Living with an autoimmune disease can be an overwhelming experience. As with any chronic health condition, it is important to understand the condition and to know what steps you can take to manage it. In this blog, we will take a closer look at autoimmune diseases, exploring the causes, symptoms, and treatments available. We’ll also explore ways to access support and resources that may help you manage the condition. Read on to learn more about autoimmune diseases and ways to live with them.
1. Labelling and Diagnosing Autoimmune Diseases
Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells in a person’s body. There are different types of autoimmune diseases and, understanding these differences is an important step in diagnosing and appropriately treating the condition.
Systemic Autoimmune Diseases: Systemic autoimmune diseases are illnesses that involve the body’s entire system, including organs, glands, joints, muscles, and skin. These types of diseases can arise suddenly and cause inflammation and deterioration of tissues throughout the body. Some of the common systemic autoimmune diseases are:
- Rheumatoid Arthritis: This type of disease often affects the small joints in the hands and feet and may cause pain, stiffness, swelling, and deterioration of the cartilage and bone.
- Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE): SLE is a chronic inflammatory disease that commonly affects the skin, joints, and other organs. It is known for causing a butterfly-shaped rash on the cheeks and nose.
- Sjogren’s Syndrome: This disease causes dry eyes and dry mouth and may additionally affect other organs.
- Polymyositis: A chronic inflammatory disorder that causes muscle weakness and tenderness, typically in the shoulder and pelvic area.
Organ-Specific Autoimmune Diseases: Organ-specific autoimmune diseases affect a particular organ, such as the thyroid or the pancreas. Although these diseases can be very uncomfortable and disabling, it can be reassuring to know that they usually only affect one part of the body. Some of these common diseases include:
- Type 1 Diabetes: This autoimmune disorder causes the body to create antibodies that attack and weaken the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin.
- Grave’s Disease: This disease occurs when the immune system overproduces stimulating hormones in the thyroid, leading to bulging eyes, heat intolerance, headache, and irregular heartbeat.
- Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis: This type of autoimmune disease targets the thyroid, leading to weight gain, fatigue, hair loss, and dry skin.
- Addison’s Disease: This disease results when the immune system destroys the cells in the adrenal glands, making it difficult for the body to deal with physical and emotional stress.
Labeling and diagnosing an autoimmune disease is a crucial step in properly treating the disease. Therefore, it is important to get familiar with the different types of autoimmune diseases so that you can spot warning signs and seek help as early as possible.
2. What Causes Autoimmune Diseases?
Autoimmune diseases are complex and, generally speaking, the exact cause is unknown. Scientists believe it may be linked to a combination of genetics and environmental triggers. Research has revealed some factors which can cause the body’s immune system to attack healthy cells.
- family history: certain autoimmune diseases, like lupus, have a strong genetic link; if someone in your family has an autoimmune disorder, there is an increased chance of being affected by it
- threatening infections: some viral or bacterial infections might be enough to trigger an autoimmune response. These infections could be airborne or transmitted through food or water
- environmental triggers: living in certain climates or areas, or being exposed to certain toxins or chemicals, could increase the risk.
- injury or trauma: a traumatic event, like physical trauma or surgery, can trigger an autoimmune response
- stress: although the exact connection is unknown, some individuals have developed autoimmune diseases shortly after periods of intense stress or trauma
- hormones: fluctuations in hormone levels during puberty and the menstrual cycle can increase the risk for some autoimmune diseases
Certain lifestyle factors, such as obesity and smoking, can also contribute to developing an autoimmune disorder. Additionally, much research suggests that it is not an individual factor but, rather, a combination of all of the above that might lead to autoimmune disease.
3. Understanding the Immune System
Since the individual components of the immune system can be complex, it’s important to get a basic understanding of the system and how it works. Once you understand the basics, it’s easier to comprehend the concept of autoimmune diseases, which occur when the immune system identifies a harmless substance as dangerous and attacks it.
Vaccines, the Immune System and Antigens:
Vaccines play an important role in the development of the body’s natural defenses. Vaccine-induced immunity occurs when the body produces antibodies after being exposed to antigens. These antigens are proteins found on viruses and bacteria and stimulate the body to produce antibodies to protect against the virus or bacteria.
- Vaccines contain antigens, which stimulate the body to produce antibodies in response.
- Antibodies act as protective “soldiers” in the fight against disease.
- The immune system builds up a memory of the antigen that it has previously encountered.
What Causes an Autoimmune Disease?
