Autoimmune diseases – what are they really?

Family Health Diary

Our body usually produces antibodies to fight off invaders like viral and bacterial infections. An autoimmune disease is when your immune system tries to destroy cells in your own body because it no longer recognises them.

There are more than 80 different types of autoimmune diseases. Most are more common in women than men. Common autoimmune diseases include:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis: where your immune system attacks your joints (Find out more here)
  • Psoriasis: thick scaly patches on the skin (Find out more here)
  • Psoriatic arthritis: this is a type of arthritis that some people get with their psoriasis.
  • Lupus (systemic lupus erythematosus): where the immune system attacks skin, joints, kidneys, brain, and other organs.

All of these affect women more than men. The gender difference is especially great for Lupus where the ratio is that 9 out of every 10 people with lupus are women.

  • Chron’s disease and Ulcerative colitis: symptoms in gut and bowel.
  • Type-1 diabetes: immune system attacked the insulin producing cells.

Chron’s and ulcerative colitis affects just as many men as women. Type-1 diabetes is nearly twice as common in males.

Autoimmune diseases appear to be caused by multiple and complex factors. Lupus for instance is said to be caused by a combination of genetic, environmental, and hormonal factors and potentially some medicines. Type-1diabetes is usually diagnosed in childhood. It has risk factors that include family history, genetics, and geography. The incidence increases as you move away from the equator.

  • Research released in 2018 from University of Gothenburg has found there is a link between the male hormone testosterone and protection against some autoimmune diseases. Both men and women have some male and female hormones but women have only about a tenth as much testosterone as men. There is a type of immune cell made in the spleen that contributes to some autoimmune diseases. The cell that produces those autoimmune antibodies is supressed by testosterone.
  • The variety of bacteria living in the gut of people with autoimmune diseases is far less diverse (fewer different sorts of bugs) than in a person without autoimmune disease. Eating foods high in soluble fibre will help encourage good gut bacteria. Things like onions, asparagus and bananas are high in fibre and you could consider taking a probiotic for your gut if you or someone in your whanau have autoimmune disease.
  • Several autoimmune diseases are thought to start when the body has an infection and the immune system is fighting that off. Somehow the immune system doesn’t stop when it should and begins to attack the person’s own body.

Some things that were previously considered to cause an autoimmune disease have now been found to aggravate (make it worse) but not to actually cause it. Things like diet and stress can set off e.g. Chron’s or psoriasis. This doesn’t mean they cause the disease.

Every person responds differently and it is best to be under a specialist to get your treatment stabilised for you. There needs to be a balance between stopping your immune system attacking your body and not supressing the immune system so much that it cannot protect your from infections.

Your doctor may prescribe:

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories
  • Steroids
  • Immune suppressants
  • Pain relief
  • Specific symptom control.

As autoimmune diseases are being caused from within there is no cure for them. There are however treatments that can help to keep symptoms under control. The mainstay of treatment will be to reduce inflammation and reduce the damage that your immune system is doing to your body. It is best to always get your medicine from the same pharmacy. Your pharmacist can ensure that what your specialist prescribes does not interact with other medicines you have from your GP, dentist or other prescriber. When you purchase medicines in a pharmacy always tell the pharmacist what medicines you are on or ask them to look up your prescription history (if it is your usual pharmacy). Many medicines you can purchase can interact with prescription medicines or different health conditions.

Written by Linda Caddick

This blog provides general information and discussion about medicine, health and related subjects. The information contained in the blog and in any linked mate­ri­als, are not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.

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