What disease affects 23.5 million Americans (2.5 times as many as have cancer), costs $100 billion in direct expenses (2 times as much as cancer), receives 1/12 of the research funding ($594 million) from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as cancer ($6.1 billion), and is the tenth leading cause of deaths in women under 65? Answer: Autoimmune disease. Not familiar to you? With one in six Americans affected, you likely know someone with a manifestation of this disease process.
In simple terms, our human body has many immune systems that protect it from “foreign” proteins – from bacteria, viruses, parasites, cancer cells (enough different that the body views them as “foreign”), and plant or animal matter that accidentally or purposefully enters the body. This “protective” response to invasion by “foreign” proteins can include things eaten, things injected or infused, and things purposefully placed in the body, including transplanted organs. The elements of these “policing” systems – white blood cells, bone marrow, thymus gland, other lymphoid tissues – produce hormones, antibodies, and other protein substances that identify, attach to (mark), combine with, and call other cells to destroy these invaders. In addition, other systems – vascular, inflammatory, hormonal, and endocrine – are called into play to enhance these destructive functions.
While this wonderful set of immune systems can protect us from infections, cancers, and other invaders, occasionally one of these systems can “over-react” to what it thinks is an invader. By one of several mechanisms, this “police force” becomes confused and begins to attack specific tissues of our own body, either specific tissues of an organ (e.g. eye, kidney, skin, or heart) or a specific protein type that functions in many places in the body (like insulin or thyroid hormone or the lining of blood vessels). In this way, the body’s police force – the immune system – becomes self-destructive. This is autoimmune disease (AD). It is not an allergic reaction, but it can be a severe and deadly hypersensitivity gone awry.
While the expression of AD can be as varied as the many organ systems, treatment is very similar. Replacement of various hormones or body functions must be done and symptoms ameliorated, otherwise, the treatment is to dampen down the “over-reaction” with steroids, NSAIDS, or immunosuppressive medications. More specific descriptions of the various manifestations of AD and their treatments can be found at the American Autoimmune and Related Diseases Association website.
But in general, the disease process occurs in families (requiring certain susceptible gene combinations), occurs in females over males by three-to-one, and is set off by environmental triggers. Therefore, one line of defense is to be aware of unusual symptoms, to be knowledgeable of your family history, and to avoid environmental triggers (like smoking and sunburn).
But prevention is key. Make all the lifestyle choices possible that dampen immune over-reactivity: regular and adequate rest, regular exercise, avoidance of unnecessary medicines, herbals, and other chemicals in the environment, stress control, and well-balanced nutritional selections with omega-3 fatty acids, anti-oxidants, and phytochemicals – in other words, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts – to maintain ideal weight. Sound familiar?