Everything About Autoimmune Disorders

What are autoimmune disorders?

The immune system serves as the body’s defense system against bacteria, viruses, parasites, and other foreign bodies. When it detects these foreign bodies, it sends out an army of antibodies that fights them, thus protecting the body from different illnesses and infections. In some cases, the immune system mistakenly detects your own body cells, tissues, or organs as foreign bodies and attacks them. Called autoimmune diseases, these attacks weaken bodily function and can be life-threatening.

Collectively, autoimmune diseases affect 14.7 to 23.5 million of the American population, where 80% of those are women. For reasons that are poorly understood, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services continuously observes a rising prevalence of these diseases. They are also known as the leading cause of death among young- and middle-aged women.

Common types of autoimmune disorders and their symptoms

There are more than 80 known autoimmune diseases. Some are well known, while others are rare and are difficult to diagnose.

  • Systemic lupus erythematosus – This condition happens when autoimmune antibodies develop and attach to different tissues throughout the body. It may affect the lungs, blood cells, nerves, joints, and kidneys.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis This condition occurs when antibodies attach specifically to the joint linings. This causes inflammation, swelling, and pain in the joints. If left untreated, rheumatoid arthritis results in permanent joint damage, which develops gradually.
  • Multiple sclerosis is a disease that can affect the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves when the immune system attacks myelin, a fatty material surrounding nerve fibers. This condition often results in problems with muscle control, balance, vision, and other bodily functions.
  • Type 1 diabetes mellitus – Also called insulin-dependent diabetes, occurs when the body’s immune system attacks the pancreas. When this organ is damaged, it stops producing insulin or the hormone that regulates the level of glucose in the blood. People with this disease can suffer from eye, nerve, and kidney complications.
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) – This disease results from the immune system’s attack on the lining of the intestines. People with IBD experience abdominal pain, diarrhea, rectal bleeding, fever, and weight loss. The two major types of IBD are ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
  • Grave’s disease – Is an autoimmune condition that causes hyperactivity in the thyroid gland. This is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism, where the thyroid produces excessive hormones controlling metabolism. People with this condition experience hand or leg tremors, heart palpitations, sweating, bulging eyes, and weight loss due to increased metabolism.
  • Psoriasis – It is observed through the appearance of bumpy red patches with silvery, scaly plaques on the skin. It can appear anywhere but mostly on the elbows, knees, scalp, and lower back. This disease occurs when T-cells, an immune system blood cell, accumulate in the skin and cause it to reproduce up to 10 times faster than normal.

Causes of autoimmune disorders

Although the causes of many autoimmune disorders remain unknown, studies indicate that genetic and environmental factors interplay and determine the likelihood of developing an autoimmune disease. This means that no single autoimmune gene is responsible for autoimmune diseases, but they are rather multifactorial diseases.

Over the decades, research findings have identified less than 15% of gene coding regions related to autoimmune diseases. For example, the HLA (human leukocyte antigen) is associated with all autoimmune diseases, while other loci like IL23R, TNFAIP3, and IL23A are associated with several autoimmune diseases. However, despite these commonalities, their heritability remains exceedingly variable and accounts for only a fraction of the overall disease factors.

While autoimmune diseases tend to occur within family members, it is often not Mendelian. Various types of autoimmune diseases may run in families. For example, if one of the family members has lupus or multiple sclerosis, the other members have a higher probability of developing these diseases or another autoimmune condition.

Environmental factors such as infection, stress, diet, medication, and ultraviolet radiation are also found to trigger symptoms of autoimmune diseases. For example, studies have hypothesized that a deficiency in vitamin D causes multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis while oxidative stress agents like smoking, UV light exposure, and infections cause lupus.

Diagnosis of autoimmune disorders

Most people seek help only after a long time of experiencing signs and symptoms of autoimmune diseases. Diagnosis of the condition often takes a long time because most of its symptoms, such as fatigue and muscle aches, resemble many other illnesses. 

Usually, there is no specific test to determine if a person has a specific autoimmune disease. Depending on the symptoms, diagnosis methods may include physical examination, medical history, review and tracking of symptoms, biopsy, and x-ray. Doctors often use the antinuclear antibody test (ANA) when symptoms point to an autoimmune disease. This test detects only if a person has an autoimmune disorder but not the exact autoimmune disorder he may have. To determine specific autoantibodies, other tests will be required.

Treatment of autoimmune disorders

Cures are not yet available for most autoimmune diseases. Still, some treatments can suppress the overactive immune response of the body and reduce inflammation and pain in the attacked cells, tissues, or organs of the body.

Here’s a list of some of the drugs used to treat autoimmune diseases:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and naproxen are known to reduce inflammation and pain.
  • Pain-relieving medicines are effective in reducing muscular, joint, and bone pain.
  •  Immunosuppressive drugs such as corticosteroids are used to reduce the intensity of the damage caused by autoimmune diseases.

Other treatment options include surgery, physical therapy, and deficiency treatment. In most cases, people with autoimmune diseases benefit from lifestyle changes such as the following:

  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Getting plenty of sleep
  • Achieving the right combination of exercise and rest
  • Avoiding stress

For some recent information on autoimmunity, check out Autoimmunity in 2019.