What is Autoimmune Disease?
Autoimmune diseases arises when your body starts to produce proteins (also known as antibodies) that target and attack various tissues and organs in your body. These antibodies are produced by various cells of your immune system, specifically B- lymphocytes and T-lymphocytes (1). Elevated levels of these antibodies are what clinicians used to diagnose a patient with a specific type of autoimmune condition. With nearly hundreds of different autoantibody tests (1), a simple blood test can used to assess the presence as well as disease progress of any specific autoimmune disorder (1,2).
Autoimmune disease can be classified into two different categories: organ specific conditions and that autoimmune conditions that are non-organ specific. With organ specific conditions there are antibodies that are being produced that are mostly targeting one specific organ. Conversely, with non-organ-specific disorders, you have antibodies that are targeting multiple areas (2,3).
|Organ Specific Autoimmune Diseases||Non-Organ Specific Autoimmune Diseases|
|• Hashimoto’s: thyroid|
• Type 1 Diabetes: pancreas
|• Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE)|
• Rheumatoid Arthritis
*Table 1: Examples of Organ specific and non-organ specific autoimmune diseases.
What Causes Autoimmune Disease?
Although the exact mechanism as to what causes one to develop or manifest symptoms of an autoimmune disease is unknown, there are a few hypotheses.
In both instances there is an error that is occurring with your immune system. The first theory is that over the course of time there are changes to various tissues in your body that are no longer recognizable as “self”. This change alerts your immune system and tissue destruction begin (2,3). Another theory is that the lymphocytes that can differentiate between your tissue and foreign invaders stop functioning. Instead of being suppressed like they should, they remain active and can also start to destroy various tissues (2).
A Functional Medicine Perspective on Autoimmune Diseases:
Despite not fully knowing the exact thing that triggers one immune system to start malfunctioning and producing antibodies, there are several things that we look at in functional medicine.
- Pathogens: various bacteria have been looked at as possible contributors to autoimmunity (2,4). Many viruses such as rotavirus, herpesviruses and influenza A viruses have been shown to be implicated in the development of certain autoimmune conditions like lupus, celiac disease, and multiple sclerosis (5).
- Genetics: one of the most well studied genes in the human genome that has been linked to development of autoimmunity is the Human leukocyte antigen (HLA)(6,7). Variations or changes to this gene is often a risk factor for autoimmune diseases. Human leukocyte antigen is a system of cells that present toxins, pathogens, or other foreign substances to your immune system. When a molecule is presented to your immune system, it will either do nothing (if it recognizes it as it-self) or attack it. Changes to the genes coding HLA would then make it more difficult for your body to differentiate between itself and foreign tissue (7).
- Gut Health: With most of your immune system located in your gut there are a few ways in which your gut health could contribute to autoimmunity. Your gut microbiome helps to ensure that your body’s T-lymphocytes stay suppressed instead of going into self-destructive mode.
- Toxins: can increase your risks of autoimmunity in a similar manner as viruses
and bacteria. These toxins, whether they are in your food, plastic containers and
cleaning products can cause shifts to genes that are responsible for healthy
Common Autoimmune Diseases:
- Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis
- Graves’ Disease
- Systemic Lupus Erythematosus
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Type 1 Diabetes
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Celiac Disease
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease (Crohn’s Disease & Ulcerative Colitis)
5 Quick Facts About Autoimmune Diseases:
- A person may have more than one autoimmune disease at a time.
- Autoimmune diseases are more common in women.
- There are more than 100 autoimmune diseases.
- 1 in every 5 Americans has an autoimmune disease.
- Autoimmune diseases tend to run in families.
- Definition of autoimmunity & autoimmune disease. Definition of Autoimmunity & Autoimmune Disease – Autoimmune Disease | Johns Hopkins Pathology. (n.d.). Retrieved April 12, 2023, from https://pathology.jhu.edu/autoimmune/definitions.
- About autoimmunity. Autoimmune Association. (2023, March 6). Retrieved April 12, 2023, from https://autoimmune.org/resource-center/about-autoimmunity/.
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “autoimmunity”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 20 Nov. 2018, https://www.britannica.com/science/autoimmunity. Accessed 12 April 2023.
- Bhandari, T. (2022, February 28). New way viruses trigger autoimmunity discovered. Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Retrieved April 12, 2023, from https://medicine.wustl.edu/news/new-way-viruses-trigger autoimmunity-discovered/
- Smatti MK, Cyprian FS, Nasrallah GK, Al Thani AA, Almishal RO, Yassine HM. Viruses and Autoimmunity: A Review on the Potential Interaction and Molecular Mechanisms. Viruses. 2019 Aug 19;11(8):762. doi: 10.3390/v11080762. PMID: 31430946; PMCID: PMC6723519.
- Chris Kresser, M. S. (2022, September 27). What is autoimmune disease? Chris Kresser. Retrieved April 12, 2023, from https://chriskresser.com/what-is-autoimmune-disease/
- Cruz-Tapias P, Castiblanco J, Anaya JM. HLA Association with Autoimmune Diseases. In: Anaya JM, Shoenfeld Y, Rojas-Villarraga A, et al., editors. Autoimmunity: From Bench to Bedside [Internet]. Bogota (Colombia): El Rosario University Press; 2013 Jul 18. Chapter 17. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK459459/