Understanding Autoimmune Disease: 7 Key Questions Answered
October 28, 2021
What Is Autoimmune Disease?
Autoimmune disease is characterized by the inability of the immune system to distinguish between “self and nonself.” When this occurs, the immune system responds by producing autoantibodies that mistakenly attack healthy cells. In simpler terms, your own immune system attacks your body’s healthy tissues, resulting in damage to parts of the body or organs. Autoimmune disease is relatively common, affecting approximately 14.7 to 23.5 million Americans. Although autoimmune diseases are common and increasing in prevalence, the exact etiology of these diseases is unknown.
Autoimmune disease can affect anyone. However, it affects more groups than others or is more severe in other groups compared to others—for example, women and certain ethnic and racial groups. In fact, over 70% of those with autoimmune disorders are women. Lupus is also most common and severe among African American and Hispanic individuals.
There are more than 80 different autoimmune disorders. Some of the most common types of autoimmune disease are:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Hashimoto’s autoimmune thyroiditis
- Celiac disease
- Graves’ disease
- Diabetes mellitus, type 1
- Rheumatic fever
- Pernicious anemia/atrophic gastritis
- Alopecia areata
- Immune thrombocytopenic purpura
Autoimmune diseases are the leading cause of death and disability in the US.
How Is Autoimmune Disease Diagnosed?
It has proven challenging to diagnose autoimmune disorders as many have similar symptoms. Symptoms are dependent on what part of the body is affected. Generally, autoimmune diseases can affect any part of the body or multiple parts of the body. A classic sign of autoimmune disorders is inflammation which can be associated with any of the following shared symptoms outlined below. There are several commonly shared symptoms among autoimmune diseases such as:
- joint pain and swelling
- skin problems
- abdominal pain or digestive issues
- recurring fever, and
- swollen glands
Diagnosis of autoimmune disorders is typically achieved through the administration of blood tests which include, but are not limited to:
- ANA (Antinuclear Antibody) Tests – looks for antinuclear antibodies in your blood. If tests find these antibodies, you may have an autoimmune disease – antinuclear antibodies attack your own healthy cells via the nucleus.
- C-Reactive Protein (CRP) Test – measures the amount of the CRP protein in your blood – made by the liver and is sent into your bloodstream as a response to inflammation.
- Complement Blood Test – measures the amount or activity of complement proteins in the blood. The complement system works with the immune system to identify and fight disease-causing agents like viruses and bacteria. If the test shows complement levels are within the normal range, it could mean that you have an autoimmune disorder.
- Immunofixation (IFE) Blood Test – measures specific proteins in the blood. The main two types of proteins in the blood are albumin and globulin. Test separates proteins into subgroups: albumin, alpha-1 globulin, alpha-2 globulin, beta globulin, and gamma-globin. Measuring these proteins can help identify certain autoimmune diseases.
Are Autoimmune Diseases Curable?
Most autoimmune diseases have no cure, and some may require lifelong treatment to manage symptoms. The treatment for autoimmune disorders is dependent on what type of autoimmune disorder you have, the severity, and your symptoms.
Treatment may involve relieving symptoms with over-the-counter medicines like aspirin and ibuprofen, as well as prescription drugs used to mediate pain, swelling, rash, tiredness, and depression.
Other treatments include replacing hormones or other substances your body requires (i.e., diabetes, type 1, and thyroid disease) and suppressing the immune system using medicine like low-dose chemotherapy, anti-rejection medications, and corticosteroids. These drugs help to control the disease process and preserve organ function by preventing damage to organs.
In addition to these treatments, other methods of managing autoimmune disorders are acupuncture, hypnosis, and other Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) practices. It is recommended that you approach any alternative medicine with caution and remember to consult a health professional before partaking in any alternative medicine procedures.
However, this does not seek to dismiss or diminish the beneficial impact of alternative treatments on people with autoimmunity.
It is commonly acknowledged that diet and nutrition are important components in treating and managing disease, particularly chronic disease. Likewise, diet and nutrition do play a significant role in the mediation and remission of autoimmune disorders.
Dr. Terry Wahls, a Clinical Professor at the University of Iowa, Carver College of Medicine in Iowa City, Iowa, provides evidence of the role diet and nutrition play in her own autoimmune disease journey.
In 2000, Dr. Wahls was diagnosed with relapsing multiple sclerosis, and soon after, her health began to decline drastically, and by 2007, she needed a wheelchair due to her inability to walk.
