Autoimmune disease is a significant cause of health problems among Australians. In fact according to the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy, one in 20 Australians has an autoimmune disease. The vast majority of them are women.
Autoimmune diseases are a broad range of conditions where a person’s immune system launches an attack against their own cells, tissues and/or organs. This results in inflammation throughout the body, and the potential for significant damage to specific parts of the body. There are officially 81 different autoimmune diseases, with around another 20 or so diseases considered to have an autoimmune component. Increasingly, diseases that were once considered idiopathic (of unknown origin), are now being labelled autoimmune.
Autoimmune diseases range from very common to extremely rare diseases.Some autoimmune diseases affect mainly one part of the body (such as autoimmune thyroid disease, multiple sclerosis and type 1 diabetes); others affect many parts of the body (such as systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis and scleroderma).
What causes autoimmune disease?
A number of different factors interact to cause autoimmune disease. You cannot develop an autoimmune disease unless you have specific genes. The tendency to develop an autoimmune disease runs in families. You won’t necessarily develop the same autoimmune disease that someone in your family has; you just inherit an increased chance of developing one of them.
Just having the genes isn’t enough though. You need to be exposed to one or more environmental factors that trigger off the disease. Environmental triggers include things like an infection, specific foods that your body can’t tolerate, emotional stress, exposure to chemicals or toxic metals; pregnancy, a nutrient deficiency and others. Infections are extremely common triggers of autoimmune disease. The glandular fever virus alone is a known trigger of 33 different autoimmune diseases. It is particularly related to triggering multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis and Sjogren’s syndrome.
The third critical component for developing an autoimmune disease is a leaky gut (also known as increased intestinal permeability). This simply means that the intestinal lining is too porous and allows waste products in the intestines to enter the bloodstream. This places an enormous strain on the immune system, and in time may lead to the development of an autoimmune disease in susceptible people.
Symptoms of autoimmune disease
Some autoimmune diseases have a rapid onset. They cause intense, severe symptoms that lead to a rapid diagnosis. Other autoimmune conditions begin insidiously. Symptoms are mild and vague and progress very slowly. This means there is often a long delay in receiving a diagnosis. Many people live with fatigue, aches and pains and generalised poor health for many years before eventually discovering they have an autoimmune disease.
The symptoms of autoimmune disease can vary greatly, depending on which part of the body is affected. The two symptoms present in virtually all autoimmune diseases are chronic fatigue and unrefreshing sleep.
The following symptoms might indicate you have an autoimmune disease, or could develop one in the future:
- Unrefreshing sleep
- Disturbed, poor quality sleep
- Cognitive impairment and/or memory loss
- Food intolerance
- Dry mouth
- Mild fever or feeling uncomfortably hot, particularly at night
- Muscle and/or joint aches and pains
- Muscle weakness
- Swollen glands in the neck, armpits and/or groin
- Recurrent minor infections or lingering infections
- Skin rashes
- Neurological manifestations such as numbness or tingling in the limbs
If you suffer with several of these symptoms it’s best to see your doctor for some blood tests.
How do we treat autoimmune disease?
Because approximately 80 percent of your immune system is located in your digestive tract, we always focus on improving gut health in order to improve immune health.Inflammatory foods must be eliminated from the diet, and foods that promote leaky gut should also be removed. These include gluten, grains, dairy products and legumes.
People with autoimmune disease typically have digestive problems such as enzyme deficiencies or an imbalance between good and bad gut bacteria. Digestive problems usually result in malabsorption and nutrient deficiencies. These nutrient deficiencies impair immune health and worsen inflammation. Therefore nutrient supplementation and gastrointestinal support are critical in overcoming autoimmune disease.
Dr Sandra Cabot was born in Adelaide in 1952 and graduated with honours in medicine and surgery from Adelaide University in 1975. She has practices in Camden, Adelaide and Merimbula. She is well known for her work on liver health, and is the author of over 20 ground-breaking books. Dr Cabot is also a pilot and works with the Angel Flight Charity. Most of her many worldwide seminar engagements raise thousands of dollars for charities.
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