We all suffer from stress. Between managing our careers, keeping up our social lives, taking care of our families, and everything else life throws our way, it’s not unusual to feel exhausted and achy sometimes. However, the same symptoms that result from our hectic lifestyle could actually be signs of autoimmune disorders.
The early signs of autoimmune disorders are often mistaken for the pains of life. When it comes to autoimmune disorders, the earlier you catch them, the better your chances are for managing and treating them. We’ll dive into the signs of autoimmune disorders, common conditions, and what steps you can take to get the help you need.
Routine Health Checks Are Essential
Before we dive into the nitty-gritty of autoimmune disorders, you should know the importance of routine health checks. At your annual health screening, be honest when you tell your doctor how you’re feeling. If it feels like you have been “off” lately, let your doctor know. Your doctor can test to see if you are suffering from an autoimmune disorder.
Likewise, if you feel unusually weak or suffer from other negative symptoms that aren’t linked to a minor bug like the cold, schedule an appointment with your doctor. You may be experiencing the warning signs of an autoimmune disorder.
What Are Autoimmune Disorders?
When your immune system functions normally, it protects against threats like bacteria and viruses. As you may recall from your high school biology class, many of the symptoms of colds or other conditions are the result of your immune system battling invaders. Normally, immune systems can differentiate between your cells and foreign ones. After a certain period of time, your symptoms fade and you start to feel better.
When you suffer from an autoimmune condition, however, your body’s immune response is faulty. It mistakes your own cells for foreign invaders. Then, it releases antibodies to attack your healthy cells.
The cells that get attacked can vary, so signs of autoimmune disorders are often different. Some, like type 1 diabetes, primarily affect one organ—in this case, the pancreas. On the other hand, conditions like systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) can affect the entire body.
Why Would Your Immune System Attack Your Own Body?
It seems counter-intuitive that our body’s defense system would turn on itself. Researchers still aren’t exactly sure what causes this problem. However, researches believe that some people are more susceptible to autoimmune diseases than others.
According to recent research, women are nearly twice as likely to suffer from autoimmune disorders when compared to men. Typically, diseases start during childbearing years—ages 15 to 44. Moreover, some autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, are more common in certain ethnic backgrounds, with African-American and Hispanic people facing a higher likelihood of developing autoimmune disorders than Caucasians.
Genetics and family predisposition also play a role in the development of autoimmune disorders. For example, both lupus and multiple sclerosis have been known to run in families. This doesn’t mean every family member will have that condition, but they may be more predisposed to an autoimmune disorder than others.
Finally, research shows that environmental factors including diet, exposure to different chemicals, and infections can play a role in the development of autoimmune disorders. “Western diets high in fats, sugars, and processed foods are linked to chronic inflammation, which may trigger immune system responses.”
Other studies have shown that “overly-sanitized” environments can increase autoimmune disorder risk as well. Because of the high usage of antiseptics and antibacterial soap, children aren’t exposed to as many germs as in the past. Consequently, this absence of bacteria exposure may encourage an immune system response to a harmless substance. Do note, however, that research in this area has not been confirmed.
The Most Common Types of Autoimmune Disorders?
Nearly 24 million Americans suffer from autoimmune disorders. Scientists have identified 80 different types of autoimmune diseases. The most common are:
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Type 1 Diabetes
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Systemic Lupus Erythematosus
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease
- Myasthenia Gravis
- Graves’ Disease
- Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis
- Celiac Disease
Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)
RA makes the immune system attack the joints, causing swelling, stiffness, and pain. Unlike other arthritic conditions, RA can affect younger individuals as early as their 30s.
Type 1 Diabetes
While you may be familiar with acquired, type 2 diabetes, type 1 diabetes is more complex and presents more serious side effects. Your pancreas produces insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar level. When an individual suffers from type 1 diabetes, the immune system attacks these crucial insulin-generating cells in their pancreas. This leads to high blood sugar levels, which not only damages blood vessels, but also harms organs, including your eyes, hearts, and kidneys.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a serious condition that needs to be diagnosed as quickly as possible. The disease destroys the myelin sheath—the protective layering around your nerve cells. When these sheaths are damaged, the body is unable to send messages between your brain and spinal cord to other parts of your body.
MS symptoms include weakness, trouble balancing, numbness, and difficulty walking. More than 50% of individuals suffering from MS need assistance walking within 15 years of developing the condition.
Psoriasis affects your skin cells, causing them to multiply too quickly. Over time, these additional cells build up, creating inflamed red patches on the skin. This creates a host of painful symptoms, including skin irritation, swelling, and stiffness that can lead to psoriatic arthritis.
Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE)
Systemic lupus erythematosus, known simply as lupus, is most well-known for causing a butterfly rash on the face. However, it can develop into a systemic condition, leading to problems in the kidney, brain, joints, and heart. The most common symptoms include rashes, fatigue, and joint pain.
People suffering from celiac disease cannot eat foods which contain gluten—a type of protein found in wheat and other grains. When gluten reaches the small intestine, the immune system attacks this part of the GI tract, causing inflammation. Celiac disease affects approximately 1% of people in the US, though growing numbers of people are reporting gluten sensitivity. While gluten sensitivity isn’t an autoimmune disorder, it may share similar symptoms, including abdominal discomfort and diarrhea.
Hashimoto’s thyroiditis reduces thyroid hormone production. This leads to fatigue, hair loss, thyroid swelling, sensitivity to cold, and weight gain.
What Are the Signs of Autoimmune Disorder?
As noted, early symptoms of autoimmune disorders are easy to confuse with everyday aches, pains, colds and the flu. They can include:
- Muscle and joint pain
- Low-grade fever
- Numbness in extremities
- Difficulty concentrating
- Skin rash
Nonetheless, different diseases have their own unique symptoms. For example, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) may cause bloating, diarrhea, and belly pain. On the other hand, type 1 diabetes causes weight loss and extreme hunger. Moreover, some conditions like rheumatoid arthritis or psoriasis may have periods of flare-ups and remission, when they seem to go away.
When Do You Need to See a Doctor?
If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, particularly chronically (i.e. longer than a few weeks), you need to see a doctor. Depending on the disorder, you may want to visit dermatologists, rheumatologists, endocrinologists, or gastroenterologists who will have better expertise and resources to help you manage and treat your condition.
Be aware, there is no single test to diagnose autoimmune diseases. Your doctor will generally do a combination of blood tests and physical examinations to reach a diagnosis.
How Are Autoimmune Disorders Treated?
Unfortunately, doctors are unable to cure autoimmune diseases. However, they can help you manage symptoms to reduce inflammation and pain via medications and therapy. Doctors may use immune-suppressing drugs along with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and naproxen. Your doctor may also recommend a healthy diet and regular exercise to help improve total health. Overall, the goal of treatment is to mitigate symptoms so individuals can live their daily lives without suffering intense pain and discomfort.
Learn the Warning Signs of Autoimmune Disorder
Autoimmune disorders are serious conditions that can greatly hamper your ability to pursue everyday activities. Like other diseases, it’s essential to recognize warning signs of autoimmune disorders and seek treatment. Although doctors cannot cure these conditions completely, they can help you manage pain, reduce your symptoms, and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
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