Autoimmune diseases also referred to as collagen vascular diseases or autoimmunity are disorders where the body's immune system reacts against some of its own cells and produces antibodies to attack it. These disorders are classified into two types, organ-specific (directed mainly at one organ) and non-organ-specific (widely spread throughout the body). Autoimmune diseases keep the healthy body from releasing an immunological army that destroys all healthy cells it encounters.
The human immune system is a protection mechanism which defends the body against millions of bacteria, microbes, viruses, toxins and parasites that try to invade the human body. Our immune system can detect viruses, parasitic worms and differentiate them from healthy cells and tissues, required for the normal functioning of the body. Due to autoimmune disorders, the immune system mistakenly attacks self, targeting the cells, tissues, and organs of a person's own body.
Autoimmune diseases are currently ranked as the third biggest disease category in the US behind heart disease and cancer. According to several studies patients with these disorders are more likely to have a relative with an autoimmune disease, but they do not necessarily have the same type of autoimmune disease. Autoimmune disorders may result in destruction of one or more types of body tissue, abnormal growth of an organ or change in organ function. Organs and tissues such as red blood cells, blood vessels, endocrine glands, connective tissues, joints, skin and muscles are commonly targeted by autoimmune diseases.
There are over 100 different autoimmune diseases and these are mainly caused by the immune system attacking different organs of our body. Their treatment is essentially the same, since all these diseases have similar method of action. The common types of autoimmune diseases that affect most people have been listed and described below.
Autoimmune disorders /Types of autoimmune diseases
Types of autoimmune diseases include:
- Autoimmune hemolytic anemia
- Autoimmune thyroid disease/Autoimmune Thyroiditis
- Autoimmune hepatitis
- Autoimmune pancreatitis
- Type 1 diabetes
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Psoriatic arthritis
- Addison’s disease
- Pernicious anemia
- Autoimmune hemolytic anemia
Excessive red blood cell destruction anemia or Hemolytic anemia causes the red blood cells to die early (generally they live for 110-120 days) which are removed through the spleen. To compensate for this loss, the bone marrow produces more red blood cells than normal, and if the bone marrow cannot keep up with the red blood cell production, it may lead to hemolysis.
Autoimmune hemolytic anemia or Hemolysis can also be caused due to immune reactions, infections as well as some medications and toxins. The severity of this disease depends on the main causes such as cytomegalovirus, hepatitis, HIV and lupus. This disorder may develop gradually or even suddenly causing serious symptoms.
- Autoimmune Thyroiditis/Autoimmune thyroid disease
Autoimmune Thyroiditis or Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis is a condition that causes the thyroid gland to become enlarged, due to an attack of antibodies and is the most common type of Thyroiditis. This disease causes the cells of the thyroid gland to become inefficient for converting iodine into thyroid hormone which eventually cause the thyroid gland to grow more than the normal size.
Autoimmune Thyroiditis can lead to goiters which appear on the front neck and are developed due to extremely swollen thyroid gland. It makes the gland incapable to produce adequate thyroid hormone for the body. Goiters are usually caused due to iodine deficiency.
The common symptoms associated with this disorder are weight gain, weakness, abnormal growth, pale skin, heavy menstrual periods, aching muscles, aches in the legs and feet, depression, puffiness in the face, irritation etc. In severe cases it can result in all manner of complications including heart disease, serious depression, lowered interest in sexual activity, higher incidence of birth defects for children of mothers with untreated Hashimoto’s, and development of fatal conditions.
- Autoimmune Hepatitis
Autoimmune hepatitis is a chronic liver disease where body’s immune system attacks the liver and causes it to become inflamed. This disease is classified into two forms, Type 1 autoimmune hepatitis and Type 2 autoimmune hepatitis.
Type 1 autoimmune hepatitis is common among young women and is often associated with other autoimmune diseases. Type 2 autoimmune hepatitis is less common and generally affects girls between the ages of 2 and 14. Due to this disease, auto antibodies circulating in the bloodstream cause the immune system to attack the liver, as immune cells treats liver’s normal cell as foreign tissue or disease causing agent (pathogen). The disease is usually quite serious and, if not treated, gets worse over time.
Common symptoms associated with this disorder are an enlarged liver, jaundice, itching, skin rashes, joint pain, abdominal discomfort, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, dark urine; pale or gray-colored stools etc. In severe cases it can even lead to liver cirrhosis, ascites and in worse condition it can even lead to liver failure. With early diagnosis and proper treatment, autoimmune hepatitis can be controlled.
- Autoimmune pancreatitis
Autoimmune pancreatitis (AIP), is a rare autoimmune disorder, and was first identified in Japan in 1955, described as a new form of chronic pancreatitis. It is also referred to by a variety of names including sclerosing pancreatitis, tumefactive pancreatitis and nonalcoholic destructive pancreatitis.
This autoimmune disorder develops when the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue, causing ongoing inflammation and potentially serious complications not only to the pancreas but also to the bile ducts, salivary glands, kidneys and lymph nodes.
