March is National Autoimmune Disease Awareness Month. Many important conditions are recognized in March, but I wanted to focus on autoimmune disease because many people don’t understand what it is.
Autoimmune disease is basically an umbrella term in the same way that “cancer” can refer to a wide variety of vastly different cancers. They are all clumped together as a type of cancer because they all involve having an abnormal growth of abnormal cells.
Autoimmune disease, on the other hand, involves a wide variety of vastly different conditions that all involve the immune system turning on itself and attacking the body’s own healthy cells.
Cancer is primarily treated by someone who specializes in cancers, known as an oncologist. Autoimmune conditions are often treated by many different specialists, since those conditions tend to involve numerous body systems. There is no “autoimmunologist” to manage everything so these patients are typically shuffled around from specialist to specialist. There is also no cure for autoimmune conditions so treatments must be aimed at symptom management.
Autoimmune diseases can vary greatly in severity, duration, onset, treatments, symptoms, and management but they do tend to have some common factors among them. Woman are vastly more affected by autoimmune diseases than men. Symptoms can wax and wane greatly and without warning so that someone with autoimmune disease may literally be bed-ridden sometimes and at other times, be able to participate in normal activities without apparent affect.
Because autoimmune diseases tend to fluctuate, and do not always manifest themselves outwardly, people afflicted with them often hear things from well meaning friends like, “But you don’t look sick.” This has prompted the term, “invisible illness” for many of these conditions.
Common shared symptoms of autoimmune conditions may include:
- extreme fatigue
- muscle and joint pain
- sleep disturbances
- digestive problems
- swollen glands
- anxiety & depression
- susceptibility to infections
- memory problems / brain fog
I couldn’t possibly list every autoimmune condition here but to give you an idea of how the body is primarily attacking itself with each condition I will list a few. Keep in mind that many body systems often become involved and it’s not uncommon for more than one autoimmune condition to be present in the same person.
Rheumatoid arthritis: the body attacks its own joints and surrounding tissues.
Systemic lupus erythematosus (Lupus): the body attacks its own skin, joints, kidneys, brain, and other organs.
Psoriasis: The body attacks its own skin.
Inflammatory bowel diseases: in these conditions the body attacks its own colon and/or small intestine.
Sjögren’s Syndrome: a sister disease to Lupus & RA. The hallmark difference is that the body heavily attacks glands that produce tears & saliva causing dry eyes and mouth. The kidneys & lungs are often affected as well.
Hashimoto’s disease – The body attacks its own thyroid.
Type 1 diabetes: The body attacks its own pancreas and destroys cells that produce insulin.
Multiple Sclerosis – The body attacks its own healthy nervous system.
Please share this with others to help spread autoimmune disease awareness.
|Barbara Grubbs, NP
Nurse Practitioner & Health Coach