Autoimmune diseases are the result of a dysfunctional immune system
While the etiology of autoimmune diseases is not entirely understood, there is a growing consensus that both environmental and genetic factors contribute to their development. Many of us will be affected directly by an autoimmune disease, if we haven’t been already, or will have a close friend or family member affected. When it comes to our health, knowledge is power.
Autoimmune diseases are on the rise
Estimates vary globally, from 3% of the population of Japan up to 9% in the EU suffering from an autoimmune condition (1). Additionally, millions of people will suffer for years before finally being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease since the symptoms are often vague and misleading. Certain autoimmune conditions are well-known, such as rheumatoid arthritis and type I diabetes, while others are rare and difficult to diagnose.
Here are 5 things your doctor may not be telling you about autoimmune diseases:
1. You may have an autoimmune disease
Many doctors diagnose an under-active thyroid without investigating if the root cause is Hashimoto’s disease (an autoimmune disease). The ‘IBS’ you’re experiencing may actually be caused by Celiac, Crohn’s disease, or Ulcerative Colitis (also all autoimmune conditions). If you’ve ever been diagnosed with psoriasis, Rheumatoid arthritis, or fibromyalgia, you have an autoimmune disease. Additionally, new research is indicating that common symptoms such as eczema/atopic dermatitis, asthma, and allergies may be considered autoimmune, or at the very least, part of the ‘autoimmune spectrum’ (2,3). Without acknowledging the autoimmune aspect of these conditions, treatments often aim solely to suppress the symptom, rather than heal the root cause of a dysfunctional immune system. Many patients who are diagnosed with an autoimmune condition have been experiencing inflammation, as part of the ‘autoimmune spectrum’, for years.
2. Your immune system is not the enemy
In autoimmune conditions, the immune system has become confused. Instead of attacking only foreign, pathogenic invaders, it has begun to attack your own tissue. Many autoimmune conditions are triggered when a virus overburdens the immune system; recent research has linked the Epstein-Barr virus to a variety of autoimmune diseases, including systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), rheumatoid arthritis, Celiac disease, and multiple sclerosis (4). It is suspected that EBV activates genes linked to an increased risk of certain autoimmune diseases. Additionally, molecular mimicry, the process by which the body attacks foreign invaders as well as our own tissue due to similarities between the two, appears to play a significant role in the pathology of autoimmune disease (5). These findings show that these conditions are not the result of an excess of immune activity but rather, misdirected immune activity. The answer is not simply to suppress and blunt the immune system, but rather to remove the trigger that has misled it.
3. The drugs prescribed for autoimmune diseases have multiple, and often severe, side effects
Prednisone, a corticosteroid used to treat arthritis, skin conditions, and severe allergies, can lead to fluid retention, mood issues, weight gain, high blood sugar, high blood pressure, and suppressed adrenal gland hormone production (6). Methotrexate, often prescribed as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and juvenile rheumatoid arthritis has a wide range of potential side effects, including birth defects, liver damage, and decreased male fertility (7). These drugs aim to suppress the immune system, leaving the body susceptible to bacterial, viral, and fungal infections. At times, these drugs may be necessary to control rampant inflammation that is out of control; however, they are often used as a first-line therapy in lieu of a treatment plan that addresses the root cause of the immune system dysfunction.
4. Genetics is a very small part of the story
We used to believe that genetics played a huge role in the development of the disease. However, as science advances, we’re discovering that genetics actually contributes very little. Furthermore, it is suspected that we have only identified 15% of the genetic factors that contribute to autoimmunity (8). Environmental factors, such as the food we eat; the balance of bacteria in our gut; our prenatal environment (how healthy and happy our mothers were); the toxins in our homes, community, and workplace; infections we have
picked up, and the stress we experience, all appear to play a role in the ‘perfect storm’ that leads to the development of an autoimmune condition (9). There is a saying in the medical community – ‘genes load the gun, environment pulls the trigger’. We are not victims of the genetic cards we’ve been dealt; we hold the keys to health within our own hands.
4. You are going to have to change your life - if you want to get better
I see the same story time and time again – a patient is diagnosed with an autoimmune condition, handed a prescription to suppress their immune system, and told to keep living the same way. An opportunity to listen to the body and determine what it needs has been missed.
If we picture a symptom as a message from the body, an autoimmune disease is a loud one. Likely, years ago your body gave you small messages – indigestion, headaches, maybe skin rashes, or seasonal allergies. Perhaps you started to get more colds, cases of flu, and infections and had to take antibiotics more often. Then your mood became unpredictable, you experienced bouts of anxiety and depression, and your doctor prescribed you an antidepressant. But instead of feeling better, you actually start to feel worse, experiencing joint pain and stomach aches. You have been prescribed a proton pump inhibitor drug but this doesn’t improve your symptoms. Worse, it inhibits your digestion and you’ve developed nutritional deficiencies. Your fatigue is, of course, getting worse, and now you are developing tooth decay, nerve pain, and muscle aches – all results of being deficient in key vitamins and minerals. This process may go on and on and slowly you feel unheard as if you are a burden on the medical system. Your symptoms worsen and you feel hopeless.
This is only one story – every patient I see is different – but I see variations of this tale time and time again. A common thread often emerges – the body provided a signal quietly and early on and instead of listening to it, we chose to continue to live in the same way and take a drug in hopes that it would suppress the symptom. But our immune system has a way of ensuring that it’s message is heard; continue to live a life that your body is not handling well, and it will become louder and louder in its attempts to help you see another way.
5. Hope and healing are possible
I’ve seen autoimmune conditions go into remission. I’ve watched patients joint pain disappear, hormones come into balance, and digestion improve. I’ve seen seemingly unconnected symptoms such as depression, anxiety, acne, and insomnia dissipate as their body begins to heal itself. It is possible to live well with an autoimmune disease, and a well-trained healthcare professional who is familiar with autoimmune conditions can help guide you to this place.