- Type 1 diabetes
Type 1 diabetes is a disease, where the pancreas does not produce enough insulin which causes glucose levels in the blood to increase, instead of being used for energy. The immune cells of the immune system attack particular cells in the pancreas which are known as beta cells. Beta cells play a vital role in the production of insulin, which is a hormone that helps the body to control the level of glucose (sugar) in the blood.
Type 1 diabetes can occur at any age, but it is most often diagnosed in children, adolescents, or young adults. This disease cannot be prevented but can be controlled by taking insulin injections on a daily basis so that blood sugar level remains normal. People with type 1 diabetes should eat at about the same times each day and try to be consistent with the types of food they choose. This help prevent blood sugar from becoming extremely high or low.
Some of the common symptoms for type 1 diabetes include weight loss, excessive thirst, feeling hungry, fatigue, losing the feeling or feeling tingling in the feet. It may also lead to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) due to insulin intake by a diabetic person.
- Rheumatoid arthritis
Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) causes the synovial joints to become thickened and inflamed and may also affect other organs of the body. If the synovial fluid sticks around too long after working out, it can cause cracks in the cartilage, ice helps get the fluid out of the joint and into the lymphatic system, which is the garbage disposal of the body. Generally, women are more at risk of being affected by rheumatoid arthritis than men.
It is a chronic illness in which patients may experience long periods without any symptoms and has the potential to cause joint destruction and functional disability. Joints play a vital role in fluid movement of human body and hence require careful attention. But when they get diseased or injured, the resulting pain can severely limit a person’s ability to work and move.
Obese, overweight people are more at risk of having joint related problems, as bones and joints are under heavy stress and tension due to the extra weight of the body.
Drinking ginger tea at bed time is particularly recommended for Rheumatoid Arthritis. Application of ice to the joints can help in reducing pain and swelling.
- Multiple sclerosis
Multiple sclerosis is a chronic nervous system disorder which is the cause of nontraumatic disability among young and middle aged people. It is generally caused by destruction of the myelin insulation covering nerve fibers in the central nervous system and affects movement, sensations and vital body functions.
Some patients experience such mild symptoms that they do not notice anything until much later in the course of the disease. Weakness, numbness, pain, disturbances of speech or vision, parasthesias, ataxia, tremor, dizziness, bladder or bowel dysfunction, fatigue, cognitive problems and depression are some of the common symptoms associated with this disorder.
- Psoriatic arthritis
Psoriatic arthritis is a joint condition that occurs mainly due to the complications of psoriasis (a chronic skin disorder with the appearance of raised, red, roughened patches covered by silvery shiny scales). Up to 30 percent of people with psoriasis also get psoriatic arthritis, a chronic inflammatory joint disease that causes pain, stiffness, swelling and restrictive mobility.
This type of joint condition usually affects people, both men and women, in the ages of 30-50. It has been noticed that white colored people are more likely to get Psoriatic arthritis than black colored people. It usually affects joints in an asymmetric manner but may sometimes also affect joints in a symmetric fashion, similar to rheumatoid arthritis.
Psoriatic arthritis can be divided into 5 types mainly Asymmetric arthritis (it is the most common form of psoriatic arthritis where the joint inflammation in joints does not follow a typical pattern), Spondylitis (also called spondyloarthropathy and involves inflammation in the joints between the spinal vertebrae), Symmetric arthritis (also called symmetric polyarthritis and involves inflammation in the same joints on both sides of the body), Distal interphalangeal predominant (DIP) arthritis (also called distal arthritis which occurs in the fingers and/or toes, usually affecting the joints closest to the fingernails and toenails) and Arthritis mutilans (a very rare type but devastating form of psoriatic arthritis that can destroy joints, especially of the hands, feet, back or neck ,resulting in deformity).
Lupus is a chronic disorder which causes the immune system of the human body to attack normal tissues, especially the skin, joints blood and kidneys. This disorder cannot differentiate between the foreign bodies and body’s own healthy organ and tissues and thus starts making harmful antibodies that attack its own organs and tissues.
This is a disease that is usually hereditary, but in some cases there is no family history of Lupus. Lupus normally develops between 15 and 40 years of age. Common symptoms include painful or swollen joints and muscle pain, unexplained fever, "Butterfly" rashes most commonly across the bridge of nose and cheeks, chest pain, unusual hair loss, swelling, or edema, in the legs or around the eyes, swollen glands and extreme fatigue.
There are generally four types of Lupus:
- Systemic Lupus erythematosus (SLE)
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is a type of lupus which causes flares and followed by periods of wellness, called remission. It generally affects different organs and tissues and causes fluctuating pain; hence a person suffering from this disease at times feels better and other time feel terrible pain.
- Discoid Lupus
Discoid lupus is chronic disease which affects the skin with red scaling rash that leads to scarring. This disorder can lead to SLE. It causes ugly rashes on the face, and may also result in severe hair loss and scarring of the scalp. Discoid lupus is not completely curable as it may reoccur at some point of time.
