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Autoimmune Conditions 101

What is Autoimmune Disease?

Autoimmune disease is a poorly understood collection of disorders (more than 80 different types) that is thought to involve an inappropriate immune response directed at your own cells and tissues.  In other words, the medical community believes that autoimmune disorders are caused by your immune system mistakenly attacking your body for unknown reasons, which can slowly rob you of your health.

A less common explanation of autoimmune disease involves your immune system initially behaving properly by attacking harmful microorganisms (such as bacteria, viruses, fungi) or foreign proteins (as in those from leaky gut syndrome) which become deposited in joints, organs and various tissues.  Then, as a result of a phenomenon known as “mimicry”, the immune system may later attack cells with similar antigens (external cellular proteins) to these foreign substances, even though they are non-pathogenic and native to your body.  This view presents another theory regarding the causes of autoimmune disease and suggests that a deeper understanding of infection might be needed for more accurate diagnosis and treatment.

What does it mean for my health?

Autoimmune disorders often result in the destruction of at least one type of tissue and resultant organ dysfunction.  Blood vessels, joints, connective tissue, and glands (such as the thyroid) are commonly affected.  Specific symptoms vary, although inflammation, diffuse/non-specific pain, mild fever, fatigue and malaise are the most common.  Examples of autoimmune diseases include lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and type-1 diabetes.  Health effects are variable, and range from minor to life altering, based on the severity of the condition(s) present, and the patient’s response to treatment.

Why are autoimmune diseases more common in women?

Autoimmune diseases are more common in women and many are thought to be influenced by hormone levels, including estrogen, progesterone and testosterone.  Also, women are well known to have more powerful immune systems than men, which may produce more powerful autoimmune responses.  Autoimmune diseases are not always distinct, as multiple disorders can strike the same woman simultaneously.  Constant, long-term tissue attack and destruction take their toll on the body, which explains why autoimmune diseases are among the ten leading causes of death among women up to the age of 65.

How are autoimmune diseases usually treated?

The treatment of autoimmune disease is usually with medications that decrease your immune response and reduce inflammation, such as corticosteroids and/or more powerful immunosuppressants.  You could try to change diet and exercise habits as a way to reduce stress, which is thought to be an autoimmune trigger (though “stress” is a common label, so while it is part of the issue, reducing stress may only slightly help symptoms).  There are also complementary and alternative medicine remedies, such as herbs, special diets and various procedures that may aid in disease and symptom reduction.  While some of these are bogus, others remain as valid options, so be sure to check with your doctor before embarking on any therapeutic efforts, whether alternative or conventional.

What kind of doctor should I see?

Your family doctor may be knowledgeable, but a specialist is usually recommended for accurate diagnosis and treatment.  Specialists who treat autoimmune diseases are called rheumatologists;, endocrinologists (glandular and hormonal problems),neurologists (nerve problems), dermatologists (skin problems) and gastroenterologists (digestive system problems), among others, may also participate in your diagnosis and treatment, depending on your signs and symptoms.

Questions for your doctor

Before you see the doctor, write down a complete family health history and record all the symptoms you experience for 1-4 weeks, noting other factors such as illness, diet, exercise, travel, lifestyle changes, pregnancy week or number of months post-pregnancy, etc.

  • Is it possible the symptoms are resulting from an infection?
  • Given any digestive issues (stomach, constipation), could you test me for a gluten problem? (Note: Consider consulting with a naturopath and explore the connection between leaky gut syndrome, gluten allergies and autoimmune disease.)
  • Could my many different symptoms actually be related and expressing themselves in multiple autoimmune issues?
  • What kinds of medications can I try that do not involve steroids?
  • Could you run a blood test that includes testing for: autoantibodies, Rheumatoid Factor (RF) and signs of inflammation such as CRP and ESR.

If any doctor doesn’t take your symptoms seriously, seek another opinion. Your symptoms can seem vague, but you know when something is wrong, so do not go untreated, for your own health and sanity. The best doctor will be one who hears you and wants to investigate to understand the entire health picture.



This blog post was originally published by and first published on Aug 27, 2012.

This post contains the opinions of the author. Autoimmune Association is not a medical practice and does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It is your responsibility to seek diagnosis, treatment, and advice from qualified providers based on your condition and particular circumstances. Autoimmune Association does not endorse nor recommend any products, practices, treatment methods, tests, physicians, service providers, procedures, clinical trials, opinions or information available on this website. Your use of the website is subject to our Privacy Policy.

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