Autoimmune diseases: What & Why?

Autoimmune Chart

Photo Credit: Wellpath Clinic

What are Autoimmune Diseases?

Autoimmune diseases are conditions that occur when the body’s immune system launches an immune response to it’s own cells and tissues.  This attack can happen against tissues all over the body or can be limited to a specific organ. This attack can happen against tisues all over the body (Rheumatoid Arthritis) or in one specific organ (Type 1 Diabetes).

Some sources I have found state that there are over 80 Autoimmune Diseases that have been identified and this number is continuing to grow.  You can find an excellent list of many of these diseases at the American Autoimmune Related Disease Association’s website.  The National Institutes of Health has estimated that 23.5 million Americans have some type of Autoimmune Disease. Autoimmune diseases are the fifth leading cause of death in women under the age of 64 and in children.  Aren’t those numbers astounding?  What can we do about it?

Why do Autoimmune Diseases happen?

In order to prevent Autoimmune Diseases (AD) from occurring, we must find out what causes them in the first place.  This is where there is a snag.  No one really knows what causes ADs. There are many theories out there.  We know that in order for a person to have an AD they must be genetically susceptible to getting it in the first place.  AD’s run in families.  Genetics are not the definitive factor involved.  Just because you have a gene that makes you susceptible to an AD does not mean you will have one.  This has been proven by twin studies in which one twin has an AD and the other one does not.

So what else come in to play?  Scientists believe that there must also be an environmental trigger.  These triggers are very broad – exposure to viruses (EBV, etc.) chemicals, diet, hormones, drugs, and behavior.

One Autoimmune Disease that we are all familiar with is Type 1 Diabetes.  This disease occurs because of an immune response to the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin.  There are many studies out there but there have been no definitive triggers found.  One study in the UK has linked this disease to cigarette smoke exposure.  A study in the US has linked it to exposure to baby formula and cow’s milk.  The fact is that different studies have shown different possibilities and none of them have proven any possibilities.

How to get involved?

According to Dr. Frederick Miller, the Deputy Chief of the Environmental Autoimmunity  Group, a national data registry tool is needed.  This would provide researchers documented data to analyze to make connections between these diseases and their epidemiological data.

If you or anyone in your family is affected by Autoimmune Diseases you should consider participating in research studies.  There are a list of current research studies taking place here.

Advocacy and promotion of these disease are also important.  The more the public knows about them, the more data can be gathered.

I am hopeful that more treatments and prevention strategies will be developed in the future.  Thanks for reading!

Mallampalli, M. P., Davies, E., Wood, D., Robertson, H., Polato, F., & Carter, C. L. (2013). Role of Environment and Sex Differences in the Development of Autoimmune Diseases: A Roundtable Meeting Report. Journal Of Women’s Health (15409996), 22(7), 578-586. doi:10.1089/jwh.2013.4462

Schmidt, C. (n.d). Environmental Factors in Autoimmune Disease. Environmental Health Perspectives, 119(6), A249-A253.


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