Autoimmune Disease – When Good Systems Go Bad
Our immune system is, for the most part, our friend. It fights off foreign cells, protecting us against disease and infection, and helping us recover from illness and injury. This complex system is powered by five litres of blood and lymph (a clear, colourless liquid), which transport our white blood cells – our vital “soldiers” of defense - throughout our bodies at the first sign of trouble.
Most of the time, our immune system works tirelessly to keep us healthy, but occasionally, an autoimmune disease develops and, for reasons we still don’t yet fully understand, our immune systems turns against us, attacking healthy cells it decides are foreign. Depending on the type, an autoimmune disease can affect one, or many, different types of body tissue. It can even cause organs to grow abnormally, or change the way in which they function.
Autoimmune diseases are considered a top 10 leading cause of death in women under the age of 65.
Types Of Autoimmune Disease
There are upwards of 80 known types of autoimmune disease, many of which have similar or identical symptoms, making it difficult for health practitioners to arrive at a definitive diagnosis (the first symptoms are often fatigue, muscle aches and a low fever, although the classic sign of an autoimmune disease is inflammation, which can cause redness, heat, pain and swelling).
Some people can have more than one disease at the same time, although they don’t always experience symptoms, as there will be periods of remission and periods of flare-up.
Some of the most common types of autoimmune disease are:
- Lupus – affects joints, skin, kidneys, the brain and other organs.
- Rheumatoid arthritis – inflammation of the joints and surrounding tissue.
- Pernicious anaemia – a decrease in red blood cells, caused by insufficient absorption of Vitamin B-12.
- Vitiligo – loss of pigment, which causes white patches on the skin.
- Inflammatory bowel diseases – a group of several diseases causing inflammation in the small intestine and colon.
- Hashimoto’s disease – inflammation of the thyroid gland.
- Psoriasis – an irritating skin condition characterised by redness and thick, flaky, silvery-white patches.
- Coeliac disease – an adverse reaction to gluten that can damage the lining of the small intestine.
- Type 1 diabetes – destruction of insulin producing cells in the pancreas.
Causes of Autoimmune Disease
It is not currently known what causes autoimmune disease, although there are several theories about common triggers, which could include bacteria or viruses, certain drugs, and environmental or chemical irritants. It seems to affect more women than men (in fact, up to three-quarters of sufferers are women) and research would seem to indicate that you may be more susceptible to developing an autoimmune disease if you have a family member who has one.
Treatment of Autoimmune Disease
At the moment, there is no curative therapy for autoimmune disease, so conventional treatment focuses on relieving symptoms. However, there is an increasingly prevalent line of treatment – particularly amongst functional medicine practitioners - that focuses on identifying and then treating the underlying cause, and not just on alleviating the symptoms.
Conventional treatment often takes the form of anti-inflammatory drugs, steroids, or immunosuppressants. All these treatments may be affective in the short term, but they are not a long-term solution, as there is evidence to suggest that when taken for long periods of time, immunosuppressant drugs increase the risk of severe infections and cancer.
Because identifying which autoimmune disease is affecting you can be a difficult process, it is helpful to work closely with a functional medicine physician, who will thoroughly examine your family medical history, as well as other risk factors such as your susceptibility to infections, food sensitivities and toxins. It can be very helpful to embark on a comprehensive elimination diet, in which the top 12 inflammatory foods are systematically removed from your diet in an attempt to find the root cause of, and even help you reverse, your autoimmune disease.
Dr. Alain Sanua is a qualified medical doctor who practices Integrated and Functional medicine. If you are suffering from an autoimmune disease, or suspect that you might be, make an appointment to chat to him about identifying, and possibly even reversing, your disease.