The immune system in our body is essential as it protects us from attacks of Bacteria and Viruses. However, when the immune system mistakenly attacks itself, it is termed an Autoimmune Disease.
You might have heard about the Immune system in many health topics.
The immune system is responsible for keeping us safe and healthy. This vast network of cells and tissues constantly protects us from the attacks of bacteria and viruses.
The immune system is spread throughout our bodies and involves a number of types of cells, organs, proteins, and tissues.
In case the immune system comes in contact with a pathogen i.e. bacteria or virus, it mounts an immune response.
What is an Autoimmune Disease?
When the immune system senses a foreign invasion i.e. attack of bacteria or a virus, it sends out white blood cells to fight the pathogens.
Normally, the immune system has the ability to tell the difference between foreign and its own cells.
However, in an autoimmune disease, the immune system mistakes parts of your body like joints or skin as foreign and as a result releases proteins, antibodies that attack the healthy cells.
In some cases, it affects only one organ. There are over 80 types of autoimmune diseases according to the National Institute.
For instance in Type I Diabetes, damages the pancreas. However, in other cases, it can affect multiple organs
Moreover, Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) affects the whole body.
Let us first discuss how our immune system works.
How does an Immune System Works?
The immune system of our body has the ability to differentiate itself from foreign pathogens, i.e. bacteria and viruses.
It does so by detecting proteins that are found on the surface of the cells. At an early stage, it learns to ignore its own proteins.
An antigen is any substance that can spark an immune system. In most cases, An antigen is a bacterium, fungus, toxin, or virus.
However, it can also be one of the own cells of our body that is dead or faulty.
At the initial stages, a range of cell types works together to recognize the antigen or foreign body as an invader.
When white blood cells spot an antigen they secrete antibodies that lock onto specific antigens.
Each of these makes a specific antibody. For Instance, one antibody might work against bacteria that cause pneumonia and another might work against the cold virus.
The antibody is a part of a large family of chemicals, Immunoglobulins which plays an important role in the immune system:
Immunoglobulin marks microbes so other cells can recognize them, however, IgM kills bacteria.
IgA congregates in fluids where it protects the gateways into the body and IgE protests the body against parasites and allergies.
To start the immune system, IgD stays bound to B lymphocytes.
The purpose of antibodies is to mark the pathogen not kill it. The killing is the job of Phagocytes.
When does the Immune system Attack the Body?
To this date, doctors do not know the reason why the immune system attacks itself.
However, some people are more likely to b affected by an autoimmune disease than others.
A study in 2014 indicates that women are more likely to develop an autoimmune disease than men, i.e. 6.4% of women vs. 2.7% of men.
In most cases, however, women develop autoimmune diseases during their childbearing years.
Studies also suggest that some diseases are more common in some ethnic groups.
For instance, Lupus affects more Afro-Americans and Hispanic people than Caucasians.
Autoimmune diseases also run in families. For instance, Multiple Sclerosis and Lupus.
It is important to note that it is not compulsory that if you have a chance of developing it due to heredity factors you will do so.
However, you do inherit a susceptibility to an autoimmune disease.
Some researchers also suggest that these diseases are due to environmental factors like infections, and exposure to chemicals or solvents.
A study in 2015 also suggests that because of vaccines and antiseptics, children are more likely to be affected by germs than before as they are more exposed.
This lack of exposure could make their immune system prove to over-react to harmless substances is termed as Hygiene Hypothesis.
Causes of Autoimmune Disease
To protect our body against pathogens, i.e. bacteria and viruses, the blood cells in our immune system fight against them.
When you have an immune disorder, it does not distinguish between healthy tissues and potentially harmful antigens.
As a result, the body mistakenly attacks itself and destroys normal tissues.
The cause is unknown, however, one theory suggests that some micro-organisms may trigger it.
This happens in people who have genes that make them prone to an autoimmune system or has inherited from either or both of their parents.
An autoimmune disorder may result in :
- The destruction of body tissue
- Abnormal growth of an organ
- Changes in the function of an organ
An autoimmune disease can also affect one or more organs or tissue types. Areas that are often affected by this diseases are:
- Blood vessels
- Connective Tissues
- Endocrine Glands Like thyroid, pancreas
- Joints and muscles
- Red blood cells
In some cases, a person may have one or more autoimmune diseases. some common autoimmune diseases are Addison disease, Celiac Disease, Graves Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, etc.
Signs and Symptoms
Despite the varying types of autoimmune disease, some common signs and symptoms you right face are as follows:
Fatigue, Pain in joints, and swelling.
Skin problems, abnormal pain or digestive issues, recurring fever, and swelling in the glands.
In some cases, individual diseases can also have their set of signs and symptoms.
For example, In Type I Diabetes, you might face extreme thirst, weight loss, and fatigue.
IBD causes belly pain, bloating, and diarrhea.
With some diseases like psoriasis or RA, (rheumatoid arthritis) symptoms may come and go.
