Normally, the immune system is capable of differentiating “self” from “non-self” tissue. However, when a person has an autoimmune disease, the immune system mistakenly turns on itself, targeting cells, tissues and organs of your own body.
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What Is Autoimmune Disease?
This article will explore what auto immune disease are and some of the likely causes of this group of diseases that nobody seems to have clear-cut answers with diagnosis and treatment. The following series on autoimmune disease was written several years ago and published in Healthy Options, a health magazine from New Zealand (that now no longer exists).
Auto-immune conditions make up a large group of diseases which basically have their origin in faulty immune function. Your immune system is a very complex network of cells and cell components that normally work to defend the body. Normally, the immune system can differentiate “self” from “non-self” tissue. However, when a person has an autoimmune disease, the immune system mistakenly turns on itself, targeting cells, tissues and organs of your own body.
Many autoimmune diseases exist, each one affecting the body in different ways. For example, in rheumatoid arthritis the smaller joints of the hands are attacked by the immune system, in multiple sclerosis, the autoimmunity reaction is directed against the nervous system and the brain whereby the fatty surrounding of nerves are slowly impaired and destroyed (myelin sheath), in ulcerative colitis disease it is the large bowel which becomes inflamed and reactive to the immune system.
Auto-immune conditions are often characterised by periods of remission (absence of symptoms) and “flare-ups” (when symptoms cause actual problems).
Although many of the individual autoimmune diseases are quite rare, as a group of about 80 diseases, they afflict many New Zealanders, and particularly women (80%) more so than men.
Naturopaths Are Often The Last Resort For Autoimmune Patients
Auto immune patients often consult natural medicine health care professionals, particularly naturopaths, herbalists, acupuncturists and massage therapists, and many also seek help from osteopaths or chiropractors for structural problems such as joint, neck and back pain. Many patients typically were diagnosed with autoimmune disease several years ago, may have visited various doctors, and may have been prescribed various drugs, including anti-inflammatory and immune-suppressive drugs. Experienced natural therapists will have seen many such cases over the years of clinical practice.
Autoimmune Disease Symptoms
I have found that most times the patient consulted their health care professional previously, presenting with a range of non-specific symptoms from ongoing lethargy, fatigue and a general low motivation, low-grade pain or inflammation, joint pains or muscle aches, anxiety and depression, numb hands or feet, heart palpitations, and many more. All non-specific and low grade, no flags are raised.
Because the symptoms are low grade at this stage, such symptoms may well have become overlooked for several years and symptomatically treated with drugs.
Symptoms May Be Subtle And Overlooked Initially
These more subtle signs and symptoms are potential indicators that the immune system may have turned upon itself, causing ”auto” immune conditions. The doctor who is committed to optimal patient outcomes will keep a close watch by requesting regular follow-up visits and tests to track disease progress.
The problem with auto-immune disease is that there is no hundred percent clear cut cause, so drugs are commonly used to control symptoms, and the patient is stuck with the same immune malfunction for years, along with an ever increasing amount of drug-induced side-effects to contend with.
When they visit us; they still have the original symptoms (masked by drugs), and in addition have developed side effects which they come in with. It is these drug side-effect symptoms the patient wants to “cure” often, because the drugs are masking their original symptoms. These are troublesome cases to work with. These are the patients who call us their “last resort”.
Early Symptoms Of Autoimmune Diseases
In the early stages, symptoms will come and go. Some may increase in intensity, but then you’ll recover. As autoimmune disease progresses, some symptoms may slowly increase in intensity and duration, meaning, it hurts more and lasts longer.
Skin rashes or itching
Fatigue, weakness, tiredness
Redness and swelling
Numbness or tingling hands or feet
Autoimmune Disease Flare-Up Symptoms
Symptoms have now settled and become regular now and then. Chronic “flare-ups” are common, especially in an autoimmune disease like psoriasis and ulcerative colitis. A period of symptoms in autoimmunity is called a flare-up. A period when the symptoms go away is called remission.
Painful joints, joint swelling
Recurring fevers, chills
Diarrhoea, abdominal pains
Symptoms Unique To Some Autoimmune Diseases
Certain individual autoimmune diseases will have their own unique set of symptoms. For example, psoriasis causes rapid skin shedding, cracked, dry and even painful and bleeding skin. Rheumatoid arthritis can have very painful, hot and swollen joints, involving the smaller joints of the body especially like the wrist and hands. Sjogren’s syndrome patients can have a dry mouth and little saliva. Ulcerative colitis will have bloating, recurring bowel flare-ups and diarrhoea. Type 1 diabetes will have weight loss, thirst and fatigue.
Autoimmune Disease List
Here is a list of some of the most common autoimmune diseases.
Type 1 Diabetes
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)
Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative colitis)
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