Autoimmune Disease Guide: Everything You Need to Know About Autoimmune Disorders and Autoimmunity

Every day, more people are diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder. While it’s becoming an increasing problem impacting the lives of millions of people each year, there’s a lot we don’t know about autoimmune disease. Causes are difficult to pinpoint based on the current body of research, for instance, especially given the fact that the term autoimmune disease actually refers to a group of 80 to 100 distinct disorders.

Disorders and diseases classified as autoimmune disease range from commonly known conditions like Multiple Sclerosis and Chron’s Disease to the rare and little-known disorders such as Relapsing Polychondritis and Paraneoplastic Cerebellar Degeneration. While these disorders all share some general characteristics in that they involve the body attacking its own tissue in some manner, they vary drastically in specific signs and symptoms – as well as the severity of the impact on the patient’s daily life and longevity.

what is an autoimmune disease?

T-cell: Image via Wikipedia.org

This makes it difficult to identify singular causes that apply across the board to autoimmune disease, and it makes research challenging as identifying treatments and potential cures must address each disorder as a stand-alone condition.

This guide will walk you through the current body of knowledge related to autoimmune disease, including the types of autoimmune disease, current treatment options, signs and symptoms, and coping strategies for individuals and their loved ones impacted by autoimmune disease. This guide contains more than 150 high-quality, reputable resources with the most credible research and information available on autoimmune disease today.

 

What You’ll Find in This Guide:

 

Introduction: What is an Autoimmune Disease?

An autoimmune disease or disorder is a condition that occurs when the immune system attacks and destroys healthy body tissue.  With a “normal” immune system, a person’s white blood cells help protect the body from antigens, or harmful substances.  The immune system produces antibodies that destroy the antigens, which include bacteria, viruses, toxins, cancer cells, and blood or tissues from another person or species.

In people with autoimmune disorders, however, the immune system can’t distinguish between healthy body tissue and antigens, which results in the antibodies mistakenly destroying normal cells (also known as autoimmunity).  At the same time, special cells called regulatory T cells fail to do their job of regulating the immune system.  The exact cause for the immune system turning on healthy body tissues is unknown; one theory is that some microorganisms, such as bacteria or viruses, or drugs may trigger the change, especially in people whose genes make them more susceptible to autoimmune disorders.

cells of the immune system

Image via Todar’s Online Textbook of Bacteriology

There are more than 80 different types of autoimmune disorders; some estimates indicate up to 100 different types of autoimmune diseases.  The National Institutes of Health (NIH), however, identifies only 24 different types of autoimmune disease – the 24 diseases for which good epidemiology studies are available. This points to the difficulty in both identifying specific autoimmune disorders in patients and the challenge in pinpointing effective treatments given the wide range of diseases that may contribute to autoimmune disease symptoms.

An autoimmune disorder may result in the destruction of one or more types of body tissue, abnormal growth of an organ, and changes in organ function.  Similarly, autoimmune disorders may affect one or more organ or tissue types: those that are commonly affected are blood vessels, connective tissues, endocrine glands such as the thyroid or pancreas, joints, muscles, red blood cells, and skin.

parts of your body that can be affected by autoimmunity

Image via WomensHealth.gov

 

Check out these 13 excellent resources for more general background information on autoimmune disease:

A multitude of organizations are dedicated to education and raising funds for autoimmune disease research, some related to specific autoimmune diseases.

 

These 24 organizations are just a few of those focused on commonly known autoimmune disorders and organizations widely recognized for their advocacy work:  

 

How Prevalent are Autoimmune Diseases?

Generally, autoimmune diseases are quite common, affecting more than 23.5 million Americans, and they are the leading cause of death and disability.  While some autoimmune diseases like Hashimoto’s disease may affect many people, others are very rare.

