Living with an autoimmune disease is a challenge that many people have to face every day, and often these individuals feel misunderstood. Many people are unfamiliar with what it means to have an autoimmune disease and how it can affect daily life. Symptoms can be unpredictable and vary from day to day, making it difficult to plan and maintain a routine. Additionally, some people may experience stigma and lack of understanding from society.
In this article, we will explain what an autoimmune disease is, the different types that exist, and the most well-known autoimmune diseases.
What is an autoimmune disease
In simple terms, an autoimmune disease is a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues, organs, and healthy cells, mistaking them for external invaders. This causes inflammation and internal damage.
Types of autoimmune diseases
There are more than 80 types of autoimmune diseases, some more well-known than others, and several can occur in the same person simultaneously. Here is a list of the most common ones:
- Rheumatoid arthritis: This disease causes pain, inflammation, and stiffness in the joints, as well as fatigue and fever.
- Lupus: This disease can affect many different organs, including the skin, kidneys, lungs, and heart. Symptoms can vary widely, from skin rashes to joint pain and fatigue.
- Celiac disease: This disease affects the digestive system and is caused by an immune reaction to gluten. Symptoms may include diarrhea, abdominal pain, and weight loss.
- Multiple sclerosis: This disease affects the nervous system and can cause muscle weakness, vision problems, and fatigue.
- Type 1 diabetes: This disease is caused by the destruction of beta cells in the pancreas, resulting in the body’s inability to produce insulin. Symptoms may include excessive thirst, frequent urination, and weight loss.
However, it’s important to know that not all of these diseases respond to the same immune disorder, and the specific problem within the immune system determines how the diseases develop. To better understand this, we will briefly explain the most common concepts and answer one of the most frequently asked questions in this field.
Difference between autoimmune disease and immunodeficiency
- Immunodeficiency: It is a condition in which the immune system is weakened or does not function properly, which can increase the risk of infections. This can be caused by hereditary or acquired factors, such as HIV/AIDS or cancer.
- Immunomediated disease: It is a subtype of autoimmune disorder in which the immune system specifically attacks cells and tissues in the body that have an immunological function. Examples of immunomediated diseases include Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and celiac disease.
- Immunodepressant: This concept refers to any substance or treatment that decreases the function of the immune system, which may be necessary in certain situations, such as preventing rejection of a transplanted organ or treating certain types of cancer.
- Immunosuppressant, on the other hand, is a type of treatment used to reduce the activity of the immune system, which may be necessary to treat autoimmune diseases and prevent organ transplant rejection. Immunosuppressive medications, such as corticosteroids and biological agents, are commonly used in this type of treatment.
Making a brief summary, while autoimmune disease and immunodeficiency are two opposite types of immune system disorders, immunomediated disease is a specific subtype of autoimmune disease. Additionally, immunodepressants and immunosuppressants are two terms related to regulating the activity of the immune system but with different purposes and effects.
Therefore, we refer to immunocompromised patients as individuals whose immune system does not function properly, making them more susceptible to infections and diseases. This condition can be caused by various reasons, such as certain medications, chronic illnesses, cancer treatments, HIV/AIDS infections, organ transplants, and immunosuppressive therapies.
Fortunately, there are many treatment options available for those living with an autoimmune disease. Medications, physical and occupational therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and other treatments can help alleviate symptoms.
Are autoimmune diseases fatal or curable?
Although some autoimmune diseases may be reversible, most do not have a definitive cure. As chronic illnesses, they require continuous lifelong treatment to control symptoms and prevent complications.
If you’re wondering how severe having an autoimmune disease is, the answer is not categorical. The severity of an autoimmune disease can vary widely, depending on the part of the body being attacked and the severity of the disease.
Some autoimmune diseases, such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, may have mild symptoms and can be easily controlled with medication. On the other hand, other autoimmune diseases, such as systemic lupus erythematosus or multiple sclerosis, can be more severe and significantly affect a person’s quality of life.
While the initial question may be how to cure an autoimmune disease, what we should really consider is how to control it and lead as normal a life as possible. The treatment of an autoimmune disease focuses on managing symptoms and minimizing damage to affected organs and tissues. These treatments vary depending on the disease but may include immunosuppressive medications, corticosteroids, modifications in diet and lifestyle, physical therapy, and emotional support.
Although there is no definitive cure for autoimmune diseases, many people with these conditions can lead a full and active life if they receive appropriate treatment and follow their doctor’s recommendations. It is important to work closely with a healthcare professional and follow all recommendations and the prescribed treatment plan to ensure that the disease remains under control and tissue and organ damage is minimized.
If you want to know what top doctors say about this topic, here is an interview with Ricard Cervera, Head of the Autoimmune Diseases Service at Hospital Clínic de Barcelona and Director of the UB-GSK Chair.
Are autoimmune diseases inherited?
To answer this question, we must consider that a hereditary disease is one that is transmitted by parents through DNA, so all hereditary diseases are genetic, meaning they result from the alteration of one or several genes and are passed down from generation to generation.
With that said, in general, autoimmune diseases have a genetic predisposition, which means there is a higher risk of developing these conditions if there is a family history of autoimmune diseases. However, this does not mean that a person directly inherits an autoimmune disease from a parent or close relative. Instead, the genetic predisposition can increase a person’s susceptibility to developing an autoimmune disease in response to environmental factors or triggers.
