What is an autoimmune disease?

Here is a look at some of the more common autoimmune diseases people can develop:

We hear the term autoimmune disease a lot but what exactly is an autoimmune disease?  If you look up the definition it states, “a disease in which the body produces antibodies that attack its own tissues, leading to deterioration and in some cases to the destruction of such tissue.”  An autoimmune disease is basically where the immune system has gone haywire for whatever reason.

Normally the immune system of healthy people quietly does its job of keeping us from getting sick by seeking out and destroying invaders of the body that want to cause us harm.  But this same immune system is very complex and this is where certain people with autoimmune diseases frequently have unusual antibodies circulating in their blood turning against and targeting their own body tissue.  When this happens, the immune system assault or attack against you can lead to inflammation, deteriorations and in some cases, partial or total destruction of the target of the antibodies. 

Here is a look at some of the more common autoimmune diseases people can develop:

·      Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis or MS, is a long-lasting chronic condition involving an immune-mediated process where there is an abnormal response of the body’s immune system attacking the central nervous system.   The central nervous system is composed of the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves.  It is not known the exact antigen that makes the immune cells sensitized attacking myelin, a fatty substance surrounding and insulating the nerve fibers as well as the nerves themselves.  Because of this, some experts believe MS may be “immune-mediated” rather than “autoimmune.”

The reason for the name “sclerosis” is due to the scar tissue the damaged myelin forms.  Any part of the myelin sheath or nerve fibers that are damaged or destroyed distorts or interrupts nerve impulses that travel to the brain and spinal cord producing a whole range of symptoms.  It is believed that the disease may be triggered genetically in susceptible individuals by a combination of one or more environmental factors. 

Many people with MS are able to live relatively normal lives by managing the fatigue and limitations MS can bring.  Others however can experience a rapid decline and may suffer from paralysis, blindness, and premature death.

·      Rheumatoid Arthritis

This autoimmune disease mistakenly attacks the joints throughout the body.  When this occurs inflammation causes the tissue lining the inside of the joints to thicken, resulting in swelling and pain in and around the joints.  If the inflammation goes unchecked, this can damage cartilage which is the elastic tissue covering the ends of bones in a joint as well as bones themselves. With the loss of cartilage, the joint spacing between bones can become smaller causing the joints to loosen, become unstable, painful and lose their mobility.  Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can also lead to joint deformity which cannot be reversed. 

Treatment for RA is focused on reducing or controlling the symptoms to decrease discomfort and damage to the joints which is usually done with anti-inflammatory or immune-suppressing drugs.

·      Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes at one time was mainly referred to as juvenile onset diabetes because of the fact most cases were diagnosed in childhood or adolescence.  This autoimmune disease is when the beta cells of the pancreas necessary for producing the hormone insulin, are destroyed by an autoimmune response. 

Insulin is required by the body to maintain healthy blood sugar levels.  If blood sugar or blood glucose levels become too high, this can cause damage to the kidneys, eyes, heart and lead to poor circulation. 

This disease is a lifelong condition requiring strict dietary, medication and exercise management to maintain health and avoid physical damage. 

·      Lupus

This chronic autoimmune disease can cause damage to any part of the body affecting the skin, joints and organs.  Lupus can have flare-ups where the symptoms can worsen making a person feel ill and then have a remission where the symptoms improve.  The disease affects about one in every 2,000 Americans with the prevalence higher in young, African American women. 

Lupus has a wide range of symptoms making it difficult to get an accurate diagnosis in the beginning.  Some of the symptoms include pain, a butterfly rash on the face, and fatigue.  The symptoms can be treated with anti-inflammatory medications.

·      Psoriasis

Generally thought of as just a skin condition, psoriasis is a long-lasting disease of the immune system that actually starts underneath the skin ranging from mild to severe.  In normal skin, the body takes about 28 to 30 days to produce new skin cells and shed the old ones.  With psoriasis, the immune system is overactive triggering skin inflammation causing skin cells to be produced faster than normal.  New skin cells are pushed to the skin’s surface in 3 to 4 days instead of the usual 28 to 30 days.  Since the skin cannot shed the new skin cells that fast, the old, dead skin cells pile up on top of each other forming the thick, red, itchy, flaky patches known as plaques.

Psoriasis is also associated with other health condition such as psoriatic arthritis, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. 

Psoriasis is the most common autoimmune disease with a strong genetic component.  Currently there are several treatment options depending on the severity, including topical drugs, medications, and light therapy.