The American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, Inc. has compiled statistics on the prevalence of autoimmune diseases:

  • While the National Institutes of Health estimate that up to 23.5 million Americans suffer from autoimmune diseases, AARDA puts the estimate at 50 million
  • Autoimmune disease is one of the top 10 leading causes of death in female children and women in all age groups up to 64 years of age
Prevalence of autoimmune disorders

Image via JohnsHopkins

With 80 to 100 different specific autoimmune disorders possible, it’s not surprising that so many people suffer from one type or another. There are many diseases that most people are familiar with that fall under the umbrella of autoimmune disorders, but they may not realize it. Some of these recognizable autoimmune disorders include:

  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Endometriosis
  • Graves’ Disease
  • Celiac Disease
  • Chron’s Disease
  • Juvenile Arhritis
  • Type I Diabetes
  • Lupus
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Psoriasis
  • Psoriatic Arthritis
  • Restless Legs Syndrome
  • Rheumatic Fever
Celiac-Disease

Imge via anthropology.msu.edu

With such a widespread range of autoimmune conditions and symptoms, practically everyone knows someone who is affected by an autoimmune disease. It’s a far-reaching group of devastating conditions with severity ranging from mild annoyances to life-threatening or terminal disease. In a room filled with just ten people, the odds are good at least one person will recognize many of the diseases that are considered autoimmune disorders.

Like many other diseases and conditions on the rise in recent years, one question that remains is whether there’s truly an increase in the prevalence of autoimmune disease or whether the statistics are artificially inflated due to the development of more effective diagnostics or the fact that people are living longer and some autoimmune diseases tend to impact people later in life.

Alzheimer’s disease, for example, is another disease (not classified as an autoimmune disease) with a sharp increase in the number of people being diagnosed each year. But researchers have attributed at least some of this increase to longevity; since Alzheimer’s disease is generally a late-in-life condition, the fact that people are living longer will naturally lead to more people eventually developing the disease.

In any case, the fact remains that more and more people are developing autoimmune disorders, and the impacts on daily life can be devastating.

 

For more information on the prevalence of autoimmune disease, visit the following 11 resources:

 

Whom Do Autoimmune Diseases Impact?

Autoimmune diseases can affect anyone, regardless of sex, age, or ethnicity.  However, some people are at a greater risk of contracting an autoimmune disease:

  • Women of childbearing age – It is true that more women than men have autoimmune disorders, and they often begin during women’s childbearing years.  For a complete list of autoimmune diseases that affect women and their related symptoms, view the Autoimmune Diseases Fact Sheet available at womenshealth.org.
  • People with a family history – Lupus, multiple sclerosis, and other autoimmune diseases tend to run in families.  It is also common for different types of autoimmune diseases to affect different members of a single family.
  • People who have certain environmental exposures – Various events or environmental exposures may cause some autoimmune diseases or make them worse.  Sunlight, solvents, and viral and bacterial infections are linked to many autoimmune diseases.
  • People of certain races or ethnic backgrounds – Some autoimmune diseases more commonly or more severely affect certain groups of people more than others.  For example, type 1 diabetes is more prevalent in Caucasians, while Lupus is most severe in African Americans and Hispanics.
global impact of multiple sclerosis

Image via MultipleSclerosis.net

Many people who suffer from Fibromyalgia or Chronic Fatigue are also found to have associated autoimmune diseases. For this reason, these conditions are sometimes included in lists of autoimmune disease types. Although they are not actually autoimmune disorders in themselves, they are so often associated with other autoimmune diseases that they are worth noting.

Additionally, the statistics regarding the prevalence of autoimmune disease in females versus males is interesting. As a whole, autoimmune disease is more common in women. According to Johns Hopkins Autoimmune Disease Research Center, hormones are suspected to play a – possibly critical – role in this trend, although there are multiple factors that may contribute to the development of autoimmune diseases.

autoimmunity in men vs women

Image via TreatYourselftoHealth.blogspot.com

But not all autoimmune disorders are more prevalent in women. There are a few specific autoimmune diseases that are actually more common in men, including Type 1 diabetes, ankylosing spondylitis and autoimmune myocarditis, suggesting that there are multiple factors weighting the sex bias in different scenarios.

Autoimmune diseases are often co-morbid conditions. Research has identified a correlation between autoimmune disease and other conditions such as Fibromyalgia, Thyroid Disease and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and research has also delved into correlations between autoimmune disorders and psychological conditions such as schizophrenia, depression, anxiety and a variety of other conditions.

autoimmunity and co-morbid conditions

Comorbidities with Depression: Image via AutoimmunityResearch.org

However, it’s important to note that correlation does not imply cause, and it’s unclear whether the psychological conditions are a symptom of autoimmune disease or if the presence of a psychological condition contributes to the development of autoimmune disease.

