What Are Autoimmune Diseases?
Many diseases of the immune system, also known as autoimmune diseases, are more common in women than in men. Our bodies have an immune system, which is a complex network of special cells and organs that defends the body from germs and other foreign invaders. At the core of the immune system is the ability to tell the difference between self and non-self: what’s you and what’s foreign. A flaw can make the body unable to tell the difference between self and non-self. When this happens, the body makes autoantibodies that attack normal cells by mistake. At the same time, special cells called regulatory T cells fail to do their job of keeping the immune system in line. The result is a misguided attack on your own body. This causes the damage we know as autoimmune disease. The body parts that are affected depend on the type of autoimmune disease. There are more than 80 known types.
Who Is At Risk Of Autoimmune Diseases?
- Women of childbearing age — More women than men have autoimmune diseases, which often start during their childbearing years.
- People with a family history — Some autoimmune diseases run in families, such as lupus and multiple sclerosis. It is also common for different types of autoimmune diseases to affect different members of a single family. Inheriting certain genes can make it more likely to get an autoimmune disease. But a combination of genes and other factors may trigger the disease to start.
- People who are around certain things in the environment — Certain events or environmental exposures may cause some autoimmune diseases, or make them worse. Sunlight, chemicals called solvents, and viral and bacterial infections are linked to many autoimmune diseases.
- People of certain races or ethnic backgrounds — Some autoimmune diseases are more common or affect certain groups of people more severely. For instance, type 1 diabetes is more common in white people. Lupus is most severe for African-American and Hispanic people.
What Are Some Common Autoimmune Disorders In Women?
Alopecia Areata: The immune system attacks hair follicles (the structures from which hair grows). It usually does not threaten health, but it can greatly affect the way a person looks.
Antiphospholipid: A disease that causes problems in the inner lining of blood vessels resulting in blood clots in arteries or veins.
Autoimmune Hepatitis: The immune system attacks and destroys the liver cells. This can lead to scarring and hardening of the liver, and possibly liver failure.
Celiac Disease: A disease in which people can’t tolerate gluten, a substance found in wheat, rye, and barley, and also some medicines. When people with celiac disease eat foods or use products that have gluten, the immune system responds by damaging the lining of the small intestines.
Diabetes Type 1: A disease in which your immune system attacks the cells that make insulin, a hormone needed to control blood sugar levels. As a result, your body cannot make insulin. Without insulin, too much sugar stays in your blood. High blood sugar can hurt the eyes, kidneys, heart, nerves, and gums and teeth. But the most serious problem caused by diabetes is heart disease.
Graves’ Disease (overactive thyroid): A disease that causes the thyroid to make too much thyroid hormone.
Guillain-Barre: The immune system attacks the nerves that connect your brain and spinal cord with the rest of your body. Damage to the nerves makes it hard for them to transmit signals. As a result, the muscles have trouble responding to the brain.
Hashimoto’s: A disease that causes the thyroid to not make enough thyroid hormone.
Hemolytic Anemia: The immune system destroys the red blood cells. Yet the body can’t make new red blood cells fast enough to meet the body’s needs. As a result, your body does not get the oxygen it needs to function well, and your heart must work harder to move oxygen-rich blood throughout the body.
Idiopathic Thrombocytopenic Purpura: A disease in which the immune system destroys blood platelets, which are needed for blood to clot.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD): A disease that causes chronic inflammation of the digestive tract. Crohn’s (krohnz) disease and ulcerative colitis are the most common forms of IBD.
Inflammatory Myopathies: A group of diseases that involve muscle inflammation and muscle weakness.
Multiple Sclerosis: A disease in which the immune system attacks the protective coating around the nerves. The damage affects the brain and spinal cord.
Myasthenia Gravis: A disease in which the immune system attacks the nerves and muscles throughout the body.