- Neonatal Lupus
This disease is common seen among new born babies as mother affected by lupus passes harmful antibodies (SSA/Ro and SSA/La) to the fetus through placenta. This disorder leads to anemia and decrease in platelet count due to the destruction of red blood cells and platelets by these harmful antibodies.
- Drug Induced Lupus
This disorder is caused due to the use of certain drugs and affects central nervous system and kidneys. Drug induced lupus have symptoms similar to SEL. Use of drugs such as minocycline, laniazid, nydrazid, aldomet and promine usually cause this disorder. In some cases this disorder can be completely resolved by avoiding the use of drugs that cause this disorder.
- Addison’s disease
Addison’s disease is an autoimmune disease which affects adrenal glands which are located above each kidney. These two glands produce essential hormones known as cortisol and aldosterone. In this disorder the body’s immune system attacks healthy tissues which hampers the production of these essential hormones and thus cause harmful effects on the body.
Chronic infection, tuberculosis, amyloidosis are some of the causes that lead to destruction of adrenal glands. Common symptoms associated with this disorder are nausea, depression, irritability, darkening of skin, dizziness, vomiting, weight loss and loss of appetite etc.
- Pernicious anemia
Pernicious anemia also known as Biermer's anemia is a form of megablastic anemia which is caused by impaired uptake of vitamin B 12 due to the lack of intrinsic factor (IF) in the gastrointestinal tract. In this case large, immature, nucleated cells known as mega oblasts circulate in the blood, and do not function as blood cells. Vitamin B12 is necessary for the proper development of red blood cells.
Pernicious anemia that occurs at birth is inherited and the person having this disease tends to inherit two copies of defective genes; one from each parent. This disease begins slowly and mainly occurs in children. This type of anemia usually does not appear before age 30 in adults. The disease was named pernicious anemia because it was fatal before treatment became available. It was first available as a, liver therapy and then as purified vitamin B12 therapy.
Cobalamin deficiency, macrocytic anemia and other neurological complications are some of the disorders that are associated with insufficient absorption and metabolism of vitamin B12, which is mainly cause due to pernicious anemia. The common symptoms of pernicious anemia include bleeding gums, diarrhea, fatigue, sore mouth, and impaired sense of smell, loss of appetite, rapid heart rate, and shortness of breath. Other symptoms of pernicious anemia may include pale or yellowish skin, a low-grade fever, and dizziness when standing up. In severe cases pernicious anemia can also lead to heart failure and cancer.
Autoimmune disease symptoms
Autoimmune disease is classified into two types, organ-specific (directed mainly at one organ) and non-organ-specific (widely spread throughout the body). Autoimmune disease keeps the healthy body from releasing an immunological army that destroys all healthy cells it encounters.
The most common symptoms include:
- extreme fatigue
- muscle and joint pain
- swollen glands
- low blood sugar
- memory problems
- pre-menstrual syndrome etc.
Pregnant women have an increased risk of fetal growth retardation. People suffering from this disease may also have an uncomfortable tingling or crawling feeling in legs or unusual cravings for non-nutritive substances.
The symptoms of an autoimmune disease depend on what part or parts of the body are mistakenly attacked by the immune system. For some people the condition of disease could be mild and may not show any signs or symptoms of the disease but in case of severe condition it can lead to rheumatoid arthritis, pernicious anemia, multiple sclerosis, Type 1 diabetes, autoimmune Thyroiditis. In severe cases it can also lead to cancer, as healthy tissues and cells are destroyed by body’s immune system.
Autoimmune disease prevention
Well-balanced dietary intake is necessary to maintain the general well-being of patients suffering from any type of autoimmune diseases. It is also important that the patient receive all available immunizing agents and nutritional deficiencies should be corrected when present.
- Diet should include plenty of fruits and vegetables as they provide disease-fighting vitamins and minerals. Vitamin C is one of the vital vitamins which help to fight infection and improves ability of the cells to digest viruses and toxins. Citrus fruits and their juices, acai berries, goji berries, grape seed extract are best sources of Vitamin C.
- Foods such as fish and eggs are rich in omega 3 fatty acids which are essential in strengthening immune cells and reduce inflammatory interleukin-6 and interleukin-1 cells.
- To deal with autoimmune one should, take rest, avoid alcohol, avoid physical and emotional stress, avoid sources of bacterial, viral and fungal infection.
- The person suffering from autoimmune disease should also increase the fluid intake to one and a half to two times the usual amount. The additional fluids increase the fluid volume and encourage mobilization of the abnormal red cells.
- One should get plenty of sleep as without sleep our body's disease-fighting defenses are weakened, enabling a cold or flu virus to wreak havoc on body.
- Maintaining personal hygiene (such as washing hands before eating, avoiding eating stale food, taking regular bath etc) is of outmost importance in keeping autoimmune diseases at bay.