Autoimmune Diseases: When our immune system turns against us

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The immune system has become a topic of interest during the COVID pandemic. It is our goal to create a healthy internal environment to fight disease by eating right, exercising, getting enough sleep, and taking supplements. However, sometimes our immune system turns against us, mistakenly attacking the very body it was meant to protect. Allergies are one way our immune system overreacts to substances such as pollen, insect bites, pet dander and various food. These reactions usually vary in severity and are controlled with medications. Chronic problems occur when that same immune system causes autoimmune diseases by attacking organs or glands.

The immune system usually guards against bacteria and viruses. When it senses these invaders, it sends out an army of fighter cells to attack them. Typically, the immune system can tell the difference between the bad guys and the good guys. In an autoimmune disease, the immune system mistakes body parts, such as joints or skin, as foreign. It releases auto-antibodies that attack the healthy cells. Some attack one organ, others attack the whole body. 

It’s not known exactly what causes an immune system to misfire. Women get these diseases twice as often as men, usually during the child-bearing years. Some ethnic groups are more prone to autoimmune diseases, and some diseases tend to run in families. Exposure to chemicals, highly-processed foods, a highly stressful life event, or a lack of exposure to germs due to excessive hygiene, are all thought to cause the immune system to overreact.

There are more than 80 autoimmune diseases, and a few are very common, and it is beneficial to understand the autoimmune system’s role. Let’s take a look at some of the most familiar ones.

Type 1 Diabetes is when the immune system attacks and destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. High blood sugar results, leading to blood vessel and organ damage if not controlled.

Rheumatoid Arthritis is when the joints are attacked. Joints become red, swollen and stiff, often with pain.

Celiac Disease causes a deficiency in processing gluten, a protein found in grain products. Many people have gluten sensitivity, which is not an autoimmune disease, but it can have similar abdominal pain symptoms and diarrhea.

Psoriasis/Psoriatic Arthritis is caused when skin cells multiply too quickly and build-up, forming inflamed scaly patches of plaque on the skin. Up to 30 percent of those afflicted also develop psoriatic arthritis with pain and swelling in the joints.

Multiple Sclerosis damages the myelin sheath, the protective coating around nerve cells. This damage slows the speed of messages between the brain and spinal cord, leading to numbness, weakness, balance issues and trouble walking.

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus affects many organs, including joints, kidneys, brain and heart. Common symptoms are joint pain, fatigue and rashes.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) causes inflammation in the lining of the intestinal wall. Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis both affect different parts of the GI system.

Other Autoimmune Diseases include Addison’s, Graves’, Sjogren’s, and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, affecting the endocrine system and disrupting metabolism. Myasthenia Gravis results in muscle weakness; Autoimmune Vasculitis attacks blood vessels; and Pernicious Anemia causes a protein deficiency in the stomach cells. 

Early symptoms of many autoimmune diseases are similar: fatigue, achy, swollen muscles, low-grade fever, trouble concentrating, hair loss, numbness in hands/feet, and skin rashes. These occur when the immune system is attacking the body. Other symptoms are specific, such as Type 1 diabetes causing thirst, fatigue, weight loss, and IBD causing belly pain and bloating. Symptoms may come and go, making the attacks hard to diagnose.

Depending on the symptoms, various medical specialists treat autoimmune diseases. No single test can diagnose exactly, but your doctor will use a combination of tests and a symptom review. The antinuclear antibody test (ANA) is one of the first tests indicating autoimmune disruption.

Treatments can’t cure autoimmune diseases, but they can control the response and reduce inflammation. Drugs used include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and naproxen, steroids, and immune-suppressing drugs, which relieve symptoms by reducing autoimmune reactions.