Understanding Autoimmune Disease

Autoimmune disease results when an unknown trigger causes an overactive immune system to create antibodies that target the body’s own cells and tissue. These cells and tissues are then attacked and destroyed, much in the same way as viruses and bacteria, resulting in the symptoms associated with autoimmune disease. For example, with Pemphigus vulgaris (PV) the immune system creates antibodies that attack proteins which bind skin cells together, allowing fluid to collect between the layers. This manifests as blisters and skin erosions commonly experienced with PV. With other autoimmune diseases the immune system creates antibodies that attack everything from the intestines (inflammatory bowel disease), the joints (rheumatoid arthritis) and nerve cells (multiple sclerosis) to the pancreas (diabetes I), the thyroid (Hashimoto’s disease) and blood vessels (vasculitis). Some autoimmune diseases result when an assortment of antibodies attack tissues throughout the body as is the case with lupus.

The Immune Response and the Role of Inflammation

Under ordinary circumstances, inflammation is an acute response to injury or harmful substances such as toxins and pathogens. In other words nature intended for the response to be of short duration. Contrary to what many believe, inflammation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s actually the body’s way of protecting itself. Below is a simplified summary of the inflammatory process.

T cells and B cells

The immune system is made up of organs, tissues, glands and proteins spread throughout the body. Lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell consisting of T-cells, B-cells and natural killer cells, patrol the bloodstream on the constant lookout for harmful organisms. They determine whether the cells they encounter are friends, as in belonging to “self”, or foe as in parasite, bacteria, fungis or virus. These foes are known as antigens.

If antigens are detected, the lymphocytes create antibodies which attach themselves to the antigens before neutralizing and destroying them.

Cells that have been damaged by injury, bacteria, toxins or heat emit chemicals which cause the cells to leak fluids. The purpose of these fluids is to protect surrounding tissues from coming in contact with the foreign substances.

These chemicals are also responsible for increased blood flow to the area which carries nutrients and additional white blood cells. The increase in fluids and inflammatory chemicals causes the swelling and pain that we associate with inflammation.

Chronic inflammation, whether from prolonged exposure to toxins, irritants, or infections, increases the risk of autoimmune disease. If you’re already living with an autoimmune disease, inflammation can exacerbate your symptoms.

Managing Autoimmune Disease

Unfortunately, there’s no cure for autoimmune disease. Symptoms are managed with the use of immunosuppressants which reduce inflammation by suppressing the immune response. The downside is that immunosuppressants increase your vulnerability to infections and other pathogens. There are several different classes of medications that are used to treat autoimmune diseases including corticosteroids like prednisone and prednisolone, biologics like Rituximab and Cosentyx, and various inhibitors. Medication should never be stopped or reduced without consulting with your medical provider.

Reducing Inflammation in the Body Naturally

Inflammation can be caused by viruses, exposure to toxins, and stress. The Western diet, high in fat, sodium and calories, can also create inflammation.

Here are some other things that help to reduce inflammation in the body.

  • Avoiding known triggers
  • Managing stress
  • Making dietary changes
  • Taking certain supplements

This is not by any means an overnight solution, but a lifestyle change that takes time and a great deal of patience and determination. For more information, check out the Autoimmune Arsenal.

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Triggers and Flare-Ups

A trigger is something that can initiate the onset of an autoimmune disease in someone with a genetic predisposition. Triggers can vary by disease and even by individuals. For example, occupational exposure to silica as well as solvents has been linked to an autoimmune disease called systemic sclerosis, and infections like strep have been known to trigger psoriasis in susceptible individuals. Other environmental triggers are far less menacing like gluten. Just as triggers are responsible for the onset of autoimmune disease, they also play a role in disease flare-ups. Autoimmune disease is the result of an overactive immune system that makes you more sensitive to environmental factors than someone with a healthy immune system. You may be find that you’re more sensitive to:

  • What you put in your body
  • What is put on your body
  • How you treat your body (and mind)

The key to treating autoimmune disease is to understand all you can about it. It’s not enough to rely on the knowledge of your medical providers. They may be experts in their specialty, but you’re an expert in YOU. You know your body better than anyone else. Don’t be a backseat passenger when it comes to your care. Research your disease, educate yourself and take charge of your health.

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