Thursday, October 23, 2014

Autoimmune Diseases and Disorders

Definition

Autoimmune diseases are disorders in which the body's immune system reacts against some of its own tissue and produces antibodies to attack itself.

Description

To better understand autoimmune diseases, one must understand how the immune system works.

The immune system is a network of organs, cells and molecules that work together to defend the body against attacks by foreign (not of the body) invaders such as germs, bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi. When one of these invaders (antigens) tries to break into the body, the body's first line of defense is the skin and mucous membranes.

The skin and mucous membranes house macrophages (white cells of the tissues) and antibodies. The macrophages job is to digest the antigens while the antibodies trap the antigens that got away. If the antigens break through these barriers, the body reacts by producing lymphocytes (B and T cells) programmed to attack and kill the antigen.

In general terms, when antibodies are directed against the body's own cells, or when B and T cells attack and destroy their own body's cells and not foreign antigens, an autoimmune disorder can result.

The autoimmune process can have varied consequences. For example, slow destruction of a particular type of cell or tissue, stimulation of an organ into excessive growth or interference in its functions. Organs and tissues frequently affected include the thyroid, pancreas, adrenal glands as well as red blood cells and connective tissues (skin, muscle and joints).

Autoimmune disorders are classified into two types, organ-specific (directed mainly at one organ) and non-organ-specific (widely spread throughout the body).

Examples of organ-specific autoimmune disorders are insulin-dependent diabetes (Type I) which affects the pancreas, Hashimoto's thyroiditis and Graves' disease which affects the thyroid gland, pernicious anemia which affects the stomach, Addison's disease which affects the adrenal glands, and chronic active hepatitis which affects the liver.

Examples of non-organ-specific autoimmune disorders are rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, lupus and myasthenia gravis.

Causes

Scientists believe multiple factors such as environmental toxins, heredity, viruses, and certain drugs may play a role in causing an autoimmune disease.

Stress, poor diet, lack of exercise, lack of sleep, abuse of alcohol and use of tobacco can also weaken the immune system and may play some role as well.

Symptoms

The symptoms and signs vary by specific autoimmune disease.

Diagnosis

Your doctor will take a complete medical history, perform a physical examination, and may order blood tests, radiological studies, and other studies.

Your doctor may also order tests to rule in or rule out specific autoimmune diseases. For example: for rheumatoid arthritis, the rheumatoid factor test; for myasthenia gravis, the acetylcholine receptor antibody test; and for thyroid disorders, thyroid function tests.

Treatment

Most autoimmune diseases cannot yet be treated directly, but are treated according to symptoms associated with the condition.

Doctors may prescribe corticosteroid drugs, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or more powerful immunosuppressant drugs such as cyclophosphamide, methotrexate and azathioprine that suppress the immune response and stop the progression of the disease.

Radiation of the lymph nodes and plasmapheresis (a procedure that removes the diseased cells and harmful molecules from the blood circulation) are other ways of treating an autoimmune disease.

Questions

What caused this autoimmune disorder?

What type of treatment do you recommend?

What medications will you prescribe?

What are the side-effects?

Will changing current eating habits and beginning an exercise program help?

Can this condition be reversed with lifestyle changes?

Self-Care

Boost your immunity naturally by altering your eating and exercise habits.

Nutritionists recommend a diet high in fresh vegetables and fruit, whole grains, brown rice, low-fat dairy products, fish and poultry. A daily multivitamin should be taken. Exercise daily if possible.