March is National Autoimmune Disease Awareness Month, but the one in five people who have been diagnosed with one need no reminder. It’s a series of clubs that no one wants to join.
Recently, actress Selma Blair has shown the world what it’s like to live with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), one of more than 100 autoimmune diseases.
The goal of the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association is to increase research by scientists for better advancements in the autoimmunity field and to increase awareness of autoimmune diseases themselves, so that diagnoses are made quicker.
An autoimmune disease begins when in response to an unknown trigger, the immune system may begin producing antibodies that instead of fighting infections, attack the body’s own tissues. Treatment for autoimmune diseases generally focuses on reducing immune system activity.
Examples of more common autoimmune diseases include:
* Rheumatoid arthritis, in which the immune system produces antibodies that attach to the linings of joints. Immune system cells then attack the joints, causing inflammation, swelling and pain.
* Systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus), in which people with lupus develop autoimmune antibodies that can attach to tissues throughout the body. The joints, lungs, blood cells, nerves and kidneys are commonly affected in lupus.
* Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), in which the immune system attacks the lining of the intestines, causing episodes of diarrhea, rectal bleeding, urgent bowel movements, abdominal pain, fever and weight loss.
* Multiple Sclerosis (MS), in which the immune system attacks nerve cells, causing symptoms that can include pain, blindness, weakness, poor coordination and muscle spasms.
* Type 1 diabetes mellitus, in which immune system antibodies attack and destroy insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.
* Psoriasis, in which overactive immune system blood cells called T-cells collect in the skin. The immune system activity stimulates skin cells to reproduce rapidly, producing silvery, scaly plaques on the skin.
* Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, in which antibodies produced by the immune system attack the thyroid gland, slowly destroying the cells that produce thyroid hormone.
Dr. Andrew Weil says that while the prevalence of both autoimmune diseases and allergies has been increasing in developed countries since the 1950s, the occurrence of many infectious diseases has been declining in the same countries because of vaccines, antibiotics, improved hygiene and rising socioeconomic conditions.
He said some researchers believe the decrease in acquiring natural infections has caused the increase in allergies and autoimmune disorders. This is the “hygiene hypothesis,” which asserts that exposure to infections, especially in early life, strengthens or programs the immune system to make it less likely to overreact to ragweed pollen, pet dander or peanuts or to attack the body’s own tissues.
One example that supports the theory is that the rate of type-1 diabetes among the children of Pakistanis who migrated to the United Kingdom is the same as the rate among kids whose parents were born there and about 10 times higher than the incidence in Pakistan.
Also interesting is the fact autoimmune diseases and allergies are less common among those of low socioeconomic status. In Germany, asthma rates are higher among residents of West Germany, which is more developed than the former East Germany.
“At present, the hygiene hypothesis is just that – an unproved theory,” Weil said. “But researchers are looking at related, novel ways to combat allergic and autoimmune diseases.”
For more information about autoimmune diseases, visit https://www.aarda.org/.