Autoimmune diseases are quite common in our community, but the terminology “autoimmune” is still unrecognizable by many people. Why is that? In general, most people who suffer from symptoms of an autoimmune disease have never actually received a specific diagnosis. Also, many of these types of diseases were discovered before modern medicine determined that they also fall under the category of autoimmune.
So what does the term “autoimmune” actually mean? An autoimmune disease is one in which the body’s own immune system attacks our ‘self’ cells, causing inflammation and tissue damage. When our immune system develops during childhood, our immune cells are trained to ignore normal healthy cells in our body and target only foreign objects, including bacteria, viruses, or toxic substances. But in some of us, something in this programming goes askew and our own immune cells start to think that our normal cells are the enemy, even when these cells are perfectly healthy.
While there are many diseases that have an autoimmune component, a few common ones include type 1 diabetes, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis, and psoriasis. Many of these conditions were not classified as autoimmune diseases until more recent years, as science has developed and brought us a better understanding of how these diseases occur on a cellular level in the body.
While symptoms of many autoimmune diseases, such as diabetes, have been around for many years, the idea that the immune system might attack our bodies didn’t even become a thought in scientific research until the 1960s. It was through this research that we discovered our more classic autoimmune diseases, including lupus, scleroderma, Sjogrens, and myasthenia gravis. This led to more in-depth research on how autoimmune mechanisms may be contributing to some of the more common conditions we see today.
So what does this all mean? Learning about whether or not you have an autoimmune disease is important for many reasons. First, those with conditions that fall under the autoimmune category will often be more likely to acquire other conditions that are also considered to be autoimmune. For example, children with type 1 diabetes are more likely to also suffer from celiac disease, and those with psoriasis are more likely to develop arthritic conditions as well.
Autoimmune diseases can also have a genetic component and therefore run in families. Multiple sclerosis, one of the more well-known autoimmune diseases, can pass from one generation to another, which means that if you have a mother, father, sister or brother with multiple sclerosis, there is an increased risk you may develop it as well. Early prevention of these types of conditions is key, and starting treatment early can make a huge difference in a quality of life of those who suffer from autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
While more conditions are considered part of the autoimmune spectrum every year, it is always a good idea to talk to your doctor about whether or not your symptoms and family history have an autoimmune component. At Aria Integrative Medicine, we work with all types of autoimmune diseases and develop personalized treatment plans with our patients to help them feel better and reduce their risk of acquiring other autoimmune diseases. If you have questions about how we can help you, call our office today for a free 10-minute consultation!