Our immune system plays a key role in helping us stay healthy by defending our bodies from germs that cause sickness. It has the ability to recognize foreign substances in the body that are trying to do us harm and immediately activates antibodies to protect us from disease. When the immune system becomes flawed, it can no longer distinguish between healthy cells and foreign ones. This results in the immune system attacking and destroying healthy cells, tissues and organs. This is known as autoimmune disorders.
What is an Autoimmune Disorder?
A normal immune system is programmed to create antibodies to fight against viruses and bacteria in order to protect us from disease. Autoimmune disorders occur when the immune system goes awry and begins to destroy healthy cells instead of fighting off disease. The resultant damage of this misguided attack causes autoimmune diseases.
The effects of autoimmune diseases vary, depending on the individual and type of disease. Some diseases affect only one part of the body while others may cause damage to various body tissues and organs. An autoimmune disorder has the ability to destroy body tissue, cause abnormal growth in body organs and produce changes in the organ’s function.
People of all ages, nationalities and backgrounds are susceptible to autoimmune disorders. Millions of people around the world are affected by one or several of these diseases. Autoimmune disorders in the UK are not uncommon, as is evidenced by the approximately 100,000 individuals suffering from multiple sclerosis alone. Worldwide, that number escalates to about 2.5 million.
Certain groups and/or individuals are at higher risk than others in contracting autoimmune diseases. These include:
- Women, especially those of childbearing age.
- People with a history of autoimmune diseases (some disorders are hereditary).
- People from certain ethnic backgrounds or races (some disorders are more common among Caucasians, Hispanics and African-Americans).
- People who have been exposed to certain environmental elements such as solvents, viral and/or bacterial infections and overexposure to sunlight.
Diagnosing an Autoimmune Disorder
Because autoimmune disorders symptoms resemble the symptoms of many other health problems, it can be difficult to get a proper diagnosis. In addition, many autoimmune disorders share similar symptoms, further complicating a doctor’s ability to make an accurate judgment. Doctors have categorized approximately 80 different types of autoimmune disorders, many of which have comparable symptoms.
By reviewing your symptoms, conducting autoantibody tests and studying your health history, doctors can conclude whether you have autoimmune diseases. It’s possible for people to suffer from several autoimmune disorders simultaneously. Autoimmune diseases have no cure; however, doctors can help patients manage their symptoms.
Although autoimmune disorder symptoms vary with the disease, many conditions have these symptoms in common: fever, fatigue and a general feeling of being ill. During flare-ups, symptoms become worse. During remission, symptoms decrease. During flare-ups, these diseases can cause damage to many tissues and organs within the body. The most common areas affected are:
- Blood vessels.
- Red blood cells.
- Connective tissues.
- Endocrine glands.
Common Autoimmune Disorders
Some of the most common disorders include:
- Rheumatoid arthritis.
- Inflammatory bowel disease.
- Multiple sclerosis.
- Type 1 diabetes.
- Grave’s disease.
Autoimmune skin disorders include Dermatomyositis, Psoriasis and Scleroderma.
Causes of Autoimmune Disorders
Although doctors have a few theories, the actual cause of these diseases is yet unknown. One theory suggests that certain bacteria or drugs may somehow confuse a person’s immune system, causing it to malfunction. Other theories place the blame on chemical or environmental irritants.
Dr. Sarah Myhill of the British Society for Ecological Medicine believes chemicals act as a trigger to producing autoimmunity reactions. Her studies on autoimmunity and its causes reveal that these triggers can be found in a number of products. These include vaccinations, silicone, some prescription drugs and synthetic hormones for women. This is why women are more susceptible than men to autoimmune conditions. Many of these disorders are also genetic.
Treatment of Autoimmune Diseases
Because autoimmune disorders have no cure, doctors focus their efforts on helping to reduce the symptoms so patients can live better lives. Treatments vary depending on the type and severity of the disease. Medical treatments serve to:
Relieve symptoms. Over the counter drugs such as aspirin or ibuprofen can relieve mild symptoms while prescription drugs help alleviate pain, fatigue, anxiety, depression, sleep problems, etc.
Suppress immune system. By using medications to suppress immune system activity, doctors can control the damage caused by the disease and keep organs functioning longer.
Replace essential substances in the body. Autoimmune disorders can stop the production of certain substances necessary for bodily function. Medications help replace these substances to maintain health.
By helping patients to manage their symptoms, medication enables people to lead more productive lives. In addition to medication, patients can also use natural means of alleviating the symptoms of their condition. If you suffer from an autoimmune disease, adopting healthy living habits can do much to improve your physical, mental and emotional well being. Such habits include:
- Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet.
- Getting regular exercise.
- Getting sufficient sleep.
- Taking vitamin supplements.
- Decreasing stress in your life.
- Limiting exposure to the sun.
Newsflash: Major Breakthrough in Combating Autoimmune Diseases
According to a September 2014 study published in Nature Communications, University of Bristol researchers have made a major breakthrough in combating autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis which affects millions around the world. Through their research, scientists have discovered a means for converting aggressive cells that destroy body tissues into protective cells that guard against diseases.
Researchers hope their discovery will aid in treating such common disorders to improve millions of lives. Clinical development of the antigen-specific immunotherapy treatment is currently being conducted by Apitope, a biotechnology firm connected with the University.
Living with an autoimmune condition can be difficult. By connecting with organizations that offer information and advice about these diseases, patients can learn how to cope with their illness as well as get physical and moral support from others with similar illnesses. The following list provides information on a few of these organizations.
- The Butterfly Group: Offers support to patients affected by autoimmune diseases. (thebutterflygroup.org.uk).
- Lupus UK: Offers support for individuals with systemic and discoid lupus (lupusuk.org.uk).
- Coeliac UK: Offers support for UK residents with coeliac disease (coeliac.org.uk).
- Guillain-Barré Syndrome: Offers information and support for people affected by Guillain-Barré syndrome in Great Britain and Ireland (gbs.org.uk).
- Addison’s Disease Self Help Group: Offers support for those diagnosed with Addison’s Disease (or adrenal insufficiency) (addisons.org.uk).
- Thyroid UK: Offers information for promoting diagnosis and treatment of thyroid disorders, including Grave’s Disease (thyroiduk.org.uk).
- MS Society: UK’s largest charity for helping people with multiple sclerosis (MS) (mssociety.org.uk).
Autoimmune disorders affect people in different ways. Individuals who suffer mild symptoms from their condition may be able to live a fairly normal lifestyle, including upholding family and work responsibilities. Severe cases of autoimmune diseases can be completely disabling, robbing people of enjoying a high quality of life.
With medical assistance, many people have found relief of major symptoms and been able to make progress in their lives. Working with a specialist for your particular condition can make a difference in the quality of treatment you receive. Specialists are more knowledgeable in their particular field and be able to guide you to the medications best suited to helping you manage your condition. Getting control of your symptoms will help you enjoy a better life, despite your disease. The following doctors specialize in treating symptoms caused by autoimmunity diseases:
- Nephrologist: treats individuals with kidney problems caused by Lupus.
- Endocrinologist: treats people with hormone and gland problems caused by diabetes and/or thyroid diseases.
- Rheumatologist: treats arthritis and rheumatic diseases
- Hematologist: treats illnesses having to do with your blood, such as anemia.
- Neurologist: treats problems with your nerves to include myasthenia gravis and multiple sclerosis.
- Gastroenterologist: treats digestive problems like inflammatory bowel disease.