreign cells and your own cells. In an autoimmune disease, the immune system mistakes part of your body — like your joints or skin — as foreign. It releases proteins called autoantibodies that attack healthy cells.
Some autoimmune diseases target only one organ e.g. Type 1 diabetes damages the pancreas. Other autoimmune diseases, like lupus, affect the whole body.
What causes it? Doctors don’t know what causes the immune system misfire. Yet some people are more likely to get an autoimmune disease than others. Women get autoimmune diseases at a rate of about 2 to 1 compared to men. Often the disease starts during a woman’s childbearing years (ages 14 to 44). Some autoimmune diseases are more common in certain ethnic groups. For example, lupus affects more African-American and Hispanic people than Caucasians. Certain autoimmune diseases, like multiple sclerosis and lupus, run in families. Not every family member will necessarily have the same disease, but they inherit a susceptibility to an autoimmune condition.
Because the incidence of autoimmune diseases is rising, researchers suspect environmental factors like infections and exposures to chemicals or solvents might also be involved. A “Western” diet is another suspected trigger. Eating high-fat, high-sugar, and highly processed foods is linked to inflammation, which might set off an immune response. Another theory is called the hygiene hypothesis. Because of vaccines and antiseptics, children today aren’t exposed to as many germs as they were in the past. The lack of exposure could make their immune system overreact to harmless substances.
The bottom line is that researchers don’t know exactly what causes autoimmune diseases. Diet, infections, and exposure to chemicals may be involved.
If you have been diagnosed with an autoimmune condition, contact Feel Good Nutrition and discuss your symptoms with a nutritional therapist who can offer advice on a diet plan, specific supplements and lifestyle changes that can help ease your condition.
Common Autoimmune Diseases
There are more than 80 different autoimmune diseases. Here are 10 of the most common ones.
- Type 1 Diabetes
The pancreas produces the hormone insulin, which helps regulate blood sugar levels. In type 1 diabetes, the immune system attacks and destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.
- Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)
In RA the immune system attacks the joints. This attack causes redness, warmth, soreness, and stiffness in the joints.
- Psoriasis/Psoriatic Arthritis
Skin cells normally grow and then shed when they’re no longer needed. Psoriasis causes skin cells to multiply too quickly. The extra cells build up and form red, scaly patches called scales or plaques on the skin.
- Multiple Sclerosis
MS damages the myelin sheath — the protective coating that surrounds nerve cells. Damage to the myelin sheath affects the transmission of messages between your brain and body. This damage can lead to symptoms like numbness, weakness, balance issues, and trouble walking. The disease comes in several forms, which progress at different rates.
- Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (Lupus)
Although doctors in the 1800s first described lupus as a skin disease because of the rash it produces, it actually affects many organs, including the joints, kidneys, brain, and heart. Joint pain, fatigue, and rashes are among the most common symptoms.
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease
IBD is a term used to describe conditions that cause inflammation in the lining of the intestines. Each type of IBD affects a different part of the GI tract.
- Crohn’s disease can inflame any part of the GI tract, from the mouth to the anus.
- Ulcerative colitis affects only the lining of the large intestine (colon) and rectum.
- Addison’s Disease
Addison’s disease affects the adrenal glands, which produce the hormones cortisol and aldosterone. Having too little of these hormones can affect the way the body uses and stores carbohydrates and sugar. Symptoms include weakness, fatigue, weight loss, and low blood sugar.
- Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis
In Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, thyroid hormone production slows. Symptoms include weight gain, sensitivity to cold, fatigue, hair loss, and swelling of the thyroid (goitre).
- Pernicious Anaemia
This condition affects a protein called intrinsic factor that helps the intestines absorb Vitamin B12 from food. Without this vitamin, the body can’t make enough red blood cells.
- Coeliac Disease
People with coeliac disease can’t eat foods containing gluten — a protein found in wheat, rye, and other grain products. When gluten is in the intestine, the immune system attacks it and causes inflammation.