A period of such symptoms is called a flare-up. However, when they go away is termed as remission.
Tests and Diagnosis
No single test can help diagnose most autoimmune diseases.
Your doctor will use a combination of different tests and review your symptoms and physical examination for the diagnosis.
The ANA (antinuclear antibody test) is one of the primary tests your doctor will perform.
They will take this test when you are showing signs and symptoms of an autoimmune disease.
A positive test means you may have one of these diseases however, it will not confirm exactly which one you are suffering from.
Other tests look for specific autoantibodies your body produces in certain autoimmune diseases.
Some of these tests are CBC (complete blood count), Complement test, C Reactive Protein, Erythrocyte Sedimentation rate, etc.
Moreover, your doctor might also do non-specific tests for the inflammation these diseases cause in the body.
Treatment of Autoimmune Disease
There is no cure for autoimmune diseases, however, your doctor can recommend medications that control the overactive immune response.
This brings down the inflammation or at least reduces the pain and inflammation in parts of your body.
The goals of the treatment are to control the autoimmune system, maintain the body’s ability to fight diseases, and reduce symptoms.
Some drugs your doctor will recommend are:
Non-Steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen, (Motrin Advil) and Naproxen (Naprosyn)
Or they will recommend Immune suppressing drugs.
There are other treatments available to relieve the symptoms like pain, swelling, fatigue, and skin rashes.
Moreover, eating a balanced and healthy diet, and regular exercise can also help you feel better.
Targeted drugs such as Tumor Necrosis Factor (TNF) blockers and interleukin inhibitors can be used to treat some types.
Other standard treatments method include Vitamin or hormone supplements your body might be lacking, Blood transfusions (in case the disease is blood-related), and physical therapy.
However, there are certain side effects of using different medications.
For instance, you are more prone to get infections and can be life-threatening in cases of using steroids.
Researchers are continuously working to develop medications to treat or repress the active pathogens that cause a spark in the immunity system.
These either block the activation of pathogenic cells or alter the pathway that suppresses these cells naturally.
Such options are:
Monoclonal antibodies to block inflammatory cytokines, Antigen-Specific Immunotherapy which targets abnormal cells.
The co-stimulatory blockade that blocks the pathways that leads to the autoimmune system and Regulatory T cell therapy to suppress the autoimmune response.
Common Autoimmune Diseases
Some common Autoimmune diseases are as follows:
Rheumatoid Arthritis: In this type of disease, the immune system produces antibodies that attach themselves to the lining of joints.
As a result, it causes inflammation, swelling, and pain.
If you do not get treatment for Rheumatoid Arthritis it can cause permanent joint damage. However, the treatment includes various oral and injectable medications
Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (Lupus): People with this disease develop autoimmune antibodies that attach themself to tissues throughout their body.
As a result, your joints, lungs, blood cells, nerves, and kidneys can get affected.
Treatment options for this disease include Prednisone, which is a steroid to reduce immune system function, according to the department of health.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD): In this disease, your immune system attacks the lining of the intestines that cause episodes of Diarrhea, rectal bleeding, urgent bowel movements, abdominal pain fever, and weight loss.
There are two forms of this disease:
- Ulcerative Colitis
- Crohn’s Disease
The treatment options include oral or injectable medications that suppress the IDB, according to health and human services.
Multiple Sclerosis: This attacks the nerve cells causing symptoms that include pain, blindness, weakness, poor coordination, and muscle spasm.
Your doctor will use various medications to treat the signs and symptoms of this disease.
Type I Diabetes: In this disease, your immune system attacks and destroys the insulin-producing pancreas.
The treatment option for this disease is injecting insulin injection.
Hashimoto’s Disease: This disease cause thyroid disorders in your body resulting in hypothyroidism or underactive thyroid.
In most cases, the department of health recommends using a thyroid medicine that is identical to the thyroid hormones your body makes.
What You Can Do?
It is very important to identify and deal with the autoimmune disease if you suspect it.
Some offenders are wheat, dairy, corn, soy, fish, nuts, and certain fruits that can aggravate the condition.
moreover, high sugar stresses the immune system. Therefore, it is important to make sure that you eliminate fats and other bad fats that might be harmful.
Make sure to get good fats, such as olive oil, fish oil, and avocado.
If your doctor prescribes your steroids, it is important to keep yourself away from infections as they make your immune system vulnerable.
Take care of your teeth, as some gum diseases can trigger autoimmune diseases. It can therefore lead to the extraction and removal of the teeth.
Moreover, each autoimmune disease will have different dietary and therapeutic recommendations, therefore, it is important to follow your doctor’s instructions.
More than 80 different autoimmune diseases exist and the signs and symptoms of most of these overlap.
Therefore, it is hard to diagnose the.
Studies suggest that autoimmune diseases are common in women than in men. To diagnose the type of disease, your doctor will conduct blood tests.
Treatment options include steroids or non-inflammatory steroids that help suppress the overactive immune system and bring down inflammation in the body.