Autoimmune Diseases: When Your Immune System Makes a “Mistake”
What do the following diseases have in common: lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, Crohn’s disease, Graves disease, psoriasis, scleroderma, vitiligo? These conditions may seem very different from each other. Crohn’s disease affects the bowel. Graves disease affects the thyroid gland. Psoriasis affects the skin. Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the central nervous system. Rheumatoid arthritis affects the joints and organs.
But the one thing all of these conditions do share is that they’re autoimmune diseases. Researchers haven’t been able to identify one single cause for any of the autoimmune diseases. But it’s generally thought that they’re caused by an interplay of factors:
- Genetic: Autoimmune disorders tend to run in families, so there seems to be a genetic component.
- Hormonal: Autoimmune disorders are much more common in women, so there seems to be a hormonal component as well.
- Environmental: Many researchers believe that there needs to be some kind of trigger that causes your immune system to malfunction, such as stress, exposure to toxins, infection, viruses, etc.
The body’s costly mistake
Autoimmune disorders occur when the immune system no longer functions properly and begins to make “mistakes.” Here’s one example:
When you have strep throat, white cells of your immune system recognize that the strep bacteria is an enemy invader. These white cells then send out messages calling for the creation of other cells that will recognize the invader as soon as it enters the body again, so that it can mount an even quicker attack. If the strep bacteria is not stopped early on, it can travel to the heart. The problem is, proteins in the heart muscle resemble proteins in the strep bacteria. The immune system’s white cells mistake the heart cells for strep bacteria, and they attack the heart as well as the strep bacteria. This is an autoimmune reaction that causes rheumatic fever.
Autoimmune diseases seem to be linked
Even though many of the autoimmune diseases seem completely different from each other in terms of the symptoms they cause and the areas of the body they attack, researchers are finding that there are a lot of similarities. For example, one study found that people with type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis had the same kind of “autoreactive” T cells. Additionally, people who have one autoimmune disease are at higher risk of getting another autoimmune disease. And medications that have traditionally been used to treat one autoimmune disease are often found to be effective in treating others as well.
A promising time for people with autoimmune diseases
There’s no known cure for autoimmune diseases, but treatments have become more and more sophisticated and effective. Researchers seem to be on the brink of a new understanding of the underlying causes of these conditions, which will eventually lead to even better treatments and possibly cures. There’s also been a deeper awareness of the way lifestyle can help prevent autoimmune disorders and slow the progression of these disorders once they develop.
If you have an autoimmune disorder, be sure to stay in regular contact with your doctor, so that you can benefit from the latest treatment developments. And be sure to do whatever you can to lead as healthy a lifestyle as possible, because lifestyle can play a big role in the management of just about all autoimmune disorders.
The American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association; Baron-Faust, J. Buyon. The Autoimmune Connection. Contemporary Books, 2003; M. Hyman, M. Liponis. Ultra-Prevention, The 6-Week Plan That Will Make You Healthy for Life. Scribner, New York, 2003. R. Klatz, R. Goldman. Infection Protection. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2002.