Autoimmune Disorders

Every year, at about this time, there is a lot of talk about immune systems—there should be, it is cold and flu season.

Imagine your immune system as your own personal army.  They are always on guard, ready to defend your health from any outside force that may try to make you sick.  At this time of year, that is primarily colds and flu. 

This army is comprised of dedicated soldiers, an army that has the best interests of your health as its only focus.  It fights off invaders at all costs in whatever ways it can, whenever it can.  Unfortunately, as most of us know, sometimes the battle is lost, and we succumb to a cold or the flu, perhaps even pneumonia.  Our immune systems, however, rebound, and we become well again.  After the illness, our immunities are wise to that invader, and they know better how to defend against a repeat illness—at least, in the short run. 

This “army” that defends your health should be treated just as you would treat a dedicated group of foot soldiers.  They require rest, good nutrition, adequate hydration and stress relief—all those things you need for yourself as well. 

Now, consider for a moment, this scenario:  there is a mutiny, and these soldiers turn on you.  They begin fighting for the opposing force.  Their job was to defend you against the invaders, but instead, they have joined them.  They have become traitors. 

Autoimmune disorders are essentially that:  your immune system turns on you.  The causes are generally unknown, some run in families and some may be triggered by infections or other environmental factors. 

There are many different autoimmune disorders, and still more that are being researched as possible autoimmune disorders.  A partial list follows of the most common:

  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • systemic lupus
  • inflammatory bowel disease—includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis
  • multiple sclerosis
  • type one diabetes
  • Guillain-Barre syndrome
  • psoriasis/psoriatic arthritis
  • Addison’s disease
  • Graves’ disease
  • Sjogren’s syndrome
  • Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
  • myasthenia gravis
  • celiac disease

The list goes on and on, and, unfortunately, on.

Each disorder has its own list of symptoms, but in the early stages of many of the disorders, these signs are common, and should be brought to your medical provider’s attention without delay:

  • fatigue
  • achy muscles
  • swelling and redness
  • low-grade fever
  • trouble concentrating
  • numbness and tingling in the hands and feet
  • hair loss
  • skin rashes

There are multiple additional symptoms for each specific disorder.  For example, type one diabetes also causes extreme thirst and frequent urination.  Some disorders have symptoms that come and go—such as multiple sclerosis.  A period of symptoms is called a flare-up, and when the symptoms are gone, it is referred to as remission.

Type one diabetes is an example of an autoimmune disorder with symptoms the do not go away.  This disorder requires injections of insulin or an insulin pump in order to maintain physical functioning. 

Unfortunately, I have recently become too familiar with this disorder.

Previously known as juvenile diabetes, this disorder typically does strike in childhood or young adulthood. 

My niece, who is now 19, was diagnosed with type one diabetes at age 17.  She was experiencing extreme thirst, frequent urination, fatigue, and general malaise.  A blood sugar test was the first tip-off, and the diagnosis soon followed. 

Her life, since then has been a difficult journey.  However, without the daily measuring and injecting of insulin she now relies upon, she would not survive.  She is learning the ropes, and this is her new normal.  She has strong family support, and a wonderful endocrinologist—a doctor specializing in disorders of endocrine glands and hormones, and a positive attitude.

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An important realization for anyone who has an autoimmune disorder, or who is close to anyone with this disorder, is to realize that while there are no known cures, these disorders could not have been prevented, and medical researchers are continuing to work toward improved treatments as well as cures. 

Other important facts to take away include:

  • There are more than 80 different types of autoimmune diseases.
  • Autoimmune diseases are relatively common.
  • They can be genetic.
  • Autoimmune disorders are NOT allergies.
  • They can take years of trial and error to be diagnosed. 

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The human immune system is a wondrous thing.  If yours is keeping you well, be sure to be grateful.  If not, keep taking care of your army, this can only help.  And, most importantly, keep hanging in there, and be kind to yourself.