Factors that can trigger an autoimmune disease
Some notable factors include:
- Genetic factors
- Hormonal factors
- Environmental factors
- Exposure to chemicals
- Emotional stress
These factors are not exclusive, and research is still ongoing as the exact cause of these diseases is not yet fully understood. However, it is always beneficial to break bad habits such as smoking and reduce toxic environments for our health, both physically and emotionally.
How is it like living with an autoimmune disease?
It is important to understand how a person with an autoimmune disease feels in order to be empathetic and assertive towards them. Understanding them helps us support and coexist with them, as well as comprehend situations they may face in their daily lives. It promotes inclusivity and avoids judgment due to lack of knowledge.
You may have encountered a coworker who has been absent from work more than usual, leading to increased absenteeism. Perhaps, you haven’t thought much about it. But it is unlikely that you have considered that they may be suffering from an autoimmune disease.
There are awareness associations for these diseases that communicate data, such as 50% of work absenteeism in Spain being caused by rheumatic diseases.
Social life is also affected, as problems arise during moments that should be enjoyable. For example, individuals with psoriasis may feel rejected when exposing their lesions, which leads to feelings of shame and insecurity. This also makes it challenging for them to find or maintain a partner.
Some diseases cause inflammation and pain in the body, which also affects relationships with family and friends, as it directly impacts the affected individuals’ mood and emotional state. While these individuals can alleviate the pain, it is not always possible to completely suppress it, and it is very dangerous to attempt to do so as some medications can lead to addiction. This is well reflected in the famous character of Dr. House in the iconic television series bearing his name.
Another problem they have to face is invisibility in their closest environments, as many patients make such a great effort to ensure that their lives and the lives of their loved ones are not affected that their surroundings often forget their situation, unintentionally overexerting these sick individuals and disregarding their limitations.
Timely management of an autoimmune disease is the ideal scenario to lead a normalized life as much as possible. However, we should not normalize their discomfort, but rather normalize the fact that having certain limitations does not make a person less valid in their work or daily life.
If you are reading this and you also have an autoimmune disease or have someone close to you who has it, leave a comment and share with us how you feel. We’re listening!
Recommendations for daily life
At Birm, we are fully focused on the well-being of our community. That’s why we present you with some recommendations that can help people with autoimmune diseases lead a healthier and happier life. We also recommend reading our complementary articles:
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Finally, we don’t want you to leave without some basic recommendations to improve your daily life. So, without further ado, here they are:
- Listen to your body
Autoimmune diseases can affect different parts of the body in different ways. It’s important to pay attention to how you feel and adjust your daily habits accordingly. If you feel tired, you may need to rest more. If you have pain or inflammation in a part of your body, you may need to avoid certain movements or activities.
- Maintain a healthy diet
A healthy and balanced diet can help strengthen the immune system and improve overall health. It’s important to eat a variety of fresh and nutritious foods, including fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats. It’s also important to limit the amount of processed foods and refined sugars you consume.
At this point, consult your doctor if it would be interesting to start an autoimmune diet. And what is the autoimmune diet like?
An autoimmune diet is a dietary approach that focuses on reducing inflammation and supporting the health of the immune system, especially in people with autoimmune diseases.
The autoimmune diet is based on the elimination of certain foods that are known to trigger an inflammatory response in the body. The foods that are eliminated include grains, legumes, dairy, eggs, nuts and seeds, alcohol, caffeine, and processed and refined foods.
Instead, the emphasis is on consuming nutrient-dense and nutritious foods such as meats, fish, seafood, vegetables, fruits, tubers, herbs, and spices. It is also recommended to include healthy fats like olive oil, coconut oil, avocado, and fish oil.
- Exercise regularly
Regular exercise can help improve muscle strength, flexibility, and mood. Additionally, it can help reduce stress and inflammation in the body. It’s important to speak with your doctor before starting any exercise program and to adapt your routine to your individual needs.
- Importance of medication and medical follow-up
Regular medical follow-up and compliance with prescribed medication are crucial for anyone with an autoimmune disease. It’s important to work collaboratively with the doctor to ensure that the appropriate medications are being taken at the correct dosage, and to undergo necessary tests to monitor the progress of the disease. Additionally, any symptoms of medication having adverse effects should be reported to the doctor.
If you’re one of those people who have multiple ailments and feel like you’re taking too many pills, you can talk to your doctor about exploring alternative natural treatment options. This way, you can reduce the chemicals in your body while still receiving the necessary treatment or supplementation you need.
Monitoring is crucial when switching to natural treatments to determine if your body is tolerating the natural medicine well or if any deficiencies are starting to arise.
In conclusion, it’s important to show empathy towards people living with an autoimmune disease, as well as to understand that they are not contagious and that their outcomes are not always grim. Adopting healthy lifestyle habits, communicating the situation, and following the recommendations of healthcare professionals are essential practices for leading the happiest life possible.
As professionals in the field and pioneers in natural immunomodulators, we at Birm hope we have been able to help you and clarify some of the frequently asked questions on this topic.
See you in the next article.