What are common autoimmune disorders and who is most at risk?
What are common autoimmune disorders and who is most at risk?
- What is an autoimmune disorder?
- How is autoimmunity characterised?
- Who is most at risk of rare or common autoimmune disorders?
- Symptoms of common autoimmune disorders
- How a Functional Medicine approach can treat common autoimmune disorders
- The most common autoimmune disorders
- Rare autoimmune diseases
- Autoimmune Disease Treatment
There are currently more than 80 different autoimmune conditions we know about, ranging from common autoimmune disorders to very rare autoimmune disorders.
Common autoimmune disorders affect around 5% of people and this percentage is continuing to rise.
The risk of contracting an autoimmune disease in modern times is drastically increasing. At our Perth clinic of Advanced Functional Medicine, we are seeing a rise in the number of autoimmune cases we treat.
A conventional treatment approach can have limited options for the treatment of autoimmune disease, relying heavily on pharmaceutical drugs which are often effective in suppressing symptoms but can have significant side effects.
A Functional Medicine approach can prevent and even reverse the course of these devastating illnesses.Chris Kresser 1
What is an autoimmune disorder?
An autoimmune disease is a condition in which your immune system mistakenly attacks your body.
The immune system normally guards against germs like bacteria and viruses. When it senses these foreign invaders, it sends out an army of fighter cells to attack them.
Normally, the immune system can tell the difference between foreign cells and your own cells.
In an autoimmune disease, the immune system mistakes part of your body, like your joints or skin, as foreign. It releases proteins called autoantibodies that attack healthy cells.
Common autoimmune disorders are broadly grouped into two categories – ‘organ-specific’ means one organ is affected, while in ‘non-organ-specific’ disorders, multiple organs or body systems may be affected. 2 For example, type 1 diabetes damages the pancreas but in other diseases, like systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), the whole body is affected.
How is autoimmunity characterised?
Autoimmunity is characterised by four overarching components:
- An imbalance between effector T cells, which defend the body by producing an immune response, and regulatory T cells, which suppress the immune response
- Defective elimination or control of self-reactive immune cells, which are capable of attacking the body
- A chronically alert immune system
- Widespread inflammation 3
Who is most at risk of rare or common autoimmune disorders?
Researchers don’t know what causes autoimmune disease, but several theories point to an overactive immune system attacking the body after an infection or injury.
We do know that certain risk factors increase the chances of developing autoimmune disorders, including:
Common autoimmune disorders disproportionately affect women. This phenomenon may be tied to the suppressive effect of testosterone, which is much higher in men, or the production of B cells, immune cells that can become self-reactive and trigger an autoimmune reaction. 4
Certain disorders such as lupus and multiple sclerosis (MS) tend to run in families.
Being overweight or obese raises your risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis or psoriatic arthritis. This could be because more weight puts greater stress on the joints or because fat tissue makes substances that encourage inflammation.
Research has linked smoking to a number of autoimmune diseases, including lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, hyperthyroidism and MS.
Certain blood pressure medications or antibiotics can trigger drug-induced lupus, which is often a more benign form of lupus. Before starting or stopping any medications, however, make sure to talk to your doctor. 5
Symptoms of common autoimmune disorders
The early symptoms of many autoimmune diseases are very similar, such as:
- achy muscles
- swelling and redness
- low-grade fever
- trouble concentrating
- numbness and tingling in the hands and feet
- hair loss
- skin rashes
Individual diseases can also have their own unique symptoms. For example, type 1 diabetes causes extreme thirst, weight loss, and fatigue. IBD causes belly pain, bloating, and diarrhea.
With autoimmune diseases like psoriasis or RA, symptoms may come and go. A period of symptoms is called a flare-up. A period when the symptoms go away is called remission.
How a Functional Medicine approach can treat common autoimmune disorders
Functional medicine takes a whole new approach to address chronic conditions by focusing on the causes, not the symptoms.
If we can identify the underlying sources of inflammation, we can heal the body. The underlying causes may include stress, hidden infections, food allergies or sensitivities, toxic exposure, genetic predisposition, nutrient deficiencies, and intestinal permeability. 6
At Advanced Functional Medicine, the steps we take to help reduce symptoms caused by autoimmune disease, include:
- Healing the gut with diet changes. By removing gluten, grains, legumes, and other foods from your diet, we see significant improvement in patients’ symptoms.
- Testing your MTHFR and other genes to assess your ability to clear toxins, heavy metals and mycotoxins.
- Testing for and treating infections.
- Test for hidden food allergies.
- Helping to manage stress in patients with deep relaxation techniques.
- Prescribing targeted supplementation based on your test results and genetic profile to balance your biochemistry.
The most common autoimmune disorders
Type 1 diabetes
The pancreas produces the hormone insulin, which helps regulate blood sugar levels. In type 1 diabetes mellitus, the immune system attacks and destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.
High blood sugar results can lead to damage in the blood vessels, as well as organs like the heart, kidneys, eyes, and nerves.
In rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system attacks the joints. This attack causes redness, warmth, soreness, and stiffness in the joints.