Throughout this time, she tried various treatments, such as chemotherapy, but none of them seemed to stunt the progression of her MS. After completing extensive research, she developed a list of supplements that supported good brain health.
Soon after that, Dr. Wahls discovered Functional Medicine, an “organization devoted to helping clinicians use the latest scientific discoveries to take better care of those with complex chronic disease.” Then, Dr. Wahls suddenly had the realization that perhaps she could change her diet and get the nutrients that she was supplementing through her diet.
With all the research she conducted, Dr. Wahls created the Wahls Protocol™, which she began in December 2007. She amazed her family, herself, and doctor with her fast recovery; in a year, she could walk and complete an 18-mile bike tour!
Although a cure does not exist for most autoimmune diseases, numerous studies or clinical trials are investigating better, effective treatments for those with autoimmune conditions.
Are Autoimmune Diseases Hereditary?
Autoimmune diseases tend to occur within families. In fact, your risk increases if you have a relative with an autoimmune disease, although this factor alone does not mean you are guaranteed to develop autoimmunity. Researchers have established the genetic link for autoimmune disorders.
This is further substantiated by the concordance rate (the frequency with which a gene will be inherited or expressed by identical or fraternal twins) between identical twins (generally between 25% to 50%), which is ten times higher than that of fraternal twins (generally between 2% and 8%). The concordance rate between identical twins is indicative of a strong influence of parental genetics.
Despite evidence of a genetic influence, researchers recognize that there is no single, distinct autoimmune gene. Most are considered polygenic or multifactorial diseases, meaning that developing an autoimmune disorder likely involves multiple factors such as the environment and lifestyle behaviors (i.e., smoking).
A variety of genes are associated with the risk of developing autoimmune disorders. However, the impact that these genes have is minimal. Therefore, a gene associated with an autoimmune disease would indicate a slight increase in susceptibility.
What Are the Risk Factors Associated with Autoimmune Disease?
As stated earlier, experts do not know what causes autoimmune disorders. However, they know that certain risk factors increase the likelihood of developing an autoimmune disease. Risk factors include:
- Genetics – family history of autoimmune conditions associated with increased risk of developing autoimmunity disorders
- Weight – being overweight or obese increases your risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis or psoriatic arthritis
- Smoking– linked to several autoimmune diseases – rheumatoid arthritis
- Hormones – estrogen strongly implicated in worsening autoimmunity
- Certain medications – statins can trigger statin-induced myopathy
What Impact Does Have Covid-19 on Autoimmune Disease?
Given that autoimmune disorders are characterized by immune dysfunction, the exploration of the impact that COVID-19 has on autoimmunity is warranted.
With the recent emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in 2019, significant concerns were raised regarding the impact that this disease may have on those with chronic conditions.
Autoimmune disorders are no exception and are often categorized as chronic diseases due to their long latency periods and tendency to last over a person’s life course. According to a meta-analysis published in the Journal of Infection, researchers found that autoimmune disease is associated with a 1.21-fold increased risk of severe COVID-19 disease. They also found that the autoimmune disease was associated with 1.31-fold increased mortality risk in patients with COVID-19.
How Can Those with Autoimmune Diseases Lead Healthier Lives?
As obesity is a growing epidemic in the US, it is important to understand the role obesity has on autoimmunity disorders. A review authored by Manzel et al. outlined several studies that identified high BMI and obesity before adulthood as associated with a higher risk of developing multiple sclerosis. They also noted that a few case-controlled studies linked obesity and metabolic syndrome to psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis.
The article above demonstrates how important it is for those living with autoimmune diseases to be at a healthy weight, as high BMI may be associated with an increase in the likelihood of developing an autoimmunity disorder.
People living with an autoimmune disease can lead healthy and happy lives by ensuring that they eat a balanced, healthy, nutrient-dense diet, engage in physical activity, reducing stress, and getting plenty of rest.
However, adopting a healthy lifestyle can be quite challenging, especially when striving to eat a healthy diet. That is why Foogal was created to make eating healthier easier. Foogal is specifically designed to cater to the food needs of people with autoimmune disorders and other diseases.
At Foogal, we have developed an Autoimmune Protocol and an Insulin Resistance Protocol to help you manage your autoimmune disease or insulin resistance disorder by providing carefully selected healthy, delicious recipes to support your body’s unique nutritional and dietary needs.
Disclaimer: This content is provided for informational purposes only, and does not intend to substitute professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.