Autoimmune diseases are on the rise, and more and more Americans are being diagnosed every single day. However, what is an autoimmune disease? What does this term mean, and how do you know if you have one?
Autoimmune diseases are complex and can take years to diagnose. In fact, many people will see an average of six doctors over a span of four years before they are diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. (1) Why? This is due to a number of things. For one, there are countless autoimmune diseases, and many have similar symptoms. Some autoimmune diseases may also be asymptomatic making it hard to be diagnosed until years down the road.
In this article, I am going to answer the question what is an autoimmune disease, talk about some of the most commonly diagnosed autoimmune conditions, and some steps you can take today.
What is an Autoimmune Disease?
Autoimmune diseases are extremely complex; they cause your immune system to attack healthy cells in your body as opposed to protecting them. When you have a healthy immune system and autoimmune disease is not present, your immune system works to protect your body from both disease and infection. However, with autoimmune conditions, this overactive immune response can affect different areas of your body and can even cause changes in organ function. (2) For example, with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, the autoimmune condition specifically attacks the thyroid. This can lead to thyroid dysfunction.
Autoimmune conditions can occur in an isolated area of the body, or they can impact more than one organ or body tissue at one time.
Autoimmune Disease Symptoms
Another reason why autoimmune diseases are so complex has to do with the fact that these conditions can present themselves a number of ways. The list of symptoms is extensive and it all depends on the type of condition one is suffering from.
Here are some of the most common symptoms associated with these conditions:
- Brain fog
- Weight gain or loss
- Muscle pain/weakness
- Stomach complaints
- Skin complaints
- Frequent colds
What Causes Autoimmune Disease?
While these conditions are often considered mysterious, there is more information coming out about them every day.
It is thought that autoimmune conditions can run in the family. If you have family members with autoimmune disease, then you may be at a greater risk.
Some of the other triggers could include bacteria, viruses, chemical and environmental irritants, as well as drugs.
Leaky gut is another autoimmune trigger. Seeing that nearly 80% of the immune system lies in the gut, having leaky gut can trigger an autoimmune disease to occur. Leaky gut means that the tight junctions that are supposed to hold your gut lining together have loosened up and thus allowed all sorts of toxins, bacteria, and even undigested foods into your bloodstream. (3) Since these particles are not supposed to be in your bloodstream, your immune system goes into attack mode. An inflammatory response is then triggered. When you have leaky gut, this occurs on a daily basis, and your immune system is strained and stressed to the max. Over time your immune system can start attacking your own body tissues which is when autoimmune disease starts.
The Most Commonly Seen Autoimmune Diseases
With nearly 80 different types of autoimmune diseases, it’s impossible to talk about every single one in a blog post, but some of them are definitely more prevalent than others.
Here are some of the most commonly seen autoimmune diseases:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Systemic lupus erythematosus
- Hashimoto’s disease
- Celiac disease
- Addison’s disease
- Graves disease
- Sjögren’s syndrome
- Type 1 diabetes
How to Diagnose an Autoimmune Disease
As mentioned before, autoimmune diseases can take years to diagnose and often times many different doctor visits. Autoimmune diseases take detective work to uncover which is why it’s so important you go to a practitioner with experience working with autoimmune conditions.
Since not all autoimmune conditions present themselves with symptoms, and everyone’s condition will be unique, testing must be done.
Some of the standard tests offered include:
- Antinuclear antibody (ANA) test: This test takes a look at the presence of autoantibodies. A high level of these autoantibodies can point to certain autoimmune conditions including lupus, and scleroderma.
- Inflammation and organ function tests: These tests are often ordered to check on the function of specific organs.
- C-reactive protein (CRP): An elevation usually means there is inflammation happening in your body.
- Erythrocyte sedimentation rate: Indirectly measures the inflammation in your body. (3)
- Comprehensive metabolic panel
Autoimmune Disease Treatment
Unfortunately, there is no one quick fix. Living with an autoimmune disease means balancing your health in more than one area. It’s important to know that just taking one approach to improving your health will likely not lead to remission. It’s critical to take all aspects into account. This means taking a look at your diet, activity level, lifestyle choices, and stress levels. Without a healthy balance of all of these things, flare-ups and symptoms could spiral out of control.
While rheumatologists will often look to medications to keep symptoms at bay, there are things you can do as well. Being that there is no cure for autoimmune diseases taking your health into your own hands is so important.
Here are some treatment steps in treating an autoimmune condition:
- Daily stress reduction
- A healthy sleep schedule
- An anti-inflammatory gluten free diet
- Avoiding known triggers: Including food and environmental triggers
- Taking vitamins and appropriate supplements
- Holistic approaches: Acupuncture, chiropractic care, meditation
Autoimmune Disease & Gut Health
With all of my autoimmune patients, I focus heavily on gut health. Supporting the gut is a huge part of supporting overall health and the immune system. In fact, a large part of the immune system lies in the gut so getting tested for gut infections including Sibo, dysbiosis, yeast overgrowth, and leaky gut is important and then treating the underlying gut infection takes priority when dealing with an autoimmune disease.
Autoimmune Disease Diet
While no one diet fits all, I have found that many people with autoimmune conditions do well on a Paleo style diet. This dietary approach removes inflammatory foods from the diet including gluten, sugar, and dairy. These are all foods that many people suffering from autoimmune conditions have a hard time tolerating, even if they do not realize it. There are other foods like eggs and nightshade vegetables that some people may need to stay away from, but this can be determined on a case by case basis.
While having an autoimmune disease can make you feel like you have no control over your health, you do! By taking charge of what you put in your body, you can help calm that inflammatory immune response in the body. Ultimately the foods you eat will dictate how many flare-ups you have and your ability to go into remission.
I encourage all of my clients whether they suffer from autoimmune conditions or not to focus on a nutrient dense diet.
Along with diet, stress levels, exercise, and sleep are all integral parts of healing.
If you are suffering from weight gain, fatigue, hair loss and more, click here to schedule a phone call with me, so I can find out where you’ve been, where you want to get to, and how I can help you get there.
I know exactly where you are because I’ve been there myself…I remember being so tired that I could barely function. I gained 30 pounds out of nowhere and had a severe case of brain fog. I also started to get severe anxiety and panic attacks. I was driven and motivated…until I wasn’t. I didn’t know what was happening to me. All I wanted was to get my life back…
Finally, I learned about functional medicine and found a practitioner that I hoped could help me. They ran specialized tests that were far different than I had ever had before. When I got the results back, it turned out I had candida, parasites, high cortisol, the Epstein Bar Virus and many food intolerances. I also had an issue with my thyroid that no one found before because they were using the conventional medicine lab ranges which are way too broad….which I now know is one of the leading causes of hypothyroid misdiagnosis.
I went through treatment of all of these things and it completely changed my life. I immediately lost the 30 pounds I had gained plus more, I had a lot more energy, and my brain fog was gone. I felt amazing and knew that I wanted to help people find the underlying causes of their symptoms and disease.
- Amy Sarah Marshall (2014). The Detective Work of Autoimmune Disease
- Krisha McCoy. WebMD. Diagnosing an Autoimmune Disorder
- Health Line. Autoimmune Disease