Michael Hunter, MD on Medika Life

When Immunity Goes Rogue

Do you have an autoimmune condition? There are some steps you can take to fight back.

A STRONG IMMUNE SYSTEM IS GOOD, RIGHT? We often hear about the benefits of strong immunity. We can better fight off unwanted bacteria, viruses, other contagions, cancer, and more.

But what bout when your immune system mistakes your tissues for a threat? You may develop an autoimmune disorder.

Autoimmune conditions include type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritismultiple sclerosisCrohn’s diseaselupuspsoriasis, certain thyroid problems, and more. Women are more likely to develop such problems.

Autoimmunity: Definition

An aberrant immune response directed at a normal body entity characterizes autoimmune diseases. The immune system’s B or T cells (or both) get revved up without an ongoing infection or other detectable cause. This unwanted response leads to cell injury and inflammation.

Autoimmune diseases can be generalized or tissue- or organ-specific. They can be acute or chronic.

Young woman with a malar rash, typically found in systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Photo from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autoimmune_disease

With the exceptions of autoimmune thyroiditis and rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune diseases are fortunately relatively rare. Still, autoimmune diseases, in aggregate, strike five percent of the population in Western countries.

Autoimmune mechanisms

Autoimmunity affects targets such as proteins, carbohydrates, and nucleic acids. We call such targets self-antigens or autoantigens. On the other hand, a molecule from an infecting organism that stimulates an immune response is a foreign antigen or non-self.

While autoimmune diseases are the product of a pathologic state, autoimmunity is based on mechanisms that underlie normal immune responses to foreign substances.

We may divide immune responses into two categories, including innate and adaptive. The former is a rapid, non-specific response to stress, trauma, or an infection. On the other hand, an adaptive immune response is slow (days to weeks). We make B- or T-cell antigens targeting a foreign invader for an adaptive response.

So here’s the thing: An adaptive immune response can be persistent and retain memory. In this context, autoimmune disease is the product of a specific autoimmune response to an autoantigen. There is a system failure, as normally, the immune system should prevent this kind of hyper-reactivity to self-antigens.

Autoimmune disease treatment

Autoimmune disease treatment requires substances that lower immune system activity or block the inflammation that causes tissue injury. Sometimes, treatment targets a specific infection. Other approaches aim at a functional disturbance (for example, replacing insulin for those with type 1 diabetes).

Let’s turn to some ways to protect your body from itself.

1. Autoimmune: Get a team

Gather a team that takes a whole-person approach. Members may include:

  • Rheumatologists treat joint diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases like lupus or Sjögren’s syndrome.
  • Gastroenterologists treat diseases of the GI tract, such as celiac and Crohn’s disease.
  • Endocrinologists treat conditions of the glands, including Graves’ disease, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and Addison’s disease.
  • Dermatologists treat skin conditions, such as psoriasis.
  • Others. Nutritionists, physical therapists, and others can provide significant value.

2. Autoimmune: Complementary approaches

Writing in the August 2022 issue of Prevention, Dr. Andrew Weil explains that while there is generally no cure for autoimmune conditions, many are manageable with prescription medications. In addition, lifestyle and natural remedies may help, too.

  • Lower your stress
  • Consider an anti-inflammatory diet. This approach includes more fruits and vegetables (preferably organic) and the replacement of meat with plant-based protein. Dr. Weil also recommends increasing omega-3 fatty acids (such as salmon or sardines). These maneuvers may tamp down inflammation.
  • Consider supplements. Tumeric and omega-3 fatty acids may be helpful, but check in with your doctor before considering them.

More than 80 autoimmune diseases exist. I hope we can find better solutions soon. Thank you for joining me.

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Michael Hunter, MD
I received an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a medical degree from Yale, and trained in radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania. I practice radiation oncology in the Seattle area.

Michael Hunter, MD

I received an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a medical degree from Yale, and trained in radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania. I practice radiation oncology in the Seattle area.

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