Updated: Mar 24
Fast Facts: Autoimmune Diseases
Autoimmune diseases can run in families, but environmental factors (like smoking and diet) also play a role in whether they will develop.
More women have autoimmune diseases than men.
The incidence of autoimmune diseases is increasing in developed countries.
The classic sign of autoimmune disease is inflammation, which can cause redness, heat, pain and swelling.
Autoimmune disease is linked with obesity, as adipose (fat) tissue generates inflammatory factors.
Autoimmune disease can be brought on by a trauma, an injury or an infection.
People who report feeling lonely tend to have more inflammation in their bodies.
Once in motion, autoimmune diseases are self-perpetuating. The presence of the initial factors isn’t necessary anymore for symptoms to continue.
What Is an Autoimmune Disease?
Let’s start at the beginning, and first ask, “What Is Health?” The World Health Organization ( WHO ) defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. Physically, one can imagine all the parts of the body’s machinery working as they should, cooperatively across all the systems, and in response to external influences, in order to maintain homeostasis.
The system responsible for defense of internal imbalances, such as cancer cells, and defense against unwanted external pathogens, such as viruses and bacteria, is the immune system.
However, with autoimmune diseases, something goes wrong with the immune system and it becomes confused. It starts to misread signals, and fails to recognize its own body. This not only impairs protection against infectious diseases and cell damage, but actually causes the immune system to begin “attacking” its own body - healthy cells, tissues and organs are treated as though they are invaders. This causes an inflammatory response, often with visible swelling and redness.
Common Symptoms of Autoimmune Diseases
Common symptoms like fatigue, achy muscles, swelling, heat and redness could be signs of an autoimmune disease. These symptoms may even come and go, without a predictable pattern.
Each disease also has its own unique symptoms. For example, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) causes painful swollen joints on both sides of the body, and can cause joints to deform; type 1 diabetes causes excessive thirst, weight loss, and fatigue. Inflammatory bowel conditions cause abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea/constipation. With autoimmune diseases like psoriasis, fibromyalgia or RA, symptoms may flare-up or go into periods of remission.
A blood test is a common part of diagnosis of autoimmune disease. The antibodies that attack healthy proteins within the nucleus — the control center of your cells — are called antinuclear antibodies (ANA), and an ANA test determines whether there is an abnormal presence of these cells in the body.
Autoimmune Disease Takes Many Forms
Here is a partial list of autoimmune diseases, but the entire category includes 80 diseases, all related by an immune system that has turned against itself:
ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease)
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (Crohn's, Ulcerative Colitis)
Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
Psoriasis (and some other skin disorders)
Systemic Lupus Erythematosus
What Are the Treatments for Autoimmune Diseases?
A treatment plan that revolves around medication and healthy lifestyle choices should also include an appropriate holistic bodywork therapy that focuses on symptom relief, immune boosting and stress relief.
Of the pharmaceutical drugs used to treat autoimmune disorders, some are used for pain relief (NSAIDS); some target inflammation (steroids) and some act to suppress the immune system (immunosuppressants). Other medications that are showing promise were typically used to treat other conditions, such as antidepressants for depression, but now can be used in low doses to treat pain and nerve function.
The legalization of marijuana has made medicinal marijuana products readily available, and many people who experience pain and inflammation find benefit in them. There are also natural supplements that support the immune system, and reduce pain and inflammation. As always, see your doctor and naturopath to talk about your options. Early treatment may prevent some progressive symptoms, like joint damage.
Lifestyle choices can often control symptoms and slow disease progression. Commit to a self-care “lifestyle” program that reduces inflammation.
You Superhero Moves to Fight Inflammation:
Rest and repair! Getting enough sleep is very important for your body to repair itself, and stress levels need to be kept to a minimum. Techniques like deep breathing, meditation, self-help reflexology points (solar plexus, adrenal glands) or lymphatic drainage will help you stay in relaxation mode longer.
Nurture your relationships. Remember that loneliness increases inflammation, and that social well being is an important part of your health! Limit your time spent in relationships that drain your energy, and invest more time in relationships that uplift you.
Notice what you put in your body! Eliminate smoking, and keep caffeine and alcohol to a minimum. Research foods or see a nutritionist to avoid foods that boost inflammation, and to choose foods that lower inflammation, like ones that have a lot of healthy fats.
Exercise. It’s important to move your body, within your limits, even when you are sore, not only to keep inflammation-attracting adipose (fat) tissue from accumulating, but also to keep circulation up for oxygen, nutrient and hormone delivery, and for proper movement of lymph. Muscle and fascial restrictions have a chance to loosen up with daily walking.
Keep up regular bodywork therapies. Expect to see your practitioner regularly, like once a week or twice a month…whatever schedule works for you to keep your symptoms at bay, and your body functioning at its optimum.
Special Note on Types of Bodywork Therapies
Choose a type of therapy with a gentle approach appropriate to your body’s needs, and one that is capable of addressing your unique symptoms, at the bones/connective tissue level, and at the organs/organ systems level. Reflexology, craniosacral therapy, lymph drainage, reiki, and auricular therapy/ear reflexology are ideal as gentle and effective therapies, and they all have techniques to affect organ function as well. Supporting all of the body's functions helps to reduce uncomfortable symptoms, and will reflect in all aspects of life!
Jennifer Johnson, Director/Instructor Atlantic School of Reflexology
For more on choosing the right therapy, see my blog “Autoimmune Diseases and Holistic Bodywork: How to Find the Right Kind of Therapy”
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