Immune system disorders leads to an abnormally low or over functioning immune system. In cases of immune system over activity, the body attacks and damages its own tissues. This condition is called as an autoimmune disease. Immune deficiency diseases make the body vulnerable to infections and decrease its ability to fight invaders.
In an autoimmune disease condition, while responding to a trigger, the immune system may start producing antibodies that instead of fighting the infections, attack the body’s own tissues. Here the immune system mistakes part of your body, like your joints or skin, as foreign invaders and releases proteins called auto-antibodies that attack healthy cells.
Many types of arthritis are considered to be autoimmune in nature, including:
- Ankylosing spondylitis
- Reactive arthritis
- Mixed connective tissue disease
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Raynaud’s phenomenon
- Juvenile arthritis
- Behcet’s disease
- Giant cell arteritis/temporal arteritis
- Takayasu arteritis
- Granulomatosis with polyangiitis
- Polymyalgia rheumatica
- Polyarteritis nodosa
Other autoimmune diseases include
- Alopecia areata
- Antiphospholipid antibody syndrome
- Autoimmune hepatitis
- Type 1 diabetes
- Celiac disease
- Crohn’s disease
- Graves’ disease
- Guillain-Barre syndrome
- Hashimoto’s disease
- Idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- Myasthenia gravis
- Primary biliary cirrhosis
- Sjogren’s syndrome
On the other hand, some diseases like Chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia whose symptoms might resemble autoimmune diseases are not actually auto immune in nature.
Autoimmune disease symptoms
The early symptoms of many autoimmune diseases are very similar, such as:
- Swelling and redness
- Muscle aches
- Numbness and tingling in the hands and feet
- Joint pain and stiffness
- Hair loss
- Low-grade fever
- Digestive issues
- trouble concentrating
- Abdominal pain
- skin rashes
- Swollen glands
Individual diseases can also have their own unique symptoms. For example, type 1 diabetes may cause
- Increased thirst (polydipsia)
- Sudden or unexplained weight loss
- Frequent/increased urination (polyuria)
- Extreme tiredness (fatigue)
And inflammatory bowel disease causes
- Belly pain
These people are at higher risk of developing an autoimmune disease as compared to others
- People who have certain environmental exposures that could act as the trigger
- People with a family history of autoimmune disease
- People of a particular race or ethnicity
- Women of childbearing age
When to see a doctor?
You need to see a doctor if you have symptoms of an autoimmune disease. You might need to visit a specialist, depending on the type of disease you have.
- If you have a disease of joints, like rheumatoid arthritis as well as other autoimmune diseases (Sjögren’s syndrome and SLE), you will need a Rheumatologist.
- The conditions of the glands, including Graves’ disease, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and Addison’s disease are treated by an Endocrinologist.
- The autoimmune diseases associated with the gastrointestinal track (such as celiac and Crohn’s disease) are treated by a Gastroenterologist.
- All types of skin conditions (including psoriasis) are treated by a Dermatologist.
Autoimmune disorders can be difficult to recognize and diagnose. Autoimmune disorders affecting multiple organs can lead to highly variable signs and symptoms that can change in severity over time. The first step f or the diagnosis of an autoimmune disease is the physical examination for symptoms like
- General feeling of being unwell (malaise)
- Joint pain
- Low grade fever etc.
Laboratory tests performed to diagnose autoimmune disorders depend on the particular disorder. The physician will also look at the family history for evaluating the risks of the disease and might ask for one of the following lab tests to be sure about the nature of the issue.
- Antinuclear antibody (ANA) test
- Rheumatoid factor (RF) test
- Complete blood count (CBC)including white blood cell count (WBC), and hematocrit
- Measurement of Complement level
- C-reactive protein (CRP) evaluation
- Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR or sed rate)
- Anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide (anti-CCP) antibody Test
The doctor may also suggest imaging tests as:
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
In some cases, your doctor will actually take a sample of your body’s tissues (called a biopsy) for the identification of the disease or to get an idea of how it’s progressing.
Following medications and therapies are usually prescribed for the patients suffering from autoimmune diseases
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), for easing symptoms like pain, swelling and stiffness.
- Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs), for inhibiting the progress of the disease.
- Biologics, (a class of DMARDs made of synthetic proteins) including tumor necrosis factor (TNF) blockers, which neutralize high levels of inflammatory proteins.
- Corticosteroids which are extremely powerful drugs for suppressing the immune system and fight inflammation
Depending on the severity of the autoimmune disease, the patient might need other kinds of medical treatment, such as:
- Plasmapheresis, for removing plasma — the part of the blood that carries antibodies — from a patient’s blood. It removes both friend and enemy antibodies of the body and reduces the body’s capability to fight diseases. That’s why it is only preferable for extremely serious autoimmune conditions.
- Surgery (rarely) for dealing with certain complications of autoimmune disease such as joint damage in juvenile idiopathic arthritis or bowel obstruction in Crohn’s disease.
Herbs that reduce inflammation may help in regulating the autoimmune response. Several herbs that have been traditionally used for this purpose also have been investigated scientifically to determine their mechanism(s) of action. These herbs include,
- Reishi Mushroom
- Scute (Chinese Skullcap)
Other important herbs that may have a role in decreasing both inflammation and the autoimmune responses include
- Boswellia serrate
- Green Tea
- White Willow
- Chinese Thunder God Vine etc.
Autoimmune disorders can be prevented by
- Avoiding toxins which might increase your risk of developing an autoimmune disease such as Air pollution, uranium, lead mercury, cadmium, synthetic estrogens including hormonal birth control, agricultural or residential pesticides, excessive alcohol use etc.
- Eating an Anti-Inflammatory Diet: You can reduce your risk of autoimmune disease by eating an anti-inflammatory diet which includes plenty of whole food protein sources, fruits and leafy green vegetables, and healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil and omega-3 fatty acids from fatty fish. Turmeric, spicy foods, chocolate, and red wine in moderation also reduce the risks of autoimmune disorders.
- Quitting Smoking: Smoking doubles your risk of multiple sclerosis and raises your risk of other autoimmune diseases like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and autoimmune thyroid disease by causing inflammation in your body, so quitting it can actually help in preventing autoimmune diseases.
- Maintaining a Healthy Weight: Being overweight or obese raises your risk of developing autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, and inflammatory bowel disease.
- Get Enough Sleep: Being sleep-deprived, sleeping on an inconsistent schedule or getting poor-quality sleep all raise your risk of developing autoimmune disease. A healthy sleep routine (7-9 hours at night) can protect you from various diseases.