What Are Autoimmune Diseases?
The occurrence of an autoimmune disease is a result of the breakdown or malfunction of the immune system. There are more than one hundred immune disorders and diseases.
The immune attack can target any area, such as the joints, causing rheumatoid arthritis, the thyroid gland, leading to an overactive or an underactive thyroid, and nerve cells, resulting in multiple sclerosis, among many others. Very often, the immune attack may have several targets; that is, if you have one autoimmune disease, you are also at risk for a second or even a third disease, especially if you have not taken good care of your immune system. In addition, an attack may have remission, followed by worsening of the symptoms. Therefore, the battle against an autoimmune disease is not only challenging, but also difficult and devastating.
Autoimmune diseases are becoming more rampant. By and large, women are more vulnerable to them than men are. Men have a higher incidence of mellitus diabetes and myocarditis (inflammation of the heart) than women; other than those, women are 3 to 6 times more prone to autoimmune diseases than their opposite sex.
Modern medicine is unable to explain or specifically identify some of the underlying causes of autoimmune diseases. Despite the advancement of modern science and technology, frustration and disappointment are part of modern medicine in the area of immune dysfunction. Without the capability to identify the exact causes of autoimmune diseases, there is no known cure to date. Accordingly, modern medicine focuses solely on addressing the symptoms rather than the causes.
Autoimmunity occurs when the immune system attacks its own cells, “mistaking” them for foreign invaders.
The healthy human body is equipped with immunity to fight against viruses, bacteria, and parasites -- in short, diseases. Unfortunately, this immunity provider, known as the immune system, may become compromised or dysfunctional such that, instead of attacking the unwelcome foreign invaders to the body, it begins to attack the cells and tissues within the body itself.
In a healthy individual, the immune defenses protect the cells from outside invaders, but when a person develops autoimmunity, the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s own cells instead of protecting them. To illustrate, in myasthenia gravis, which is an autoimmune disease, it is an autoantibody attack on the receptor responsible for the communication between the nervous system and voluntary muscles, and thus causing some miscommunication that may result in muscle weakness, or not responding appropriately, which is a hallmark characteristic of myasthenia gravis.
The good news is that autoimmunity is present in everyone to some extent. The bad news is that autoimmunity can be triggered by many environmental, physical, as well as emotional factors, such that it can cause a broad spectrum of human illnesses, known as autoimmune diseases, which, according to modern Western medicine, has no known cure.
Essentially, autoimmunity can affect almost any organ or body system. The exact problem you may have with autoimmunity depends on which body tissues are being targeted by your immune system. For example, if your skin is targeted, you may have skin rashes, blisters, or color changes; if your thyroid gland is affected, you may feel extremely tired, sensitive to cold, and muscle aches; if your joints are attacked, you may have severe joint pain, stiffness, and loss of joint function.
There are more than 100 types of autoimmune diseases, including multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes mellitus, rheumatoid arthritis, and myasthenia gravis, among many others.
The Potential Causes
This concept of autoimmunity as the cause of human illness is relatively new, and it was accepted into the mainstream medicine only about a century ago. At present, the medical community is still very much at a loss as to how autoimmunity develops in an individual, although now there is increasing evidence linking environmental agents to autoimmune diseases. These may include infectious agents, such as viruses, pharmaceutical and chemical agents, heavy metals, dietary factors, including food allergies, as well as a number of biological agents, such as genetic disposition. However, medical scientists are still unable to pinpoint the exact cause of autoimmune diseases. As a result, many new experimental drugs have been developed to treat autoimmunity. Unfortunately, many of these experimental drugs may also be toxic to the body with long-term adverse side effects on the patient’s health.
The Risk Factors
The age factor
The immune system becomes less effective as aging continues. Therefore, the elderly are more susceptible to developing autoimmune diseases. However, it must be pointed out that autoimmune diseases do develop in the adult population as early as in the twenties and thirties.
The gender factor
Most autoimmune diseases strike women more than they do men, particularly women of working age and during their child-bearing years.
The genetic factor
The inherited genes may predispose an individual to developing an autoimmune disease.
The stress factor
Excess stress may trigger the onset of an autoimmune disease in an individual already with an over-stressed or a weakened immune system. Stress is the major factor in most human diseases.
The virus factor
An individual vulnerable to virus infections is also at risk for developing an autoimmune disease.
The bottom line: take good care of your immune system to prevent the development of an autoimmune disease.
Copyright© by Stephen Lau