Unlike osteoarthritis, which commonly affects people as they get older, rheumatoid arthritis can start as early as your 30s or sooner.
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.
Up to 30 percent of people with psoriasis also develop swelling, stiffness, and pain in their joints. This form of the disease is called psoriatic arthritis.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) damages the myelin sheath, the protective coating that surrounds nerve cells, in your central nervous system. Damage to the myelin sheath slows the transmission speed of messages between your brain and spinal cord to and from the rest of your body.
This damage can lead to symptoms like numbness, weakness, balance issues, and trouble walking. The disease comes in several forms that progress at different rates.
Systemic lupus erythematosus
Also known simply as lupus, is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue in many parts of the body. Lupus symptoms vary between people and may be mild to severe.
Joint pain, fatigue, and rashes are among the most common symptoms.
Inflammatory bowel disease
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) 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.
- Crohn’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.
Addison’s disease affects the adrenal glands, which produce the hormones cortisol and aldosterone as well as androgen hormones. Having too little of cortisol can affect the way the body uses and stores carbohydrates and sugar (glucose). Deficiency of aldosterone will lead to sodium loss and excess potassium in the bloodstream.
Symptoms include weakness, fatigue, weight loss, and low blood sugar.
Graves’ disease attacks the thyroid gland in the neck, causing it to produce too much of its hormones. Thyroid hormones control the body’s energy usage, known as metabolism.
Having too much of these hormones revs up your body’s activities, causing symptoms like nervousness, a fast heartbeat, heat intolerance, and weight loss.
One potential symptom of this disease is bulging eyes, called exophthalmos.
This condition attacks the glands that provide lubrication to the eyes and mouth. The hallmark symptoms of Sjögren’s syndrome are dry eyes and dry mouth, but it may also affect the joints or skin.
In Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, thyroid hormone production slows to a deficiency and the thyroid gland becomes damaged over time. Symptoms include weight gain, sensitivity to cold, fatigue, hair loss, and swelling of the thyroid (goiter).
Myasthenia gravis affects nerve impulses that help the brain control the muscles. When the communication from nerves to muscles is impaired, signals can’t direct the muscles to contract.
The most common symptom is muscle weakness that gets worse with activity and improves with rest. Often muscles that control eye movements, eyelid opening, swallowing, and facial movements are involved.
Autoimmune vasculitis happens when the immune system attacks blood vessels. The inflammation that results, narrows the arteries and veins allowing less blood to flow through them.
This condition causes a deficiency of a protein made by stomach lining cells, known as an intrinsic factor, that is needed in order for the small intestine to absorb vitamin B-12 from food. Without enough of this vitamin, one will develop anaemia, and the body’s ability for proper DNA synthesis will be altered.
Pernicious anaemia is more common in older adults. Utilising different B12 delivery methods such as injections of liposomal delivery works well in these cases.
People with celiac disease can’t eat foods containing gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and other grain products. When gluten is in the small intestine, the immune system attacks this part of the gastrointestinal tract and causes inflammation.
Rare autoimmune diseases
CREST syndrome, also known as limited scleroderma, is a widespread connective tissue disease characterized by changes in the skin, blood vessels, skeletal muscles, and internal organs. The symptoms involved in CREST syndrome are associated with the generalized form of the disease systemic sclerosis (scleroderma). CREST is an acronym for the clinical features that are seen in a patient with this disease.
(C) – Calcinosis: calcium deposits in the connective tissues
(R) – Raynaud’s phenomenon: where the hands and feet turn white and cold and then blue, in response to cold or anxiety
(E) – Esophageal dysfunction resulting in swallowing difficulty
(S) – Sclerodactyly: thick and tight skin on the fingers, caused by an excess of collagen deposits within skin layers.
(T) – Telangiectasia: small red spots on the hands and face that are caused by the swelling of tiny blood vessels. 7
Antiphospholipid syndrome occurs when your immune system mistakenly produces antibodies that make your blood much more likely to clot. Antibodies normally protect the body against invaders, such as viruses and bacteria.
Antiphospholipid syndrome can be caused by an underlying condition, such as an autoimmune disorder, infection or certain medications. You also can develop the syndrome without an underlying cause.
Goodpasture syndrome is a pulmonary-renal syndrome, which is a group of acute illnesses involving the kidneys and lungs.
This condition also includes the following:
- glomerulonephritis—inflammation of the glomeruli, which are tiny clusters of looping blood vessels in the kidneys that help filter wastes and extra water from the blood
- the presence of anti-glomerular basement membrane (GBM) antibodies; the GBM is part of the glomeruli and is composed of collagen and other proteins
- bleeding in the lungs
Immune cells produce antibodies against a specific region of collagen. The antibodies attack the collagen in the lungs and kidneys. 8
Autoimmune Disease Treatment
If you have either a rare or common autoimmune disorder, we can help you find a number of different approaches to reduce your symptoms, work towards overturning your autoimmune disorder and improve the quality of your life.
At our Australian clinic of Advanced Functional Medicine, we treat patients from all over Australia and worldwide for a variety of autoimmune disorders with excellent results.
Call us or fill out the form below to find out more.