What is an autoimmune disease?
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.
Some autoimmune diseases target only one organ. Type 1 diabetes damages the pancreas. Other diseases, like systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), affect the whole body.
Causes of Autoimmune Disease
Doctors don’t know exactly what causes the immune system misfire. Yet some people are more likely to get an autoimmune disease than others.
According to a 2014 study, women get autoimmune diseases at a rate of about 2 to 1 compared to men — 6.4 percent of women vs. 2.7 percent of men. Often the disease starts during a woman’s childbearing years (ages 15 to 44).
Some autoimmune diseases are more common in certain ethnic groups. For example, lupus affects more African-American and Hispanic people than Caucasians.
Certain autoimmune diseases, like multiple sclerosis and lupus, run in families. Not every family member will necessarily have the same disease, but they inherit a susceptibility to an autoimmune condition.
Because the incidence of autoimmune diseases is rising, researchers suspect environmental factors like infections and exposure to chemicals or solvents might also be involved.
A “Western diet” is another suspected risk factor for developing an autoimmune disease. Eating high-fat, high-sugar and highly processed foods is thought to be linked to inflammation, which might set off an immune response. However, this hasn’t been proven.
A 2015 study focused on another theory called the hygiene hypothesis. Because of vaccines and antiseptics, children today aren’t exposed to as many germs as they were in the past. The lack of exposure could make their immune system prone to overreact to harmless substances.
Researchers don’t know exactly what causes autoimmune diseases. Genetics, diet, infections, and exposure to chemicals might be involved.
Autoimmune Disease Symptoms
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.
BOTTOM LINE: Symptoms like fatigue, muscle aches, swelling, and redness could be signs of an autoimmune disease. Symptoms might come and go over time.
Treatment of Autoimmune Disease
Currently, autoimmune conditions are treated with immune suppressive agents such as steroids, methotrexate, cyclosporine, gold, and more recently infliximab (Remicade). Despite inducing temporary improvement, these approaches possess the possibility of long-term adverse effects, as well as the need for life-long treatment.
Stem cell therapy has been demonstrated to induce profound healing activity in animals with various forms of autoimmune disorders. Besides healing damaged tissues, stem cells have the unique ability to modulate the immune system so as to shut off pathological responses while preserving its ability to fight off disease. Stem cells and specifically, mesenchymal stem cells home to inflamed tissue and start producing anti-inflammatory agents.
These mediators act locally and do not suppress the immune response of the patient’s whole body. Additionally, mesenchymal stem cells induce the production of T regulatory cells, a type of immune cell whose function is to protect the body against immunological self-attack.