Anxiety, weight loss, inflammation, weight gain, insomnia, pain and fatigue – these are some of the symptoms of autoimmune disorders.
An autoimmune disorder is the result of the body's immune system attacking and destroying its own healthy tissue. This occurs when the body’s natural defense system can not differentiate between your own cells and foreign bodies. This causes the body to mistakenly attack normal, healthy cells.
Now, you may be saying, “But I’ve experienced similar symptoms before.
Do I have an autoimmune disorder?”
Maybe you do.
Though autoimmune disorders are believed to be somewhat rare, there are about 80 different autoimmune disorders and according to the National Institutes of Health estimates approximately 23.5 million people may be affected by them in the United States alone. That is around 8% of the population!
Because autoimmune disorders and diseases present themselves in such a wide variety of ways, they are often hard to diagnose. But that doesn’t mean that people living with these disorders feel their symptoms any less.
These disorders and diseases are also hard to diagnose because there is no one singular test that health care providers can use to diagnose them. The antinuclear antibody immunofluorescence assay (or ANA IFA for short) is the gold standard for beginning the process of testing and diagnosing.
According to the American College of Rheumatology, the IFA ANA test is the gold standard because of its high sensitivity compared to other assays or diagnostic tests. However, not every person with a disorder will test 100% positive. And even if an ANA yields positive results, more extensive testing is conducted to receive a proper diagnosis.
On average, it takes 4.5 years to receive a proper diagnosis according to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA). Usually during that period of time, patients have visited several doctors and had to deal with the repercussions of flare ups that present themselves in different ways among different patients with the same disease.
And, since autoimmune diseases can affect multiple organs and systems, symptoms can be misleading and confusing. This can lead to some commonly held misbeliefs. Here are 3 of the most common.
While autoimmune disorders have a complex genetic basis and multiple genes contribute to disease risk, your genetic makeup is not the only factor in developing an autoimmune disease.
True, healthy people do not develop autoimmune diseases overnight. But those with a genetic disposition or poor nutrition or the presence of infections can develop these diseases quickly if placed in the wrong environment.
While most people understand that factors such as stress can aggravate health problems, they do not know that having a genetic predisposition for disorders can also cause stress. This can start a vicious cycle of flare ups and other repercussions.
Other common physical factors include environmental toxic overload (ie, chemicals, highways, airports, carpet, etc), infection, diet, exercise, sleep, drinking alcohol and smoking. Anything that can suppress the immune system can lead to the development of autoimmune disorders if you already have a genetic disposition.
While the root cause of autoimmune disorders is still unknown, these diseases can be managed by addressing the triggers in your mental and physical environment.
As we’ve already established, this is not true. But this also means that people with the same diseases will not have the same outcome.
Just because you may believe that a sickness works in one particular way and that certain things will affect everyone does not mean that that is the reality of the situation. Each person’s experience dealing with their own diagnoses and symptoms are valid. Just because a person doesn’t appear to be ill does not mean that they aren’t.
Many believe that having an autoimmune disorder will lead to a poor quality of life, but that is also not true. Such a large percentage of the population is affected by autoimmune disorders and you likely know someone with an autoimmune disorder as well as special accomodations are now made to those in work and classroom settings with autoimmune disorders.
Each individual dealing with a disease or disorder may develop harsher comorbidities, or none at all. They may seem fine one day and very sick the next. Individuals respond differently to the different challenges of their illness. The same is true for many chronic illnesses, be they autoimmune related or not.
Because every patient of these disorders may present different symptoms, treatment for each person must be individualized. For some, treatment of their disease may include the prescription of immunosuppressive medication.
Immunosuppressants reduce your body’s ability to fight off what it views as foreign invaders. In the case of autoimmune disorders, these drugs can help prevent your body from attacking its own healthy tissues.
However, immunosuppressants cut both ways. They may help prevent your immune system from attacking your body, but they may also prevent your immune system from fighting off sicknesses and diseases that it would normally dispose of.
This means you are more likely to become seriously ill from things like the common cold, influenza and even pneumonia.
For this reason, many diagnosed people may choose to seek treatments in more holistic ways that address inflammation. Some may find that disorders can be managed by addressing sleep hygiene, mental care, and physical care. These holistic approaches can be aided with nutritional supplements, hormone therapy, diet and exercise.
Many people approach their disorders with both traditional and holistic treatments. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that 54.9% of individuals in the United States used holistic approaches in conjunction with conventional medicine.
If alternative treatments are used in tandem with conventional treatments, the majority of medical doctors find most forms of holistic medicine acceptable. Many even find their diseases manageable without having to use harsh immunosuppressive drugs.
Overall, there are many misconceptions about autoimmune disorders, where they originate from and how to deal with them.
Helping and supporting those dealing with autoimmune diseases means listening, being empathetic and non-judgmental and becoming educated. Each person dealing with a disease or disorder will have different preferences of what works for them. Listen and help people take things day by day in order to become a support system and to better understand them as an individual and not a diagnosis.