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October is Lupus Awareness Month, an ideal opportunity to improve the understanding of autoimmune disease.
Our immune system is responsible for protecting the body from foreign substances such as bacteria and viruses. The immune response is a tightly regulated process and is very important in keeping us fit and healthy. Autoimmune diseases occur when our body recognises our own cells as harmful and initiates an inappropriate immune response. This leads to a wide variety of symptoms ranging from fatigue, muscle pain, weight gain/loss to the destruction of body tissue and changes in the function of our organs.
Despite the incidence of autoimmune disease rising, there are many surprising facts about autoimmune conditions that many of us are unaware of.
1. There are over 80 different autoimmune diseases
The phrase ‘autoimmune disease’ does not describe a single disease, but covers a huge variety of diseases that can affect almost any part of our body.
An autoimmune disease can affect specific parts of the body, such is the case in coeliac disease where the lining of the small intestine becomes inflamed, and multiple sclerosis where the immune system attacks the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. But some autoimmune diseases can affect the body as a whole, such as lupus which is caused by the immune system attacking many different parts of the body including the skin, heart, lungs and kidneys. Many who have lupus develop a distinctive characteristic butterfly shaped rash over their cheeks and nose. Like many of the autoimmune diseases, the cause of lupus is poorly understood and diagnosis can sometimes be difficult.
2. It is possible to have a number of different autoimmune diseases at the same time
There is no single cause for autoimmune disease; our genes, environmental toxins and diet are all thought to contribute to the development of an autoimmune response. If we have an autoimmune disease this does not protect us from getting another, in fact it increases the risk of further autoimmune diseases developing in our body. Because our genes are partly responsible for the development of autoimmune diseases, it is also common for multiple members of a family to suffer from an autoimmune condition.
3. Women are at a greater risk of developing an autoimmune disease than men
Autoimmune disease can affect any one of us but surprisingly nearly 80% of those who suffer from autoimmune diseases are women and for lupus in particular, more than 90% of sufferers are women. Although there is no conclusive reason as to why this is, female sex hormones have been found to promote a woman’s immune response which leads to an increased likelihood of developing an autoimmune condition. A recent paper published in Nature Immunology has discovered a gene expression difference between men and women that is associated with an increased risk of developing an autoimmune disease.
Autoimmune disease in women is also linked to certain pregnancy complications and the rate of miscarriage in women with autoimmune disease is slightly higher than in the general population.
4. Our diet may affect the symptoms and progression of autoimmune disease
Currently there is no cure for autoimmune disease and although certain medications can be effective at alleviating symptoms, our diet is also thought to play a very important role. Improving our gut health and aiding digestion can help to reverse symptoms and allow those diagnosed to lead healthy, active lives.
For those with an autoimmune disease it is suggested that they reduce their intake of gluten, refined sugars and dairy as these food types can cause inflammation in the body. Symptoms of autoimmune diseases usually go during periods of remission, in which few or no symptoms are seen, and return during flare-ups where symptoms worsen. It is advised that these food types are avoided as they can encourage flare-ups.
There is increasing evidence that the Mediterranean diet which encourages eating mainly plant-based foods and replacing butter with healthy fats such as rapeseed oil can help combat the symptoms of autoimmune disease. Green tea and turmeric have also been shown to reduce the autoimmune response, especially in the brain, and eating fermented foods and probiotics will also encourage a healthy gut.
5. Common thyroid disorders are caused by an autoimmune response
According to the British Thyroid Foundation 1 in 20 of us here in the UK suffer from a thyroid disorder. Interestingly, both Graves’ Disease and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis which are two of the most common thyroid diseases are caused by an autoimmune response. In Graves' disease, the immune system produces antibodies which cause the thyroid to produce an excess of hormones. In Hashimoto's thyroiditis, the body attacks the cells in the thyroid gland leading to a decrease in the amount of hormones produced. A thyroid disorder can be diagnosed with a simple blood test.
6. Diagnosis starts with a simple blood test
Autoimmune diseases can affect almost any part of our body and with many different autoimmune diseases having very similar symptoms, diagnosis can be difficult. Our C-reactive protein (CRP) test is an affordable and effective way to measure the levels of inflammation throughout your body and can give an excellent indication of whether those niggling symptoms could be due to an underlying autoimmune condition.