Understanding Autoimmune Diseases
Autoimmune disorders are truly confounding illnesses- what is supposed to be defending your body against diseases starts to attack your body! Such is the nature of autoimmune disorders, which affect almost 50 million Americans, according to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA). Let’s take a deep dive into autoimmune disorders
What is an immune system and how does it work?
Our body is made up of cells and tissues each having many functions to perform in keeping the body running efficiently. Our body (like any country) has a defense system called an immune system which is a network of cells and tissues throughout the body that fight foreign invaders (bacteria, fungi, virus, yeast, etc.) which may be harmful to the body.
A Walk Through Autoimmunity
How can the cells know there is an intruder?
The fact is, the immune system has two ways to deal with foreign pathogens in the body. There is the acquired or adaptive immune system that develops as we grow. Then there is the other immune system that is inborn.
The acquired system’s predominant feature is its ability to keep a track of the past foreign invaders so it can destroy them again, if they return.
Under normal circumstances, the disease causing agents incite the body by manipulating its functions. In response, the body triggers the acquired immune cells, which then produce antibodies that latch on to the foreign cells, identify them and destroy them eventually. The other immune system does not take help of antibodies.
Instead, it alerts the white blood cells or WBC’s (pretty much like the soldiers of our body) that destroy the intruders directly.
What happens in an autoimmune disorder?
The problem is within the acquired immune system– in some people it will cause autoimmune disorders, as the produced antibodies and the immune cells both identify your healthy cells as foreign and target them instead of the actual foreign agents.
There are around 80 different types of autoimmune disorders present; many of them have similar symptoms, which make their diagnosis a little tricky. However, most common symptoms include, fatigue, nausea and fever; their effects (depending on its type) may be seen on one or many types of organ tissues, even causing their structural and functional changes.
The most commonly affected organs being the: joints, muscles, skin, blood vessels, red blood cells (RBC’s), endocrine glands, connective tissues, etc.
What makes the body behave this way?
The cause of autoimmune disorders is still unclear but the usual suspects that trigger this disorder are mostly due to pathogens (bacterial, viral), exposure to drugs, chemical and environmental agents that could prove harmful to the body; some suggest it could also be due to hereditary.
Treatment of autoimmune disorders through medical intervention mostly involves controlling the over-activity of the immune system with oral medications and injections.
Following are the descriptions of some of the autoimmune diseases:
- Rheumatoid arthritis: Generally includes the inflammation of the joints and connective tissues; the immune system produces antibodies that attach to the inside layer of the joints, while the cells of the immune system add to inflammation and pain by attacking the joints.
- Systemic Lupus erythematosus (lupus): those suffering from Lupus have an immune system that produces antibodies which can attach to any tissue in the entire body; the joints, kidneys, lungs, nerves and blood cells being the most commonly affected by it.
- Type 1 Diabetes: most prevalent autoimmune disorder that attacks the insulin producing cells in the pancreas.
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD): as indicated by its name, the IBD mostly involves inflammation of the colon and the small intestines as the immune system attacks the lining of the colon and intestines, causing many digestive disorders.
- Multiple Sclerosis (MS): here, the immune system of a person suffering from MS attacks the nerve cells resulting in pain, inflammation, poor coordination, blindness, muscle spasms etc. in the body.
- Vitiligo: this involves loss of pigmentation of the skin leading to white patches on the affected areas of the body.
- Vasculitis: The immune system attacks the blood vessels of any part of the body and hence it can even appear throughout the body.
- Psoriasis: another skin disorder where the immune system stimulates the skin cells to regenerate rapidly, causing inflammation, flaky and silver white patches on the skin.
- Hashimoto’s disease: this involves inflammation of the thyroid gland, where the cells that produce thyroid hormone are destroyed overtime.
Autoimmune disorders are chronic conditions with no curative therapy. However, the best approach is to manage its symptoms through various alternative therapies, diet and lifestyle modifications, apart from necessary medical interventions.