What is an Autoimmune Disease?
With MS Awareness Month around the corner in March, now is the perfect time to learn more about autoimmune disease and how it may be affecting your life or the lives of your loved ones. Autoimmune diseases are a group of illnesses that occur when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells, tissues, and organs. This autoimmune response can cause damage to virtually any part of the body, from muscles and joints to internal organs.
What is the cause?
When it comes to autoimmune diseases, doctors are unclear on what causes the immune system to attack. However, research has been done to confirm that women are more likely to have autoimmune diseases than men. About 75% of autoimmune disease sufferers are female. Researchers believe hormones may play a role in autoimmune diseases, which could explain why autoimmune diseases are more common in women.
Research also shows that autoimmune diseases tend to strike at certain ages. For example, Type 1 diabetes usually appears in childhood or adolescence, whereas lupus is most common for people between the ages of 15 and 44 years old. Understanding who is at greater risk for autoimmune conditions can help doctors diagnose and treat the condition faster, improving patient outcomes.
Certain autoimmune diseases are also more common among ethnic group like Lupus, which tends affects more African American and Hispanic people than white people.
What are some common autoimmune diseases?
There are over 80 different types of autoimmune diseases, below are some more common diseases;
Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
MS affects the central nervous system. It occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks and damages the protective covering of nerves, known as myelin. This damage disrupts communication between the brain and other parts of the body, causing a wide range of symptoms that can vary in severity depending on the person.
Lupus affects different systems of the body. It occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue, leading to inflammation and damage in many areas. Symptoms include fatigue, joint pain and swelling, skin rashes, fevers, and hair loss. Lupus can also affect internal organs such as the kidneys or heart.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
RA is a chronic autoimmune disease that causes inflammation in the joints. It occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s own healthy tissue, leading to painful swelling and stiffness of the joints.
Type 1 diabetes
Type 1 diabetes affects the body’s ability to produce insulin. The autoimmune system mistakenly attacks and destroys cells in the pancreas known as beta-cells, which are responsible for producing insulin.
Psoriasis causes red, itchy, scaly patches to appear on the skin. It occurs when the body's immune system malfunctions and speeds up the growth cycle of skin cells, resulting in raised, inflamed lesions.
which results in high levels of thyroid hormones in the body. It is caused when the immune system attacks the thyroid gland, stimulating it to produce too much of a hormone called thyroxine.
Can I reduce my risk of developing an autoimmune disease?
Autoimmune diseases arise from a combination of genetic susceptibility and environmental factors, meaning some autoimmune conditions may be hereditary. For example, type 1 diabetes has been shown to have an increased risk of developing if it is inherited from either parent. However, not all autoimmune conditions are necessarily passed down through families; these cases instead tend to be caused by a person's lifestyle or exposure to certain environmental triggers.
The potential for autoimmune diseases can be reduced with a few simple lifestyle changes. it’s important to maintain a healthy lifestyle—including getting regular exercise, eating anti-inflammatory foods, drinking plenty of water, and reducing stress.
Living with autoimmune disease requires ongoing management and monitoring to ensure that symptoms remain under control. Treatment options may include medications to control inflammation and autoimmune responses as well as the lifestyle modifications above. It is important for those with autoimmune diseases to work closely with their healthcare provider for individualized care tailored to their specific needs.