 

For more information on the demographics of autoimmune disease and the populations impacted by this group of disorders, visit the following 12 resources:

 

Types of Autoimmune Diseases

There are more than 80 types of autoimmune disorders, and they may be grouped depending on how they affect the body.  Autoimmune diseases may affect…

  • multiple organ systems
  • the eyes
  • the joints
  • hormone-producing organs
  • the skin
  • the nerves
  • the blood and blood vessels
  • the gastrointestinal system

The following is a partial list of types of autoimmune disorders:

  • Addison’s disease
  • Celiac disease – sprue
  • Dermatomyositis
  • Graves disease
  • Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Myasthenia gravis
  • Pernicious anemia
  • Reactive arthritis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Sjogren syndrome
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus
  • Type 1 diabetes

 

For more information on the many different types of autoimmune diseases, the following 16 resources are helpful:

 

What Causes Autoimmune Disease?

With so many specific disease types falling under the umbrella of autoimmune disease, it’s difficult to pinpoint one or even a few primary causes. Combined with the fact that a mere 24 of 80 or more possible disease types have reliable epidemiology studies, and you’re facing a serious lack of conclusive data to point you in the right direction to identify cause.

autoimmune disease etiology

Image via ChildHealth-Explanation.com

One thing we do know about autoimmune disease is that it’s not primarily genetic – meaning, being passed down or inherited from one generation to the next is not a primary indicator of disease, but it does play a role alongside other factors. Other primary contributing factors are possibly environmental factors or genetic mutations that may contribute to the development of improper autoimmune function at some point during the lifespan.

While no conclusive research has identified one single cause of autoimmune disease, research has shown some correlation between various factors and an elevated risk of developing autoimmune disorders.

For instance, some scientists are concerned with the rising levels of environmental toxins in the environment, pointing to this trend as one primary cause of the rise in autoimmune disorders.

According to Mark Hyman, M.D., in an article appearing in The New York Times, “That environmental toxins are a major cause of autoimmune disease is clear. Yet conventional medicine doesn’t take that into account when treating autoimmune conditions.”

free radicals and autoimmunity

Image via TeamRich.wordpress.com

Instead, Hyman says, traditional medicine approaches autoimmune disease with powerful drugs that shut down the body’s immune system, thereby reducing the symptoms associated with autoimmune disease. But this treatment approach introduces its own set of problems, putting patients at risk for acquiring life-threatening infections and even cancer by reducing the body’s ability to defend itself.

“Over 80,000 chemicals have been introduced into our society since 1900, and only 550 have been tested for safety,” Hyman points out. “According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), about 2.5 billion pounds of toxic chemicals are released yearly by large industrial facilities. And 6 million pounds of mercury are poured into our air every year.”

What’s more, the “National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals,” a study conducted back in 2005, found that the human body contains an average of 148 chemicals.

“And those were only the ones for which they tested,” notes Hyman.

 

The following 10 resources are excellent sources for more information on the many potential causes of autoimmune disease:

 

Symptoms of an Autoimmune Disease

The symptoms of an autoimmune disease vary depending on the specific type of disease and the affected body tissue’s location.  Common symptoms include fatigue, fever, and a general feeling of being ill.  Other symptoms include…

  • Itchy skin
  • Weight loss or weight gain
  • Muscle aches and stiff joints
  • Diarrhea
  • Numbness or tingling in arms, legs, hands, and feet
  • Blurry vision
  • Shortness of breath
  • Mouth sores
  • Rashes

It’s difficult to pinpoint a singular set of symptoms specifically related to autoimmune disease as the autoimmune group of disorders can vary drastically in presentation. Additionally, common symptoms of autoimmune disease commonly mimic those of other conditions, leaving clinicians with a complicated puzzle to interpret in making a correct diagnosis.

In women, reproductive issues are commonly associated with autoimmune diseases such as endometriosis. Women may experience difficulty conceiving or repeated miscarriages.

Concentration and memory problems, along with psychological problems such as depression and anxiety, are also commonly noted as symptoms of autoimmune disease. While it’s not clear whether the correlation points to a common comorbidity or acutal cause, research indicates that these symptoms commonly coexist in patients with autoimmune disease and, in fact, these conditions are often listed as symptoms of autoimmune disease.

