Our immune system works in a fascinating way. This complicated network of organs, nerves, and tissues function together to protect us from infections by pathogens like fungi, viruses, or bacteria. In other words, its job is to defend the body from foreign agents that can make us sick.
Unfortunately, this fantastic natural defense system can sometimes fail, causing autoimmune diseases. As their name suggests, these diseases occur when your immune system malfunctions and mistakenly attacks healthy tissue, organs, or cells. Doctors have identified more than 80 autoimmune conditions today, and most of them are rare, sometimes challenging to diagnose, and often, they don’t have a definite cure.
The good news is that you can take many steps to relieve your symptoms, feel healthier, and overall recover your quality of life. So, what is an autoimmune disease? Who gets them? What can you do to do away with its symptoms?
#1 - What Is an Autoimmune Disease?
Your immune system is like an army, ready to protect your body and attack pathogens that can make you sick. For this, it produces antibodies, like your white blood cells (also called lymphocytes), which will fight the invading microbes and try to destroy them. However, in cases of autoimmune disease, instead of eliminating viruses or bacteria, your immune system makes a mistake and attacks your cells and tissues (0).
Scientists have identified almost 80 types of autoimmune conditions, the most common being:
- Type 1 diabetes. This may be the most well-known of all autoimmune diseases, with over 1.6 million people suffering from it in the USA alone (1). In type 1 diabetes, the body attacks the cells responsible for producing insulin, so the patient becomes unable to process glucose. This can bring about a great number of problems that go from kidney failure to a heart attack.
- Lupus, a disease that can damage almost any part of the body (joints, lungs, skin, and more), causes chronic pain and other complications.
- Inflammatory bowel disease, which affects the lining of the intestines. The main symptoms include diarrhea, bleeding, and weight loss.
- Multiple sclerosis is a condition that attacks your nerves, causing pain, weakness, poor coordination, and spasms.
- Psoriasis, where the skin cells grow too fast and build up, forming itchy and painful patches in elbows, hands, scalp, and other body parts.
#2 - Who Suffers from Autoimmune Diseases?
While autoimmune diseases can affect virtually anyone, certain groups of people are at greater risk, such as:
- Young women - age 15-44. Research shows that many more women get autoimmune diseases when compared to men: 6.4% vs. 2.7% (2). Conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus commonly affect women (with 90% of cases reported by female patients).
- People with close family members who have an autoimmune disease. This is the case of multiple sclerosis or lupus, for example, because specific inherited genes can make people more prone to getting the disease.
- People who are or were exposed to unhealthy substances, such as radiation or solvents.
- Bacterial or viral infections trigger strong reactions by your immune system. It will try to destroy pathogens and prevent them from causing illness. However, during the process, the immune system can make a mistake and attack antigens or even healthy cells instead (4).
#3 - Why do Autoimmune Diseases Happen?
The medical community still has difficulty pinpointing exactly why the body turns on itself and causes autoimmune diseases. What they have discovered over the years are some significant risk factors mentioned above (gender, genetics, environmental factors), which can help us understand why autoimmune diseases happen.
#4 - What to Do
Whenever you have a flare (that is, the sudden and sometimes severe appearance of your symptoms), you should consult with your physician to get the medicine and treatment you need. But you can also take some measures before and after your flares to prevent them from happening. Here are some things you can do if you have an autoimmune disease and want to feel better each day.
Having a Healthy Diet
A very long time ago, Hippocrates claimed that all disease begins in the gut. And he was not wrong! A healthy diet is the first step to having a healthy gut and preventing diseases, even autoimmune ones. But what type of diet should you have if you suffer from autoimmune conditions?
Well, specialists have discovered that the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) is helpful when reducing inflammation and pain caused by your disease (5). The AIP is an autoimmune diet that consists of two phases: elimination of potentially harmful foods and slow reintroduction of items to identify the ones that can trigger a flare.
Certain foods are said to cause gut inflammation and may trigger an autoimmune response, such as eggs, dairy, nightshade vegetables, or nuts. During the elimination phase of the AIP, you should avoid these items (together with alcohol, coffee, and refined sugars). After a certain period, you reintroduce these foods very gradually to try and identify which ones affect your health and which ones do not.
Also, certain foods will help you feel better, such as:
- Whole grains, like brown rice or oats, tend to be high in fiber, B vitamins, or magnesium, which are vital to having a healthy gut.
- Fruits and vegetables, are packed with vitamins, nutrients, and antioxidants that can reduce inflammation (6).
Exercising is crucial for everyone’s health, but even more so if you have an autoimmune disease. Moderate, low-impact physical activity will give you more energy, help you reduce inflammation and ultimately stimulate the production of endorphins which will help you cope with pain.
Exercising with an autoimmune disease can be challenging, and not everyone’s experience is the same, so just go at your own pace. Start slowly with easy workouts and take it from there, adjusting your exercises according to your condition.
Listen to Your Body and Rest
Counting sheep all night can affect us deeply (bad mood and headaches, anyone?), but even more so if you suffer from an autoimmune disease. Resting (at least 7 hours a day) gives your body the time it needs to repair itself and heal. If you don’t get a good night’s sleep, your symptoms and your stress levels can get worse, making you feel even sicker.
Consult your physician in case you are having trouble sleeping due to pain or other uncomfortable symptoms. You can also resort to natural remedies, such as valerian tea, that will help you calm down and slowly drift off to sleep.
If your autoimmune condition involves joint pain or stiffness, you should also speak to your healthcare provider. They may suggest using support devices to promote joint rest.
Say Goodbye to Stress
Many studies have linked severe stress and trauma to autoimmune diseases like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis (7). But, in addition to directly or indirectly causing a disease, being under stress can also slow down your healing process or even trigger a flare.
Luckily, you can find ways to cope with stressful situations, relieve your pain, and overall feel your best. Meditation and relaxation techniques are some examples, but not the only ones:
Supplements that Promote Health & Well-Being
If you are looking to go the extra mile and protect your healthy cells while speeding up the recovery and healing of damaged tissues, you should try out health supplements for your needs. Supplements have extra nutrients that fortify your cells, repair damage, and overall give you all the energy you need to carry out your daily tasks.
It’s All in Your Hands
Autoimmune diseases are still a mystery to science, especially when trying to understand why they happen or how to treat them. But while it’s true most autoimmune disorders don’t have a definitive cure, you can take the bull by the horns and improve your quality of life. First and foremost, you should consult your health provider to understand your disease and look for an effective treatment together.
Additionally, having a healthy diet and getting enough rest will certainly help people suffering from autoimmune disorder. When well-rested, you can face problems better and speed up healing processes. Then, you can also look for solutions that tackle your specific disease.
You can take additional steps to feel and be healthier and do yoga for flexibility and stress reduction, meditate to focus on something different than your pain, and get a good massage to relieve muscle tension and stress. It’s all in your hands!