What is Autoimmune Disease?
The immune system normally protects the body from infections and disease brought about by bacteria, viruses, germs, or abnormal body cells. When an autoimmune disease develops, the immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys its own tissues and organs.
Many parts of the body such as the red blood cells, blood vessels, connective tissues, digestive system, endocrine system, muscles, joints, nerves and skin may be affected. Autoimmune diseases predominantly affect women, frequently during their childbearing years. These diseases often tend to be hereditary, and certain environmental factors may also contribute to a weakened immune system.
Autoimmune disease symptoms vary from individual to individual, with each disease being different. Ranging from mild symptoms to more debilitating conditions, a malfunction of the immune system occurs in all of them.
Classes of Autoimmune Disease
Systemic autoimmune diseases are characterized by the involvement of many different organs and organ systems.
The most common examples of systemic autoimmune diseases are:
Localized autoimmune diseases are characterized by the involvement of only a single organ, organ system or tissue.
The most common types include:
Diagnosing Autoimmune Disease
Autoimmune diseases are not always easy to diagnose, especially during the earlier stages of the disease. Symptoms are often vague and difficult to describe. The diagnosis is usually based on a physical examination, symptoms of the individual, and a complete medical history.
Laboratory tests may also be performed to determine the diagnosis of certain autoimmune disorders.
Tests to Diagnose Autoimmune Disease
- Blood tests
- Specific antibody tests
- Thyroid function tests to test for thyroid disorders such as hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism
- Rheumatoid factor test
- Acetylcholine receptor antibody test to test for myasthenia gravis
Symptoms of Autoimmune Disease
The symptoms of autoimmune disease vary depending on the disease as well as the person’s immune system. Common symptoms include:
Depending on the type of autoimmune disease, an increase in the size of an organ or tissue or the destruction of an organ or tissue can result.
Autoimmune Diseases in Children & Babies
A common autoimmune disease in both babies and children is Celiac disease. Celiac disease is a condition affecting the small intestine which hinders the digestion of foods containing gluten. Babies that are born into a family with a history of celiac disease are susceptible to the condition. Babies who are bottle fed will display signs of the disease, due to many formulas containing wheat. Breastfed babies will begin to show symptoms when they start eating solid foods.
Signs that your child may have Celiac disease are chronic diarrhea, constant crying due to pain, weight loss, bloating, and vomiting. Children that develop Celiac disease usually have a genetic predisposition from either their mother or father. Though a child may not show symptoms of Celiac disease while still a baby; exposure to gluten will trigger the disease. Growth and development is the main concern for children with Celiac disease, along with bone thinning and tooth discoloration.
Some children display only moderate symptoms of the disease, like abnormal height compared to age and fatigue. Even when symptoms are moderate it is important to create a meal plan that is gluten- free. Trying to stay gluten free can be cumbersome; some parents find it helpful to see a dietician or nutritionist to help plan meals.
What Causes Autoimmune Disease?
The exact cause of what triggers the onset of an autoimmune disease has not yet been conclusively established. These diseases occur when the body attacks its own tissues, thus affecting the functioning of that system of the body.
There are many different underlying factors that may contribute to the development of autoimmune diseases.
Contributing Causes of Autoimmune Disease
- Environmental toxins
- Heredity or genetics
- Stress and anxiety
Poor diet, lack of exercise, lack of sleep, abuse of alcohol and use of tobacco can also weaken the immune system.
Help for Autoimmune Disease
Most autoimmune diseases cannot be cured, although much can be done to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life. The treatment of an autoimmune disease depends on the symptoms associated with a specific disease.
There are various treatment options such as conventional medicine, complementary therapy, or natural remedies that can help to reduce the severity of symptoms.