This correlation is also one reason why nutritional experts are increasingly advising consumers to pay attention to the foods they eat and substances they expose their bodies to if they’re experiencing difficulty concentrating, memory problems, chronic fatigue or an increase in feelings of anxiety or depression.

For more information on the signs and symptoms of autoimmune disease, check out these 10 helpful resources:

 

Diagnosis of Autoimmune Disorders

Generally, a health care provider will do a physical exam and look for signs of the type of autoimmune disease the patient has.  In order to diagnose an autoimmune disorder, the health care provider may order one or a combination of the following tests: antinuclear antibody (ANA), autoantibody, complete blood count (CBC), C-reactive protein (CRP), Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR).

However, getting a diagnosis of an autoimmune disease may be an arduous process.  While each disease is unique, many share symptoms, and many symptoms of autoimmune diseases are the same for other types of health problems, too. Further, there are some autoimmune disorders that are especially challenging to diagnose due to a myriad of symptoms often attributable to other conditions, or a co-morbid condition exists that clouds the true autoimmune symptom picture.

Sjogren’s Syndrome, for example, is said to be one of the three most common autoimmune diseases. Yet, few people have heard of it and physicians rarely think of it when patients are describing symptoms, which can mimic anything from multiple sclerosis to acid reflux, according to a 2008 article in The New York Times.

 

The following 10 resources offer helpful information on the current diagnostic methods for identifying autoimmune disease and challenges in diagnosing autoimmune disorders:

 

Treatment of Autoimmune Diseases

As with the symptoms of an autoimmune disease, the treatments are disease specific.  Some patients may require supplements to replace hormones or vitamins that the body lacks, such as thyroid supplements, vitamin B12, or insulin.  If the autoimmune disorder affects the blood, the patient may need a blood transfusion.  People with autoimmune disorders that affect the bones, joints, or muscles may need therapy to help with movement or other functions.

treatment of autoimmune diseases

Image via PositiveHealth.com

Often, medications called immunosuppressives are prescribed to control or reduce the immune system’s response, and such medications may include corticosteroids such as prednisone or non-steroid drugs such as azathioprine, cyclophosphamide, mycophenolate, sirolimus, or tacrolimus.

 

The following 10 resources offer additional information on currently available treatment options for autoimmune disorders:

 

Natural and Alternative Treatment for Autoimmune Disease

Some people seek some form of complimentary and alternative medicine (CAM), such as herbal products, chiropractic, acupuncture, and hypnosis, to treat their autoimmune disease symptoms.  It is best to discuss your desire for CAM treatment with your doctor, who will be able to discuss the benefits and risks of attempting CAM.

One reason natural and alternative treatments for autoimmune disease are increasingly popular is that some scientists are pointing to an increase in environmental toxins as one of the leading causes of the rise in autoimmune disease diagnoses.

The treatment approach, in this case, involves detoxifying the body and reducing exposure to harmful chemicals in the environment whenever possible. As research links more and more everyday substances and chemicals to increased risk of disease, consumers are increasingly turning to natural and organic products to minimize their exposure to potentially harmful chemicals.

foods that help detoxify the body to aid with autoimmune disorders and autoimmunity

Image via SHTFPreparedness.com

One example is BPA (bisphenol A), which has been used to make certain plastics and resins since the 1960’s. Once commonly used to make baby and children’s products, such as baby bottles, small plastic utensils, bowls and plates, “BPA-free” is now a key marketing concept for these products as more parents are educated on the risks of exposing their children to BPA. BPA is an industrial chemical – one of thousands more that are used in the creation of products you encounter every day.

Additionally, diet and exercise regimens such as the Paleo diet and strictly organic diets rich in fresh fruits and vegetables are said to be beneficial for the immune system, providing essential vitamins and nutrients the body needs to function at its best.

whole-foods

Image via Disabled-World.com

 

The following 13 resources provide more helpful information on natural and alternative treatments for autoimmune disease:

 

Coping with Autoimmune Diseases

While most autoimmune diseases do not disappear, it is possible to treat the symptoms and learn to manage the disease and enjoy life.  The best plan of action is to see a doctor who specializes in these types of diseases, follow a treatment plan, and adopt a healthy lifestyle.

benefits of fruits and vegetables for autoimmunity

Image via TheJourneytoGoodHealth.blogspot.com

You may also have flares, or sudden and severe onset of symptoms.  There may be certain triggers, such as stress or being in the sun, that cause flares.  Knowing your triggers and sticking to your treatment plan, along with seeing your doctor regularly, can help to prevent flares or keep them from becoming severe.  Keep in mind that contacting a doctor when you sense a flare is the best course of action to take.

