Autoimmune diseases: How the body attacks itself

What happens when a system designed to protect you goes on the offensive?

(Image source: Getty Images/iStock Photo)

Your immune system saves your life every day, fighting off billions of pathogens before they are able to harm you. Without it the simple act of brushing your teeth could introduce a deadly volume of bacteria into your body. This being said, not everybody’s immune system is entirely on their side. In some cases cells that are built to defend the body are falsely programmed to attack body tissue. This is referred to as autoimmunity and causes a range of symptoms and diseases.

Over 80 different autoimmune diseases have been discovered, but with many of them flagging up the same symptoms, diagnosis can be a lengthy process. A combination of tests is needed to rule out other possibilities and pinpoint which one someone is suff ering from. While treatments are unable to cure these diseases, they help to make life for someone living with one much more tolerable by calming down the self-destructive response. This involves minimising the pain and inflammation that arises when the immune system goes on the attack. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can also help to reduce symptoms and the impact these diseases have on an individual’s life. This includes regular exercise and a well-balanced diet.

Although each of these diseases are caused by the same core actions of the immune system, there are a vast range of symptoms. Some conditions target a specific part of the body while others impact almost every area. Some autoimmune diseases are much more debilitating than others. One of the most common is Type 1 diabetes, with around 400,000 people suffering from it in the UK alone. In this case the immune system specifically targets insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Insulin is essential as it helps us to use the sugar in food for energy and keeps blood sugar at a safe level.

Type 1 diabetics need to inject insulin as their bodies are unable to produce it. Rarer forms of autoimmune diseases are harder to diagnose. One example of this is Asherson’s syndrome. This disorder causes a rapid development of blood clots all over the body. Several clots could form in a matter of hours in the most severe cases, with the risk of organ failure throughout the body. Due to the range of areas impacted, the symptoms are broad and can coincide with other disorders. Since it was identified back in 1992, only 300 individuals have been diagnosed with this particular autoimmune disease and research is still ongoing as to why the attacked cells cause the clot in the first place.

Autoimmune diseases go against the core principle of the immune system, leaving people fighting in their own bodies every day. They can emerge in anyone- regardless of age, gender or genetics- but tend to be more common in women, with some cases running in families. As millions of people worldwide are impacted by immune system malfunction and numbers continue to rise, there is still a lot to learn about these complex and diverse human diseases.


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