Your immune system includes a group of cells in your body that protects you against illness and infections. It is your body’s defence system. A healthy immune system protects the body by identifying and disposing of antigens. An antigen is a molecule – usually a protein – found on the surface of substances that can potentially harm your body. Antigens exist on living organisms such as viruses, bacteria, parasites, fungus and molds, and on non-living substances such as chemicals, drugs, pet danger, dust, and even proteins in food.
Every day when you are exposed to things that could cause infection and illness, such as antigens, your immune system takes action. To do so, this surveillance is carried out mostly by the white blood cells called lymphocytes, which recognize foreign antigens and either attack them directly or produce antibodies against them.
An antibody, also called immunoglobulin, is a protective protein produced by the immune system in response to the presence of a foreign antigen. Antibodies recognize and latch onto antigens in order to remove them from the body.
For the immune system to function appropriately, it must be able to distinguish cells that are a natural part of body, or “self” form foreign substances that are “non-self”. Autoimmunity refers to when the immune system fails to do this, begins to make too many killer cells or too many antibodies and then fails to turn off, so immune reaction doesn’t stop. Most important for those of you with autoimmune diseases, the immune cells are attacking your body’s own tissues when they should only be attacking outside invaders, antigens, and the result is inflammation and damage to your cells and organs.
An autoimmune disorder may affect one or more organ or tissue types. Areas often affected by autoimmune disorders include:
- Blood vessels
- Connective tissues
- Endocrine glands such as thyroid or pancreas
- Red blood cells
Some examples of autoimmune disease
There are more than 80 different autoimmune diseases. Here are some typical or common examples include:
- Alopecia areata – This is a skin disease in which an immune attack on the hair follicles leads to patchy hair loss, especially on the scalp.
- Addison’s disease – immune system attacks the adrenal gland, disrupting production of steroid hormones aldosterone and cortisol.
- Celiac disease – With celiac disease, gluten consumption leads to an immune reaction that damages the small intestine and impairs normal digestion. Other problems, such as rash, joint pain, and fatigue may also develop.
- Graves’ disease – the small thyroid gland is attacked by the immune system, leading to an overproduction of thyroid hormones (hyperthyroidism.
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis or Hashimoto’s disease – similar to Graves’ disease, but this time damage to the thyroid gland lead to an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism).
- IBD, inflammatory bowel disease, is a term used to describe conditions that cause inflammation in the lining of the intestinal wall. Each type of IBD affects a different part of the GI tract.
Chron’s disease can inflame any part of the GI tract, from the mouth to the anus.
Ulcerative colitis affects only the lining of the large intestine (colon) and rectum.
- Type 1 diabetes – Type 1 diabetes is when an immune attack damages the part of the pancreas that produces insulin leading to too little insulin to regulate blood sugar or the body’s use of energy.
- Multiple sclerosis – myelin sheaths which protect the nerve fibres carrying messages to and from the brain are targeted by the immune system, causing behind scarring (known as sclerosis).
- Rheumatoid arthritis – This condition causes multiple joints to become inflamed, stiff and painful; inflammation in other organs (such as the lungs or eye) may also develop.
- Lupus – When people develop lupus, they usually have inflammation in multiple parts of the body, especially the joints, skin, lining of the lungs and kidney.
- Sjögren’s syndrome – This condition causes dryness of the eyes and mouth due to inflammation and scarring of the glands that make tears and saliva; arthritis, lung disease and inflammation in other organs are also common.
- Polymyalgia rheumatic (PMR) – Those with PMR are usually over age 60 and have the sudden onset of pain and stiffness in shoulders, neck and hips; it may be a “close cousin” of rheumatoid arthritis.
- Ankylosing spondylitis – This disease is marked by inflammation and stiffness in the lower spine, including sacroiliac joint; other joints are often inflamed as well.
- Psoriasis – Skin cells normally grow and then shed when they’re no longer needed. Psoriasis causes skin cells to multiply too quickly. The extra cells build up and form inflamed red patches, commonly with silver-white scales of plaque on the skin.
And there are many more autoimmune conditions.
What all of these conditions have in common is evidence that the body’s immune system is in some way responsible. For example, a skin biopsy may show immune cells collecting near an area of a rash; or, there may be antibodies circulating in the blood that are targeting normal tissues.
Symptoms of Autoimmune Disease
Autoimmune conditions have similar characteristics. They are all serious chronic conditions with an underlying problem in the immune system. The symptoms of many autoimmune diseases that I personally see in clinical practice or that I think are probably the most common ones are:
- Feeling tired or fatigue, cold intolerance, weight gain
- Joint or muscle pain or weakness
- Swelling and redness
- Weight loss, insomnia, heat intolerance, or rapid heartbeat
- Difficult concentrating or focusing
- Numbness and tingling in the hands and feet
- Hair loss or white patches on skin or inside mouth
- Skin rashes or hives, sun sensitivity
- Abdominal pain, blood or mucus in stools, diarrhoea, or mouth ulcers
- Dry eyes, mouth, or skin
Why does the immune system attack the body?
The exact cause of autoimmune disorders is unknown, although there are many theories that some microorganisms (such as bacteria or viruses), drugs, environmental irritants may trigger changes that confuse the immune system. This may happen more often in people who have genes that make them more prone to autoimmune disorders.
What I find most incredible as a nutritional therapist is that by addressing environmental factors you can not only prevent an autoimmune condition you can also reverse the symptoms after they develop.
Through my experience as a nutritional therapist and working with autoimmune clients, I identified environmental factors that play a key role in the development of autoimmune diseases.
Leaky Gut and Gut Health
How can we reverse our symptoms?
As we know now, that all autoimmune diseases are a problem of the immune system. By addressing the root causes above you restore your immune system. Then, once your optimal immune function has been restored and your body is no longer attacking itself, your symptoms lessen or even disappear completely.
I have specially designed an Autoimmune Protocol that may help you get to the root cause of your symptoms. The Autoimmune Protocol is packed with step-by-step resources that will allow you to deal with the root causes and support your immune system.
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- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (2010). Autoimmunity. [Online]. Acceded: 07 March 2020.