There are a few suggestions for daily living to help you feel better:

  • Eat healthy, well-balanced meals – Include fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat milk products, and lean protein sources.  Limit saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, salt, and added sugars.
  • Get regular physical activity, but be careful no to overdo it – Talk with your doctor about the types of physical activity that are right for you.  You may find that a gradual and gentle exercise program works well, if you have long-lasting muscle and joint pain.  Some types of yoga or tai chi exercises may also be helpful.
  • Get enough rest – Body tissues and joints have time to repair while you rest.  Sleeping is a great way to help both the body and the mind, especially because a lack of sleep can worsen stress and your symptoms.  Being well-rested also results in the body being better able to fight off sickness.  Most people require 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night to be well rested.
  • Reduce stress – Stress and anxiety can trigger symptoms to flare.  Meditation, self-hypnosis, and guided imagery are simple relaxation techniques that may help you reduce stress, lessen your pain, and deal with living with your disease.  Joining a support group or talking with a counselor might also help you to manage your stress and cope with your autoimmune disease.
super foods that help boost your immune system

Image via MyHealthTips.in

Autoimmune disease is also often associated with other conditions that do not fall under the umbrella of autoimmune disorders, so you’ll want to be sure to seek treatment appropriate for multiple diagnoses. As treating multiple diagnoses often means more medications, it’s critically important to take a list of all medications you’re taking to each doctor’s visit and obtain all your medications from the same pharmacy to reduce the risk of adverse drug interactions.

Additionally, autoimmune disease may have some significant impacts on other areas of your life. In addition to problems such as pain interfering with daily functioning, autoimmune disease can impact fertility. Because it’s most prevalent among women of childbearing age, this is a devastating potential consequence for many sufferers of autoimmune disorders.

For instance, endometriosis is a common form of autoimmune disease that impacts a woman’s reproductive system. This painful condition not only makes it impossible to live a normal life in the most severe cases, but sometimes makes childbearing impossible.

 

For more information on coping with autoimmune disease, check out the following 10 helpful resources:

 

Research on Autoimmune Disorders

Many autoimmune disorders have little supporting research offering insights into causes that would lead researchers to identifying more effective treatments. Because autoimmune disease is an umbrella term that refers to a large group of 80 to potentially 100 distinct diseases, each carrying its own set of symptoms and possibly causes, each condition requires its own distinct body of research.

Yet, alone, each autoimmune disease has far fewer sufferers than the broad figure cited for autoimmune disease as a whole. In fact, many of the diseases that are included in this category are considered rare; some are extraordinarily rare. And unfortunately, it’s rare diseases that often lack adequate research funding to develop life-saving and life-altering treatments.

research on autoimmune disorders and diseases

Image via LandesBioScience.com

What adds even more to an already-concerning situation is a rise in the number of people diagnosed with autoimmune disorders in the past several years. In fact, according to WebMD, one out of every 12 women and one of every 20 men will develop an autoimmune disease at some point during their lifetimes. That’s astonishing.

 

While theoretically this brings more attention to the need for additional funding support for research, these disorders are not often discussed in the media; most have yet to achieve the mainstream, well-known status of other diseases such as heart disease or Alzheimer’s disease. The fact is that every medical condition could use more funding.

There has been more research dedicated to identifying the causes behind autoimmune disease in the past decade or so.

 

Here’s a look at some of the research that’s been released in the past 10 to 15 years:

As society continues to become more environmentally-conscious and researchers identify more potential causes and promising treatments for autoimmune diseases, the outlook for these patients will continue to improve. If you or a loved one has an autoimmune disease, be sure to talk with your doctor about the right combination of diet and lifestyle, natural and traditional treatments to keep you functioning at your best.