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When Cells Attack: What Are Autoimmune Diseases?

By Joseph Nahas, MD October 11, 2019 Posted in: Wellness

Call it biological mutiny. People with autoimmune disease are experiencing what happens when the body turns on itself. The immune system which normally helps keep you healthy is instead triggered to attack cells and tissues it wrongly perceives as a threat.

Who Might Get an Autoimmune Disease?

The result is a plethora of conditions – from rheumatoid arthritis and lupus to inflammatory bowel disease and type 1 diabetes. There are more than a 100 autoimmune diseases and they affect 5 to 10% of the population. The NIH estimates that 23.5 million1 Americans have an autoimmune disease, and the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA) puts that number even higher at 50 million Americans2.

Interestingly, women are affected more frequently -- nearly 80 percent of autoimmune disease sufferers are women.

Some researchers theorize that higher hormone levels, especially during childbearing years, make women more susceptible – but this theory has not been proven. In fact, scientists do not yet know exactly what causes an autoimmune disease to strike one person and not another.

What Causes Autoimmune Diseases?

Some autoimmune diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, run in families – which suggests a genetic link. Other immune diseases are more common among ethnic groups – such as lupus in African American and Hispanic people.

The fact that autoimmune diseases are becoming more prevalent has led some researchers to suggest an environmental factor or even diet may be related.

Common viruses and infections are also being studied as possible contributors to autoimmune diseases. While scientific research has been associating autoimmune disorders with infections and viruses for decades, experts have differing theories on what’s at play. Some think that infections actually damage the immune system, and the fall out leads to the development of autoimmune disorders. Others think an immune system challenged by a virus or infection will attack normal cells that may resemble the original culprit – so it’s a case of mistaken identity.

More study is needed to better understand the factors involved – including research into environmental contributors. But the answers may eventually lead to better prevention and treatment strategies for these challenging disorders.

Immune System Dysfunction

Researchers do, however, understand the mechanism at play. Normally, when the body senses danger from a virus or infection, the immune system kicks in and attacks it. This is the immune response which helps keep us healthy.

With an autoimmune disease, an unknown trigger cues the immune system to produce antibodies which attack healthy tissues. For someone with rheumatoid arthritis, tissues in the joints are damaged. For a person with inflammatory bowel disease, cells in the intestinal tract are damaged.

There is at present no cure for autoimmune diseases, but they each can be treated and managed with medications, lifestyle changes and sometimes surgery.

Some common autoimmune diseases and the body systems involved are:

  • Celiac disease (GI tract)
  • Crohn’s disease (GI tract)
  • Ulcerative colitis (GI tract)
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (GI tract)
  • Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (Thyroid)
  • Guillain-Barre syndrome (Nervous System)
  • Multiple sclerosis (Nervous System)
  • Type 1 diabetes mellitus (Pancreas)
  • Autoimmune hepatitis (Liver)
  • Myositis (Muscles)
  • Polymyalgia (Muscles)
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (Joints)
  • Psoriasis (Skin)
  • Vasculitis (Blood Vessels
  • Sjogren’s syndrome (eyes, mouth, joints, thyroid, kidneys, liver, lungs, skin nerves)
  • Raynaud’s phenomenon (fingers, toes, nose, ears)
  • Lupus (skin, joints, kidneys, heart, brain, red blood cells, other)

If you have more questions, reach out to your provider to schedule an appointment.




Joseph Nahas, MD
Joseph Nahas, MD

Dr. Joseph Nahas is a Rheumatologist at CHI Health.

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