Your immune system is meant to safeguard your body against the risk of disease and infection, and to this end, can normally tell the difference between the body’s own cells and any foreign cells from external sources.
When, however, your immune system fails to distinguish between your own cells and unwelcome foreign invaders, it can end up mistakenly attacking your normal cells.
What causes autoimmune disease?
It isn’t known exactly what causes the immune system to malfunction in this way. Autoimmune diseases do frequently run in families, however, and women are significantly likelier to suffer from them than men – at a rate of about two to one, a 2014 study has suggested.
Researchers have identified various other potential risk factors down the years, such as following a high-fat, high-sugar and highly processed “Western diet”, and even exposure to chemicals or solvents.
A 2015 study pinpointed the “hygiene hypothesis” as a potential factor in the development of autoimmune disease, suggesting that the emergence of vaccines and antiseptics over the years has progressively left children exposed to fewer germs.
This lack of exposure, the hypothesis indicates, may increase the immune system’s susceptibility to overreacting to substances that do not actually pose a risk of harm.
What types of autoimmune disease should I be aware of?
More than 80 different autoimmune diseases have been identified, affecting a wide range of areas of the body.
These include type 1 diabetes, which involves the immune system attacking and destroying insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, as well as rheumatoid arthritis, or RA, which is characterised by the immune system attacking the joints.
You are also likely to be at least aware of multiple sclerosis (MS), with its damage to the myelin sheath, the protective coating surrounding the central nerve system’s nerve cells. This damage, in turn, prevents messages being sent as quickly between the brain and spinal cord to and from other parts of the body.
Another of the most common autoimmune diseases is psoriasis, which results in skin cells multiplying too fast; this interferes with the body’s normal practice of shedding cells when they are simply no longer required. These additional skin cells accumulate and result in inflamed red patches.
With inflammatory bowel disease, Addison’s disease, Graves’ disease and myasthenia gravis just some of the other frequently occurring autoimmune diseases, it is important to be alert to the possible symptoms and implications.
What are the symptoms of autoimmune disease?
Individual autoimmune diseases can have some distinctive symptoms of their own – extreme thirst and fatigue in the case of type 1 diabetes, for example, and stomach pain and bloating as far as inflammatory bowel disease is concerned. However, a lot of the early symptoms are arguably remarkably similar across this group of diseases.
You may notice swelling, redness, fatigue, achy muscles and/or tingling and numbness in your hands and feet, with these symptoms possibly resurging and fading over time.
What treatment options exist?
While autoimmune disorders have no cure, various treatment methods exist depending on the exact disease, aimed at controlling the disease and minimising symptoms.
You might take such steps as pursuing a healthier lifestyle including a balanced diet and regular exercise, and perhaps medication such as anti-inflammatory drugs or pain relievers, in addition to avoiding anything that you know could cause your symptoms to flare up.
There is much that the scientific community is yet to learn about autoimmune disorders and what causes them. Nonetheless, this is perhaps all the more reason for sufferers of such diseases to follow established good health practices for how to improve the immune system, come what may.