Researchers can't pinpoint exactly why, but autoimmune diseases seem to be on the rise, especially in women who are of childbearing age.
A healthy human being has a fully-functioning immune system, which recognizes threats such as bad bacteria and viruses. A healthy immune system will attack and eradicate those threats. Unfortunately, some immune systems mistake healthy tissues in the body as threats. The result? Antibodies attacking perfectly healthy joints, tissues, glands and hormones. There are 80 different types of autoimmune diseases, but a few of the most common ones are: lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Type 1 diabetes, and multiple sclerosis.
"Auto" means self, so "autoimmunity" means the immune system is working against itself.
Autoimmune diseases are hard to diagnose. In an article on Self, Noel R. Rose, M.D., director of Johns Hopkins Autoimmune Disease Research Center, said, "Though the basic mechanisms are shared by all of the AI diseases, there is no single set of symptoms they have in common. Most AI diseases appear to evolve very slowly over many years and the early symptoms — joint and muscle pain, fatigue — could be anything: a virus. An infection. A tumor. So the physician is left in a quandary." Many women who come to doctors expressing these symptoms are diagnosed with something different: depression, fibromyalgia, or anxiety. Because most autoimmune diseases don't have a specific mold or checklist of symptoms, it is often very hard to diagnose the diseases. Primary care physicians are not negligent, they just may not know what to test for or when. Specific antibodies have been found in regards to lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and even Type 1 diabetes. Even so, testing positive for those antibodies doesn't mean you have the disease just yet; in fact, it's anyone's guess when the disease will appear. It's a moving target, making diagnosis and treatment harder to pin down.
But why are they on the rise? Is it simply because doctors and scientists are now paying more attention to possible autoimmune diseases, or are there environmental factors coming in to play? Alessio Fasano, the director of the Center for Celiac Research & Treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children in Boston, identified the three main factors that play into autoimmune diseases: genetic predisposition, environmental triggers (which lead to infections), and a leaky gut.
That third part was key. Zonulin, a protein that regulates permeability of cells, is responsible for a leaky gut: If zonulin is overproduced, the protein will allow bad bacteria, toxins and viruses to permeate the gut as well as the good stuff. The second part, environmental triggers, will be the next wave of research in the autoimmune disease realm. Genetic predisposition is cause for a third of all autoimmune diseases. If the diseases are on the rise, environmental factors must be changing and affecting immune systems in new ways.
And why are women seeing a larger prevalence of autoimmune diseases? Dr. Rose said there isn't a single reason, but that "women have a stronger immune reaction, which generally strikes when hormones are changing, at puberty and through menopause, and particularly during pregnancy." And because these autoimmune diseases affect women the most during their childbearing years, a time when people are labeled the "most healthy", getting a true diagnosis is extremely hard. And, because autoimmune diseases have a very strong genetic base, the diseases tend to cluster in families as one of the various autoimmune diseases: a mother has Type 1 diabetes, her sister has Graves' disease, her daughter has lupus. The fact that women have stronger immune systems mean they're better at fighting off infection, but then they are placed at a much higher risk for autoimmune diseases.
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Ways to intervene early and reduce the possibility of autoimmune diseases are simple lifestyle choices: getting regular probiotics, plenty of vitamin D, and reducing your stress. Be aware of what your body is telling you, and don't always take diagnosis at face value if your body is telling you it is something more severe. Get a second opinion, and then a third. Doctors and scientists are now working to put the pieces together of a collective autoimmune puzzle. In looking at the common mechanisms of these diseases and having a sophisticated understanding of how the immune system can go AWOl could lead to preventing these diseases altogether.