I remember how overwhelmed I was the first time my doctor diagnosed me with an autoimmune disease. She started naming all of these weird sounding diseases that I had never heard of, gave me a prescription, and referred me to a rheumatologist. She basically said you have an incurable illness that will only get worse over time and left my mind to wander. Oy! My mind was spinning. I had, at least, a thousand more questions than answers once they diagnosed me and I imagine you do to.
There are many different responses to an autoimmune disease diagnosis. For some of us, it comes as a relief and as validation after years of trying to convince people that there is something wrong with us and not being taken seriously. For some of us, it comes as a complete shock. We may have felt bad but we never imagined we might have a disease that will never go away. For most of us, it is a mixture of the two responses, a complex combination of relief and dread all being crowded out by the sheer overwhelming nature of it all. Now that you actually have a diagnosis, or even if your physician is speculating towards a diagnosis of autoimmune disease, where do you start?
The first thing that you want to try to understand is exactly what an autoimmune disease is. In broad terms, an autoimmune disease is when the bodies immune system attacks healthy cells. However, broad terms aren’t going to be enough to get a grip on your new diagnosis. It is going to take a bit of studying to understand what is taking place now that you know you have an autoimmune disorder. In order to better understand an improper immune function we first must brush up on our understanding of how a healthy immune system works.
The immune systems job is to protect your body from foreign invaders such as bacteria, viruses, pathogens, and parasites. It responds to harmful substances we interact with in our environment and works to neutralize their effects. It also protects us from rogue cells that have changed due to illness like cancerous cells.
There are two separate parts to your immune system and although they are distinct from one another they work together to complete immune function as a whole. The first part is called the innate immune system. The innate immune system is the bodies general defense system. You can think of it as the army of your body. It is trained to defend by marching against invaders and providing immediate, generic protection. It primarily deals with bacterial infections and works on the cellular level to battle “bad” cells that have become harmful.
The second part of the immune system is called the adaptive immune system. The adaptive immune system is a highly specialized targeting system. Think of it as the special forces. Like the Navy Seals, it is highly trained to respond to specific threats. It is highly specific and responds to distinct threats in distinct ways. It also is adaptive and can react to ever-changing bacteria and viruses by adapting its response along with it. It memorizes how to respond to things from previous interactions. Remember how vaccines work? They introduce a minuscule amount of a specific antigen to the immune system which then easily responds and neutralizes it. It then memorizes how to defeat it so when you are invaded by it in the future it can easily initiate its trained battle plan to neutralize it. This usually provides long lasting protection, so thankfully, I will only have to experience rubella once in my life.
Usually, the immune system is adept at recognizing the difference between self and non-self. When a non-self invader enters, such as fungi, the immune system is activated to respond to this. It responds to all foreign invaders which are called antigens. Specifically, it responds the proteins on the surface of antigens. The bodies own cells have proteins on the surface too but it usually does not respond to them.
An autoimmune disease develops when your immune system becomes confused and recognizes your healthy cells as foreign. As a result, your immune system attacks healthy cells. An autoimmune disease can affect just one or many different types of body tissue. It can also damage organs and cause changes in organ growth and function.
So how did this happen? Autoimmune diseases are triggered by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. First of all, you have to be genetically predisposed to autoimmune disorders. Are there people in your family who also have been diagnosed? Or are there people in your family who have complained of the general symptoms such as fatigue and pain that maybe went undiagnosed?
If you are genetically predisposed all it takes is an environmental trigger to set your immune system into the chaotic self-destruction of an autoimmune disease. Environmental triggers include chemicals, infectious agents, stress, hormones, drugs, diet, weight gain, behavior, and more. Basically, if you are predisposed to autoimmune disease, walking around in today’s chemical-world eating the modern processed-food diet makes you a ticking time bomb for illness.
There are over eighty types of autoimmune diseases. They are all classified according to how and where the body is attacking itself. For example, Sjogren’s Syndrome is labeled when the immune system is attacking the lymphatic system and moisture producing glands. Hashimoto’s Disease is labeled when the immune system is attacking the thyroid. Terms like Mixed Connective Tissue disease are used when the immune system attacks the body in multiple ways.
Although there are many different autoimmune disorders they are difficult to specifically diagnose because many of them have similar symptoms. Fatigue, dry mouth, weight change, and pain are typical symptoms of most autoimmune diseases. On average, because of the vagueness of autoimmune symptoms, it takes ten years to receive an official diagnosis. Hopefully, that will change as we continue to raise awareness and demand the validation for our symptoms that we deserve. Unfortunately, we are often dismissed as over-sensitive, hypochondriacs, and even crazy and told we just need more rest and less stress. Thankfully, the medical community seems to be awakening to the epidemic of autoimmune diseases that is becoming so magnified before their eyes that can’t help but start paying attention to it.
To learn more about being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease please read part 2.