The body is designed to fight off disease and infection. When you are exposed to a virus or bacteria, or something goes wrong with your cells, the body recognizes that and starts an immune response. Part of this immune response is the development of “Antibodies”.
Antibodies are designed to attack specific threats to your health and everyone has experienced this! Remember what it feels like when you get the flu?
That’s the immune system working full force to rid the body of illness.
How is Autoimmune Different?
When someone has an autoimmune disease, it means that their body’s own natural defense mechanisms are attacking healthy, normal tissue. The body has developed antibodies that now think they need to kill the body’s own cells
Researchers are not sure why the body suddenly decides to attack its own tissue. Scientists are currently looking at how viruses may confuse the body’s natural immune system. They are also looking at environmental causes of autoimmune disease, and the effects of diet.
A leading researcher at National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Dr. Frederick Miller, has made great strides in understanding autoimmune diseases. You can learn more about him and his programs here.
How Many Are There?
There are over 70 different kinds of illnesses that fall under the heading “autoimmune”. In the past, it was believed that these were all completely separate illnesses. Recently, however, researchers think that there may be a connection between all types of autoimmune disease. It looks like there may be a similar trigger that sets the autoimmune process in gear.
If we can figure off what gets the body’s immune system confused, we can prevent and treat autoimmune illnesses better. There are some known triggers:
- Autoimmune diseases tend to run in families, so we know there is likely a genetic element in play.
- Other triggers are chemicals. These can come from:
- Work exposure
- The Environment
- Extreme exposures, such as those during war.
The environmental trigger is getting attention now, because members of the military are developing a rare form of autoimmune disease caused Myositis at twice the rates as those found in the rest of the population. Researchers are conducting a study about this now. “Preliminary studies suggest that over the past decade, military personnel developed myositis at a rate that was double that of nonmilitary personnel.”: You can learn more about that here.
What are the Symptoms
Since there are so many types of autoimmune disease, the symptoms may be quite different for different people. However, there are some core similarities. These include:
- Feeling tired/fatigued
- Flu-like symptoms without the fever
- Joint pain
- Joint swelling
- Achiness throughout the body
Autoimmune diseases may attack specific joints, organs, and tissues, such as connective tissue. The types of symptoms one experiences depends on which parts of the body have been attacked.
How do You Know if you Have an Autoimmune Disease?
Getting a an autoimmune diagnosis can be harder than you think. While some autoimmune can be detected on blood tests, other disease are diagnosed on symptoms only, and do not show up in blood tests. Here are some common tests that medical practitioners will start with:
Complete Blood Count (CBC): This is a standard test that measures the white blood cells (which are part of immunity) and the red blood cells which help transport oxygen to the cells.
- Antinuclear Antibody Test (ANA). This test is looking for a type of antibody that targets the nucleus which is inside the cells
- C Reactive Protein (CRP): This is a test that can detect inflammation, but it doesn’t identify where the inflammation is happening or why it developed
- Autoantibody tests: There are a number of tests that can identify an antibody that is specifically attacking certain cells. This test can give a definitive diagnosis of some types of autoimmune disease
- Sedimentation Rate (SED rate): This is another general blood test that can confirm the presence of inflammation, but does not pinpoint where or why it is happening.
The type of treatment needed really depends on the type of autoimmune disease someone is experiencing. Living a healthy lifestyle can help the body come back into balance on its own. For example
- Avoiding processed foods
- Identifying work place chemical hazards
- Eliminating smoking and other chemical immune triggers
- Getting adequate rest
- Allergy testing to identify dietary triggers
Sometimes, without a clear diagnosis, suppression therapy is started. Suppression attempts to turn off the over-active immune response.
Medications for pain and anti-inflammatories may also be tried.
Common Autoimmune Diseases
Learn more about specific immune diseases in our health blog, key word Autoimmune. Some common autoimmune conditions include:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Hashimotos thyroiditis
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Graves Disease
- Psoriatic Arthrits
The information contained on this site is for educational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for diagnosis or treatment rendered by a licensed medical professional. It is essential that you discuss with your primary care provider any symptoms or medical problems that you may be experiencing.
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Stolt P, et al. Quantification of the influence of cigarette smoking on rheumatoid arthritis: results from a population based case–control study, using incident cases. Ann Rheum Dis. 2003;62(9):835–841. doi: 10.1136/ard.62.9.835.