- Over-the-counter (OTC) drugs such as aspirin and ibuprofen may treat mild symptoms of an autoimmune disease, serving as anti-inflammatories or pain reducers
- Prescription drugs such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or powerful immunosuppressants are often prescribed to control the inflammation and subsequent damage
- Antidepressants and other psychiatric medications may be prescribed for the psychological effects and symptoms
- Radiation therapy
- Plasmapheresis (a ‘filtration’ procedure that removes the diseased cells and harmful molecules from the blood circulation)
There are many natural remedies that offer an alternative to conventional anti-inflammatories. Not only can they soothe the over-active and misguided immune system, but natural anti-inflammatories can also help to restore the body’s self-healing mechanisms and natural balance.
Herbal and homeopathic remedies are 100% natural and gentle, yet effective to use without the potential side effects of prescription medications. Herbs such as sarsaparilla and yarrow can be used to detoxify the bloodstream. These herbs are able to cleanse the blood and act as natural anti-inflammatories for muscles and joints. Boswellia, Devil’s Claw, Ginger and Turmeric are effective for treating the symptoms of autoimmune disorders. Other herbs such as yucca can reduce muscle pain and stiffness, and if used as a shampoo, may help those who suffer from skin disorders.
Tissue salts and homeopathic ingredients are also highly effective aids to restoring balance, health and vitality, as they do not over-stimulate the immune system. They are nutroceuticals (nutritional substances), which can help to relieve the symptoms associated with autoimmune diseases and improve functioning. Ingredients such as Natrium sulphate, Kalium phosphate and Natrium phosphate can optimize the nervous system and lift the mood. Consult your physician, herbalist or homeopath about the best treatment for your needs.
- Dietary modifications
- Tai Chi
- Psychotherapy and counseling
- Touch therapy such as reiki
- Music therapy
- Iridology (pinpoints the areas of weakness in the body and assesses how specific nutrition and lifestyle changes may promote mental, emotional and physical health.)
Foods for Autoimmune Disease
One of the most important things we can do for ourselves is eat a well-balanced diet, this is especially true for those with an autoimmune disease. When suffering with an autoimmune disease it is imperative to eat foods that aid the immune system. Foods that contain vitamin E and C are crucial for proper immune functioning, such as oranges papaya, guava, vegetable oils, and seeds.
Omega-3 fatty acids are another biggie for boosting the immune system. Omega -3 can be found in certain fish, such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel. If you aren’t a big fan of fish, try adding flaxseed oil to a fruit smoothie. Garlic can be used in a number of dishes not only to add flavor, but also to stimulate infection- fighting cells. Garlic is known as nature’s antibiotic, due to its abilities to attack bacteria and virus. Lastly, selenium rich foods like red snapper, lobster, egg yolks, sunflower seeds and Brazil nuts all help to boost the immune system.
Tips for Coping with Autoimmune Disease
When you are diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, it is very important that you learn to manage your disease. Many simple lifestyle changes can alleviate symptoms, such as eating foods high in certain ingredients that are known as natural anti-inflammatories. Follow these suggestions to help you cope more effectively with your illness:
- Eat a healthy diet of fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grains, low fat dairy products, fish and poultry
- Exercise regularly – gentle exercise such as walking, yoga, light aerobics
- Increase your intake of dietary supplements such as omega-3 oils, and vitamin C, E, A, D, K and B complex
- Spend time in the natural sunlight because exposure to sunlight is good for the immune system health (but remember not to overdo it!)
- Be involved in your illness and treatment plan – make an effort to understand your illness and ask questions about your symptoms, what changes may occur, side effects and medication
- Be honest and open with your doctor, and do not be afraid to discuss your symptoms no matter how trivial they may seem
- Get enough sleep and try not to overexert yourself with strenuous activities
- Reduce stress by practicing relaxation techniques such as meditation or imagery
- Join a support group where you will be able to relate to others in a similar condition
- Allow family and friends time to adjust to your illness, but gaining their support will have a positive effect on your emotional health
- Communicate openly with your partner about your illness and the emotions that you are experiencing