Autoimmune Disease Basics: What, Why, and Who?

Autoimmune Disease Basics

Most of my friends and family are aware that I suffer from an autoimmune disease called Crohn’s disease. However, it recently became clear to me that many don’t know much about autoimmune diseases, let alone some of the things that impact their chances of developing one.

Autoimmune diseases are becoming more prevalent in our world, and have even been referred to as a modern-day epidemic.

The American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA) estimates that 50 million Americans suffer from an autoimmune disease. That’s 20 percent of the population, or one in five people! [1] Chances are good that you know someone who has one, or you may even suffer from one yourself.

And did you know that women are more likely to be affected than men? According to AARDA, approximately 75 percent of people affected are women [2], yet autoimmune diseases are rarely discussed as a women’s health issue.

So, what is an autoimmune disease anyway?

Think of our immune system like a security system for our body. It launches an attack to protect us from invaders such as viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens, then shuts off once that invader is gone.

An autoimmune disease develops when the immune system does not function as it should. A dysfunctional immune system doesn’t recognize the difference between non-self (an actual invader) and self (our own body), and it attacks healthy tissue. It also doesn't recognize that it should "shut off", which results in inflammation and damage to healthy cells and organs.

According to AARDA, there are at least 100 known autoimmune diseases, with many more suspected. [3] They are divided into two categories: organ specific (such as Ulcerative colitis which affects the colon) and non-organ specific (such as rheumatoid arthritis which affects the joints and surrounding tissues). They can affect just about any organ or system in the body.

Some cause chronic, consistent symptoms, while others bring periods of remissions and periods of symptoms (also called flares or flare ups).

Rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Celiac disease, Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s and Ulcerative colitis), Hashimoto’s, psoriasis, and Type 1 diabetes are just a few of the more common autoimmune conditions impacting us today.

What causes autoimmune diseases?

This is a question I am asked often, and one I desperately wanted to know the answer to when I was first diagnosed with Crohn’s.

The truth is that the exact cause of autoimmune diseases is unknown. However, research has shown that a combination of three major factors can contribute to the development of autoimmune disease:

  1. Genetics play a big role in autoimmune disease, which explains why these conditions tend to “cluster” in families. There is not one gene that causes an autoimmune condition, but rather several genes that can put us at greater risk of developing one.

  2. Environmental factors or events. Toxins, chemicals and pathogens we may be in contact with daily affect our chances of developing an autoimmune disease, especially if we’re genetically predisposed for one.

  3. Diet and lifestyle are quite possibly the most controllable risk factors for developing an autoimmune disease. Poor nutrition or food sensitivities can cause intestinal permeability (leaky gut), leading to nutrient deficiency and an overactive immune system. Stress can also play a huge role in the autoimmune experience. People who are under chronic stress are not only more susceptible to developing autoimmune and other health issues, but stress can trigger symptoms for those who have been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.

Why is it so hard to diagnose an autoimmune disease?

Diagnosing an autoimmune disease can often be a long and stressful process for several reasons.

  1. Autoimmune diseases can have a host of symptoms that affect multiple areas of the body, making it difficult to know which specialist to visit.

  2. Often specialists aren’t aware of the interrelationships of symptoms in areas outside of their own specialty and we are bounced around to many different doctors.

  3. Although autoimmune diseases are unique, several of them share the same symptoms. These same symptoms could also be a result of other health issues outside of an autoimmune condition. This makes it difficult for doctors to determine if you have an autoimmune disease, and if so, which one.

  4. Symptoms are often intermittent and may not cause a huge concern until the situation becomes acute. In fact, many people experience symptoms long before they seek medical advice (this was me!).

My Personal Diagnosis Experience

The first Crohn’s symptoms I can remember experiencing were when we were renting a house after moving from Colorado to Maryland. I was convinced there was something wrong with the well water and I even asked the landlord to test it. It tested clean. I experienced the same symptoms intermittently over the next several years, but they were not seriously disrupting my life and I just blew them off as typical digestive issues.

Then one day (it seemed like overnight), my symptoms became so severe that I couldn’t stand up straight and I made an emergency visit to a Gastroenterologist. After I had a meltdown in his office (Dr. Google had me convinced I had stomach cancer, plus being sick is scary when you've been really healthy your entire life), he assured me he was certain it wasn’t cancer. I was diagnosed a week later with Crohn’s disease. Though it took approximately six years for my symptoms to become severe enough to seek help, I was lucky to find an amazing doctor and to be diagnosed quickly.

Here are some tips to help you get a quicker diagnosis:

  • Track every symptom, no matter how insignificant they may seem and share them with your doctor

  • Know your family history, including extended family, and let your doctor know if anyone else in your family has been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease

  • Visit the specialist who has experience dealing with your most major symptom first

  • Seek referrals for good doctors

  • Get a second, third, fourth opinion, if necessary

You've been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, now what?

Dealing with a new autoimmune disease diagnosis can be extremely difficult, not just physically, but emotionally. I know, I’ve been there.

However, there are many positives to having a diagnosis as opposed to not having one. It helps you connect with the right medical specialist for your condition. It enables you to begin to educate yourself about your condition and develop a treatment plan (together with your doctor). You can also connect with others who are suffering from the same condition.

Stay tuned!! In my next post, you’ll learn steps to take to regain your health and happiness after diagnosis.

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[1] [2] How Many Americans Have an Autoimmune Disease? American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, April 2017.

[3) Autoimmune Disease List. American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association.

Autoimmune Disease Statistics. American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association.

Autoimmune Diseases.

Diagnosis Tips. American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association.

The Autoimmune Wellness Handbook: A DIY Guide to Living Well With Chronic Illness, Mickey Trescott and Angie Alt, 2016.

Janelle is a Certified Health Coach, Certified Personal Trainer, and Group Fitness Instructor who is passionate about helping people find their best health and happiness. She specializes in helping those with Crohn's and other Autoimmune diseases. Whether you want to make big changes, or simply want to learn how to bring healthier choices and more energy into your life, she can help!!

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