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Autoimmune Diseases, Our Body’s Self-Destruct Sequence

Courtesy of womenshealthfoundation.org

Courtesy of womenshealthfoundation.org

Hanna Morton

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There are at least 80 disorders that are characterized as autoimmune diseases and these disorders affect approximately 50 million Americans, or 17% of the population. However, despite the amount of people that are affected, most do not know what an autoimmune disease is or even that two of our most well known disorders, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis, are actually considered autoimmune.

Autoimmune diseases occur when the body’s immune system becomes overactive and begins to basically self-destruct and attack healthy cells, causing painful inflammation within the affected area.  This can develop in any part of the human body, usually multiple at once, but most commonly the skin, muscles, and joints, and they are usually accompanied by fevers and fatigue.

Aside from the symptoms, they are diagnosed and kept track of through a series of tests, the most used being erythrocyte sedimentation rate (often shortened to “sed rate”), which measures the amount of inflammation in your body; antinuclear antibody tests (or ANA) which are a series of tests that look for a antinuclear antibodies, antibodies that attack the nuclei of a cell; and complete blood count, which measures the amount of red and white cells in a person’s blood. Other tests include autoantibody tests and C-reactive protein, which tests for antibodies and inflammation respectively.

The common types and the primary organs affected by each include rheumatoid arthritis (joints and surrounding tissues), systemic lupus erythematosus (various, including brain, joints, skin, and kidneys), psoriasis (skin), Hashimoto’s (thyroid), inflammatory bowel disease (an umbrella term for autoimmune diseases that attack the lining of the intestines, Chron’s and Ulcerative colitis are the two most common forms), multiple sclerosis (nerve cells), and type one diabetes mellitus (the insulin producing cells of the pancreas).

Doctors are uncertain of what exactly causes autoimmune diseases, but most agree that it is a mix of genetics, environment, and how our individual immune systems are built. Risk factors include race (African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos are at a higher risk), sex (on average, women are three times more likely than men to develop an autoimmune disorder), age (most often occurs in those who are young to middle aged), family history, infections, and various environmental factors, including exposure to certain pollutants, chemicals, medication, and metals. Keep in mind however, that having one of these, or even all of these, factors does not mean that you will develop an autoimmune disorder.

Autoimmune diseases are among the top ten causes of death and are one of the leading causes for disability, especially among women. Despite the killing ability that many of these autoimmune diseases have, and the amount of people affected by them, there is an apparent lack of medication and research, especially for juveniles, as well as no single branch of medicine to cover autoimmune diseases. Many of the medications that are used to treat these disorders have devastating side effects, some of which do not make up for the good that they are meant to do. And because of the variety of symptoms and each disease affecting a different body part, sometimes even multiple at once, a patient is often jumping from one doctor visit to the next with multiple specialists instead of just one.

Since March is National Autoimmune Disease Awareness Month, I would ask if you could please take the time to share this or another source of information on autoimmune diseases to raise awareness for this greatly overlooked group of disorders. Donating to a organization such as American Autoimmune Related Disorder Association (the only nonprofit agency of its kind) or Autoimmunity Research Foundation would also be helpful. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also has a good list of autoimmune disease related organizations, including disease specific research foundations, you can find it here.

For those reading this who do have autoimmune diseases, methods for maintaining or lessening their symptoms, outside of medication, include maintaining a solid sleep schedule, practicing meditation or breathing to control stress, avoiding inflammatory foods (the autoimmune protocol, the paleo protocol, or a mash up of the two are good “diets” or guidelines for those with autoimmune diseases), staying out of the sun, physical therapy, taking up low impact exercise or stretching, joining a support group, and avoiding anything that is a disease specific trigger, such as gluten for celiac disease or prolonged periods of walking (relative to the person) or sitting (about 30 minutes to an hour) for joint or muscle-related diseases that affect the lower body, such as rheumatoid arthritis.

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Autoimmune Diseases, Our Body’s Self-Destruct Sequence