Primary Biliary Cirrhosis: The immune system slowly destroys the liver’s bile ducts. Bile is a substance made in the liver. It travels through the bile ducts to help with digestion. When the ducts are destroyed, the bile builds up in the liver and hurts it. The damage causes the liver to harden and scar, and eventually stop working.
Psoriasis: A disease that causes new skin cells that grow deep in your skin to rise too fast and pile up on the skin surface.
Rheumatoid Arthritis: A disease in which the immune system attacks the lining of the joints throughout the body.
Scleroderma: A disease causing abnormal growth of connective tissue in the skin and blood vessels.
Sjögren’s Syndrome: A disease in which the immune system targets the glands that make moisture, such as tears and saliva.
Systemic Lupus Erythematosus: A disease that can damage the joints, skin, kidneys, heart, lungs, and other parts of the body.
Vitiligo: The immune system destroys the cells that give your skin its color. It also can affect the tissue inside your mouth and nose.
How Can Autoimmune Disorders Be Treated?
There are many types of medicines used to treat autoimmune diseases. The type of medicine you need depends on which disease you have, how severe it is, and your symptoms. Treatment can do the following:
- Relieve symptoms. Some people can use over-the-counter drugs for mild symptoms, like aspirin and ibuprofen for mild pain. Others with more severe symptoms may need prescription drugs to help relieve symptoms such as pain, swelling, depression, anxiety, sleep problems, fatigue, or rashes. For others, treatment may be as involved as having surgery.
- Replace vital substances the body can no longer make on its own. Some autoimmune diseases, like diabetes and thyroid disease, can affect the body’s ability to make substances it needs to function. With diabetes, insulin injections are needed to regulate blood sugar. Thyroid hormone replacement restores thyroid hormone levels in people with underactive thyroid.
- Suppress the immune system. Some drugs can suppress immune system activity. These drugs can help control the disease process and preserve organ function. For instance, these drugs are used to control inflammation in affected kidneys in people with lupus to keep the kidneys working. Medicines used to suppress inflammation include chemotherapy given at lower doses than for cancer treatment and drugs used in patients who have had an organ transplant to protect against rejection. A class of drugs called anti-TNF medications blocks inflammation in some forms of autoimmune arthritis and psoriasis.
How Can I Manage Life With An Autoimmune Disorder?
Although most autoimmune diseases don’t go away, you can treat your symptoms and learn to manage your disease, so you can enjoy life! Women with autoimmune diseases lead full, active lives. Your life goals should not have to change. It is important, though, to see a doctor who specialises in these types of diseases, follow your treatment plan, and adopt a healthy lifestyle. There are things you can do each day to feel better:
- Eat healthy, well-balanced meals. Make sure to include fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat milk products, and lean sources of protein. Limit saturated fat, trans-fat, cholesterol, salt, and added sugars. If you follow a healthy eating plan, you will get the nutrients you need from food.
- Get regular physical activity. But be careful not to overdo it. Talk with your doctor about what types of physical activity you can do. A gradual and gentle exercise program often works well for people with long-lasting muscle and joint pain. Some types of yoga or tai chi exercises may be helpful.
- Get enough rest. Rest allows your body tissues and joints the time they need to repair. Sleeping is a great way you can help both your body and mind. If you don’t get enough sleep, your stress level and your symptoms could get worse. You also can’t fight off sickness as well when you sleep poorly. When you are well-rested, you can tackle your problems better and lower your risk for illness. Most people need at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep each day to feel well-rested.
- Reduce stress. Stress and anxiety can trigger symptoms to flare up with some autoimmune diseases. So finding ways to simplify your life and cope with daily stressors will help you to feel your best. Meditation, self-hypnosis, and guided imagery, are simple relaxation techniques that might help you to reduce stress, lessen your pain, and deal with other aspects of living with your disease. You can learn to do these through self-help books, tapes, or with the help of an instructor. Joining a support group or talking with a counselor might also help you to manage your stress and cope with your disease.
Content Source: Womenshealth.gov