When the body’s immune system incorrectly identifies a harmless substance as a threat, it responds by producing antibodies that attack healthy cells and tissues. This response is the cause of an autoimmune disease, and it can take a long time to recognize it. Common symptoms include frequent fatigue, pain, digestive problems, dizziness, joint swelling and stiffness.
Types of Autoimmune Diseases:
Autoimmune diseases can affect any part of the body, including the endocrine system, connective tissue, and muscles. Common examples of autoimmune diseases include multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and Crohn’s disease.
A few of the symptoms of these autoimmune diseases may overlap, however, each disease has specific signs and symptoms. It’s important to get a diagnosis as soon as possible to begin the appropriate treatment regimen and reduce the risk of further complications.
4. Symptoms of Autoimmune Diseases
Autoimmune diseases, while usually chronic and more manageable than acute diseases, are also highly unpredictable as the symptoms can present in different ways depending on the individual, and can even come and go in waves. Common include:
- Unexplained fatigue
- Fever and chills
- Body aches
- Involuntary weight loss
- Numbness and tingling
- Swelling of the joints
- Cognitive dysfunction
Some of the most common autoimmune diseases include rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis (MS), type 1 diabetes, lupus, and celiac disease. These diseases are generally characterized by an immune system attacking the body’s healthy tissues and organs, which can cause further inflammation and damage. Traditional treatments may include anti-inflammatory medications and steroid-based drugs. However, due to the unpredictable nature of autoimmune diseases, doctors may also recommend making lifestyle and dietary changes, such as eating a healthy, balanced diet, getting adequate sleep, and exercising regularly, to minimize the severity of symptoms.
Oftentimes, autoimmune diseases can present similar signs and symptoms, making it difficult for doctors to accurately diagnose their patients. If you have experienced any of the listed symptoms, it is important to talk to your doctor for a proper diagnosis.
5. How to Manage Autoimmune Diseases
What Is an Autoimmune Disease?
Autoimmune diseases occur when the body’s natural defense system mistakenly attacks the body’s own cells, tissues, and organs. This type of disease can cause chronic inflammation and can damage the organs of the body. They usually start out with swelling, redness, and a feeling of heat in the affected area. Autoimmune diseases can be caused by environmental triggers, genetics, and lifestyle, with different causes for each type of disease.
What are Common Autoimmune Diseases?
Autoimmune diseases are very diverse in nature, but the most common types include:
- Ulcerative Colitis
- Morbus Crohn’s Disease
- Systemic Lupus Erythematous (SLE)
- Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)
- Grave’s Disease
- Type 1 Diabetes
- Addison’s Disease
- Psoriatic Arthritis
- Sjogren’s Syndrome
What are the Symptoms of Autoimmune Diseases?
Autoimmune diseases can present differing symptoms depending on the type of disease, however, some common symptoms include:
- Weight Loss
- Coughing and Wheezing
- Pain and Swelling
- Joint Pain and Stiffness
- Skin Rashes
- Hair Loss
How Can Autoimmune Diseases be Managed?
Autoimmune diseases can be managed by making lifestyle adjustments, such as:
- Getting adequate sleep and rest
- Eating a healthy, balanced diet
- Incorporating low-impact physical activity into daily activity
- Using stress management techniques
- Quitting smoking, if applicable
- Avoiding environmental triggers, such as air pollution and certain foods
- Seeking appropriate and timely medical care
Additionally, it is important to have a strong support system to assist in lifestyle and medication management.
6. Foods to Avoid and Foods to Include in the Diet
When it comes to autoimmune diseases, one of the most important components of living with them is managing one’s diet. By avoiding foods that can exacerbate your symptoms, and by adding foods that can help to reduce them, you can make a significant difference to your quality of life. Below, we explore some foods to avoid and include in your diet that may help you better manage your autoimmune disorder:
Foods to Avoid:
- Grains: gluten relative grains such as rye, wheat and barley should be eliminated from the diet along with processed foods such as white flour and cereals.
- Dairy: avoid all forms of dairy, including cow’s milk, cream, yogurt and cheese.
- Processed Foods: avoid anything that has been processed, packaged or preserved and can potentially contain hidden ingredients.
- Alcohol: research shows that alcohol can contribute to autoimmune flare-ups, so it should be avoided altogether.
Foods to Include:
- Fruits and Vegetables: opt for fresh produce as much as possible and aim for a variety of colors to maximize nutrient benefit and antioxidants.
- Healthy Oils: olive and coconut oils are great for cooking, as they help to support the immune system.
- Legumes: beans, split peas and other legumes are a great source of fiber, vitamins and minerals.
- Proteins: organic sources of proteins such as fish, eggs and tofu provide essential amino acids to the body.
