Last Updated June 14th, 2021
Did you know your own immune system can cause harm to you?
A strong immunity is a blessing, but it could be lethal if you have an autoimmune disease. Our complex system of organs, muscles, blood vessel, and many more, is protected from the attack of pathogens by the immune system. This system is a sophisticated network of organs, biological processes, and structures.
It provides a tough protection against every foreign invasion that could hamper our health. Be it as simple as the common cold virus or the deadly invasion of the HIV; your body’s immune system can provide a strong protective shield against these infections. Immunity is the trademark protective nature of our immune system.
You acquire immunity either naturally or by vaccinations.
You can even boost your own immunity by incorporating healthy diet and lifestyle habits. Immunity is all about maintaining just the right balance of the biological defense system so that you are safe from infections.
A slightly active immune system might mistake a harmless external substance (such as pollen or fur) as a potential pathogen. When this happens, your body rakes up its immunity by a sudden release of antibodies to fight against/ eliminate this element from your body.
An allergic reaction ensues when this happens. It might cause coughing and wheezing, rashes on the skin, or a runny nose. But what happens, when your immune system mistakes your own body cells as a threat?
Autoimmunity: Your body under threat
In some cases, your immune system makes the mistake of viewing a healthy body cell as a potential pathogen. The defense mechanism must destroy it to curb infection. Basically, your immune system is doing its regular job. The only difference is instead of protecting the healthy cells, it starts attacking them thinking they are microbial invasions.
The complete battalion of antibodies starts launching attacks on the healthy host. This flaw might look inconsequential at the surface. But deep down, it lays the foundation of autoimmunity. This misguided attack happens when the immune system fails to differentiate between “self” and “non-self” cells. Our immune system is largely dispersed throughout our body. As a result, autoimmunity has no specific location.
Such disorders, which occur because of auto-immunity, are Autoimmune Diseases. Autoimmune diseases could affect one or more than one site. Be it your central nervous system or your gastrointestinal tract. Be it your skin or the blood vessels circulating under it. Any part/s of your body can be targeted by autoimmunity.
Few eye-opening statistics
- There are 80 different types of autoimmune diseases known to human beings.
- Almost 80% of all people suffering from autoimmune diseases are women. Autoimmune diseases are found more amongst individuals of Asian and African-American descent than in any other ethnicity.
- Almost $100 billion is spent as a part of direct health care cost for all the AD (autoimmune disease) collectively every year.
- ADs are usually difficult to diagnose. According to AARDA (American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association), it takes around 4.6 years on an average to correctly identify the onset of these diseases.
- AARDA also contends that more than 100 serious chronic medical conditions could be attributed to ADs. ADs are the leading causes of mortality amongst women less than 64 years of age.
- The exact cause of ADs still eludes scientists. There are many factors which have been hypothesized to cause ADs – gender, genetics, exposure to infectious pathogens, or poisonous chemicals in the environment.
- Some experts believe that high consumption of sugar-laden and processed foods might cause autoimmunity in us. These factors lead to a greater risk of bodily inflammation, which might trigger autoimmune responses.
- Moreover,according to the hygiene hypothesis, the present day man is not exposed to sufficient levels of microbes and germs (on the account of vaccinations and other medicines). Since there is a limited exposure to such pathogens, our body’s immune system starts attacking its own cells.
Some common Autoimmune Diseases explained
1. Rheumatoid Arthritis
RA is the most commonly prevalent autoimmune disease in the world, affecting almost 1% of the total global population. It occurs as a result of the antibodies attacking the synovial fluid, a liquid present between the joints. This leads to inflammation and painful swelling of the joints which could further cause deformities in the bones or bone-erosion.
It affects the smaller joints first, such as the joints of your fingers and toes. It slowly proceeds to wrists, knees, elbows, and even to the hip joints. RA could increase an individual’s risk of acquiring osteoporosis, carpal tunnel syndrome (RA spread to the wrists), hardening of arteries, inflammation & scarring of pulmonary tissues, and even lymphoma.
Additionally, RA affected individuals often experience redness and swelling of the joints and a stiffness in the bones, which is worse in the morning time.