These choices can help to reduce inflammation, improve digestion and boost the immune system. It is recommended to consult with a dietitian to tailor a diet that is right for you and your condition. Don’t forget to pay attention to how certain foods make you feel and to adjust your diet accordingly. And always remember to drink plenty of water throughout the day.
7. Accepting and Coping with Autoimmune Diseases
Dealing with an Autoimmune Disease
Coping with an autoimmune disease can be a difficult and often times overwhelming journey. While it is important to accept and understand what is happening with your body, it is also important to not become overwhelmed with the emotions and the lifestyle changes that come with dealing with an autoimmune disease.
Here is a list of tips to help you through this journey:
- Educate yourself on the condition and get to know your own particular autoimmune disease. The more knowledge you have, the better you can cope with any challenging symptoms as they arise.
- Take part in mindfulness activities and relaxation techniques including yoga, Tai Chi, and/or meditation.
- Set yourself reasonable expectations. Accept that sometimes you just have to take things one day at a time.
- Learn to prioritize and stick to the important tasks. Don’t try to do everything at once.
- Try to make healthy lifestyle choices like eating nutritious foods and intentionally leaving time to exercise and relax.
- Seek support from friends and family as well as from online communities dedicated to those with autoimmune diseases.
- If you start to feel overwhelmed, remember to take some time for yourself and focus on self-care.
Ultimately, it is best to find what works for you and create a coping strategy that fits in with the reality of your autoimmune disease. Taking control of the situation can help you feel empowered and able to cope.
8. Working with a Health Care Team
Having an autoimmune condition is difficult enough, add a health care team into the picture and it can get confusing. It is essential to find a team who can work with you to understand and manage the challenges of living with an autoimmune condition. By getting to know each member of your team—including physician assistants, rheumatologists, and nurses—you will be better equipped to take control of your health.
The following tips can help you along the way:
- Gather the right information: Gather as much information as you can about your illness. Make sure to include information about the medications you are taking, other conditions you may have, and any allergies. This information will help you and your health care team better understand your illness and devise a comprehensive treatment plan.
- Identify your most important questions: Before each visit to your health care team, take the time to identify your most important questions. This will make your visit more productive and help you get answers to your queries in the most efficient way.
- Build a trusted relationship: When communicating with your health care team, be honest and open. The more comfortable and confident you are in telling them your concerns and feelings, the more successful your treatment plan will be.
- Know when to seek alternative opinions: There is a wide range of opinions among health care professionals, so if you feel that your current care plan is not working, don’t be scared to seek a second opinion.
- Stay educated: Living with an autoimmune condition is a continuous journey of learning and education. Stay updated on the latest developments in research and medicine to stay ahead of the curve.
- Stay organized: Keep track of all your appointments, lab results, and treatments so you are always prepared when meeting with your health care team.
By taking the time to get to know your health care team, you will be better equipped to take control of your health and get the most out of your treatment. Remember that your team is there to help you and support you through this journey.
Q: What is an autoimmune disease?
A: An autoimmune disease is a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks the healthy cells in the body by mistake.
Q: What are the most common types of autoimmune diseases?
A: The most common autoimmune diseases include lupus, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, type 1 diabetes, Crohn’s disease, thyroid disease, rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease and vasculitis.
Q: Are autoimmune diseases inheritable?
A: Yes, certain autoimmune diseases have a genetic component and can be passed down from parents to children. However, certain environmental factors can also contribute.
Q: What triggers an autoimmune disease?
A: Autoimmune diseases are caused by abnormalities of the immune system, which can be triggered by many different factors such as certain viruses, stress, allergies, genetics, medication, etc.
Q: What are the symptoms of an autoimmune disease?
A: The symptoms of an autoimmune disease vary from person to person, but generally include fatigue, joint pain, swelling, rash, weakness, and fever.
Q: Are there treatments for autoimmune diseases?
A: Yes, there are treatments available for many autoimmune diseases, including steroids, biologics, immunosuppressant drugs, medications that target specific body organs, and lifestyle changes.
Q: What can I do to reduce my risk of developing an autoimmune disease?
A: You can reduce your risk of getting an autoimmune disease by getting vaccinated, eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, avoiding smoking and drinking, and managing stress. With autoimmune diseases affecting more than 50 million Americans, it is important to understand what they are, what causes them, and how best to treat them. Learning about autoimmune diseases can give you insight into life-altering illnesses, support those living with them, and help promote meaningful support for those affected. By getting to know autoimmune diseases, you can be part of a health movement that helps to empower and improve the lives of those impacted.