2. SLE or Systemic Lupus Erythematosus
This condition, also known as Lupus, affects roughly 5 million people worldwide. 90% of all Lupus patients are women. Most people witness an onset of disease between the ages of 15-44 years. Under this condition, the body’s autoimmune response strikes several sites such as the kidneys, skin, joints, cardiovascular system, and even the brain.
The term systemic refers to the fact that it can target multiple points within the body. Though it is an autoimmune disease, there are several risk factors which increase the probability of its onset. These are smoking, vitamin D deficiency, high exposure to UV rays, stress (physical or mental), and genetics (inheriting it from a parent).
The physical symptoms of Lupus include butterfly rashes on the cheeks (malar rashes), hair thinning and loss, stiffness in joints, arthritis or swelling in small joints (fingers and toes), increased incidence of ulcers in nose or mouth. Though there is no treatment for this condition, the symptoms are managed with the help of corticosteroids (immunosuppressants), steroid ointments for rashes, anti-malarial medications for treating joint-stiffness.
Lupus may make an individual vulnerable to Vasculitis (clots and blood vessel inflammation), cardiac arrest & stroke, renal inflammation and failure, inflammation of the lung tissues, and even cognitive and behavioral changes. Moreover,this disease affects different people differently. According to Lupus News Today, 78% of Lupus patients are able to manage this condition well via proper medication and healthy changes to lifestyle.
3. Celiac Disease
Along the inner-linings of your small intestine, there are tiny finger-like projections (roughly 0.5 to 1.5 mm in length) which absorb nutrients from the digested food and transfer it to the bloodstream. These are called as ‘Villi’. When individuals with Celiac Disease consume gluten-containing food, inflammation within the intestines ensues causing the villi to shrink.
This causes malabsorption of the nutrients.Gluten is a typical protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and other grains. Celiac disease occurs when your body starts treating this particular protein as a “foreign invasion”.
Many confuse this AD with food allergy to gluten. Celiac Disease causes just more than a simple allergic reaction upon gluten-consumption. It is marked by sharp pain in the abdomen followed by nausea, gas, diarrhea, constipation, and heartburn. It also causes red-colored rashes on the skin.
Likewise, the long-term consequences of this disease are a bone-density loss, increased fatigue, infertility, miscarriages, neurological diseases, and even cancer (if left untreated). However, 83% of cases of Celiac Disease are either misdiagnosed or under-diagnosed. It affects 1 out of every 133 Americans. The only cure for Celiac Disease is a gluten-free diet.
Other commonly occurring autoimmune diseases are
- Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Type 1 Diabetes
- IBD or Inflammatory Bowel Disease
- Grave’s Disease
- Ankylosing Spondylitis
- Alopecia areata
What is common to all autoimmune diseases?
The symptoms of autoimmune diseases occur in phases of flaring-up and remission. Their intensity fluctuates over time.
- People with autoimmune diseases often feel fatigued and low in energy. They generally have a low-grade fever and experience difficulty in concentrating.
- Joint aches and rashes are common if you have an autoimmune disease.
- If both of your parents (or even one) have an autoimmune condition, it is highly likely that you might develop it too. But the type of AD may vary. Not to mention,your parents could have Ankylosing spondylitis but you might end up developing IBD.
- Likewise, studies have indicated some common culprits leading to different types of autoimmune conditions such as – chemicals in hair dye and certain drugs for Lupus, smoking for Lupus, thyroiditis, and arthritis, exposure to silica for scleroderma, and Hepatitis B infection for Multiple Sclerosis.
- Moreover,many also report persistent muscle pain, dry eyes, increased hair loss, troubled breathing, palpitations, and infertility as a part of autoimmunity.
Common myths about autoimmunity
Many believe that your diet and lifestyle has no effect whatsoever on you developing any type of autoimmunity. Many believe that popping prescription pills is the only solution. Similarly, many hold a negative or sympathetic attitude towards autoimmune-affected individuals. Many considered them disabled or inherently diseased.
These are nowhere near the truth.
In reality, we might be consuming loads of toxins through our environment or diet. This could be altering our autoimmune responses negatively. But with positive changes in diet and lifestyle, these conditions, one can effectively manage an autoimmune condition. While it might be true that there are no known cures to these, it doesn’t mean that the patient will lead a disabled or poor-quality life.
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