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What is an autoimmune disorder?

Male in wheelchair playing basketball with female, both have happy expressions.
Your guide to autoimmune disorders. Explore causes, signs, and complications of disorders of the immune system, including Crohn's and rheumatoid arthritis.
Autoimmune disorders occur when the immune system, designed to protect you from external threats, behaves unusually. Instead of safeguarding your body, it misidentifies your own cells and tissues as foreign cells, attacking them and causing a range of complex symptoms.1

With 1 in 10 people in the UK currently living with an autoimmune disease, they are more common than you might think.2

Autoimmune disorders are as diverse as the people who experience them. From rheumatoid arthritis, which targets the joints, to lupus, which can affect multiple organs, each autoimmune disorder presents unique challenges.3

Common types of Autoimmune disorders & Symptoms

There are over eighty different autoimmune disorders but here are some of the most common:4

Multiple sclerosis


Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic autoimmune disorder that primarily affects the central nervous system, including the brain and spinal cord. In MS, the immune system mistakenly attacks the protective covering of nerve fibres called myelin, leading to inflammation, damage, and scarring of the affected areas.5

Common MS symptoms include:6
  • Fatigue 
  • Muscle weakness 
  • Difficulty with coordination and balance 
  • Numbness or tingling 
  • Problems with vision (such as blurred vision or loss of vision) 
  • Mobility issues 
  • Muscle spasms 
  • Difficulties with speech and swallowing

Type 1 diabetes


Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder where the immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Your body’s insulin-producing cells no longer work so glucose builds up in your bloodstream.

Type 1 diabetes typically develops early in life and requires lifelong insulin replacement therapy to regulate blood sugar. Although type 1 diabetes most commonly presents itself in children, the condition can develop at any age.8

People with type 1 diabetes must constantly monitor their blood sugar levels, adjust insulin doses, and maintain a careful balance between diet, physical activity, and insulin intake.9

Symptoms associated with type 1 diabetes include:10
  • Increased thirst 
  • Daytime fatigue 
  • Frequent urination 
  • Unexplained weight loss 
  • Genital itching

Rheumatoid arthritis


Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disorder that primarily targets the joints, causing inflammation and pain. It arises when the immune system mistakenly attacks the lining of the membranes that surround the joints.11

This condition is the second most common form of arthritis in the UK. This chronic condition can affect people of all ages and genders, though it's more common in women.12

RA typically leads to joint stiffness, swelling, and deformities, often starting in the small joints of the hands and feet and progressing to larger joints.13

Coeliac disease


Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disorder triggered by the consumption of gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. More than 1 in 100 people have this condition and are unable to eat anything containing gluten.14

When individuals with celiac disease ingest gluten, their immune system reacts by damaging the lining of the small intestine.15  This damage impairs nutrient absorption, leading to various symptoms and potential long-term complications.

Common symptoms include:16
  • Gastrointestinal discomfort 
  • Diarrhoea 
  • Iron, vitamin B12 or folic acid deficiency 
  • Weight loss 
  • Fatigue 
  • Skin rashes 
Handpicked content: The link between coeliac disease & osteoporosis

Crohn’s disease


Crohn's disease is a chronic autoimmune disorder that primarily affects the digestive tract, causing inflammation and damage to the lining of the gastrointestinal system.17

This condition can occur at any age but is often diagnosed in young adults. Crohn's disease leads to a range of gastrointestinal symptoms, including:18
  • Abdominal pain 
  • Diarrhoea 
  • Weight loss 
  • Fatigue 
Handpicked contentUK gut health report

Lupus


Lupus, or systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), is a chronic autoimmune disease that can affect various parts of the body, including the skin, joints, kidneys, heart, and more.19

This complex condition arises when the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue in skin, organs, joints and more! It is widespread and thus causes an array of symptoms, such as:20
  • Joint pain 
  • Skin rashes 
  • Fatigue 
Handpicked content: The expert guide to understanding immunity

What causes autoimmune conditions?

Autoimmune disorders are complex conditions with no single, definitive cause. They are believed to result from a combination of genetic, environmental, and immunological factors.21

Having certain genes can make us more likely to get these conditions, but it's not a guarantee.22  Things like infections, what we eat, and hormonal changes can trigger autoimmune reactions in people with these genes.23

Some conditions are more common in certain genders or age groups.24  While there is evidence to suggest that stress can worsen symptoms, no research has been able to establish stress as a direct cause of autoimmune diseases.25

Additionally, research into the causes and risk factors for autoimmune diseases is ongoing, and our understanding of these complex conditions continues to evolve. While the exact cause of autoimmune disorders may not always be clear, early diagnosis and effective management can help individuals lead fulfilling lives despite these conditions.26

Getting help with autoimmune disorders

There is currently no ‘cure’ for autoimmune conditions, but your doctor will be able to recommend various treatments that might elevate your symptoms once you’ve been diagnosed.

The treatment of autoimmune diseases depends on the specific condition, its severity, and the individual's unique needs.

There is medication available for some types of autoimmune disorders, making small changes to your diet and exercising more could help, or you may need to consider physiotherapy, acupuncture or hormone replacement therapy instead.27
Here are some common approaches to managing autoimmune diseases:

Medications:
Various medications are used to manage autoimmune diseases, including: 
  • Immunosuppressants: These drugs suppress the immune system to reduce the immune response against the body's own tissues. 
  • Biologics: These are medications that target specific components of the immune system to reduce inflammation. They are commonly used for conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease, and psoriasis. 
  • Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs): NSAIDs can help manage pain and inflammation in conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. Common examples are aspirin and ibuprofen. 
  • Other immune-modulating drugs: These drugs aim to regulate and balance the immune system, helping to control the autoimmune response.

Diet: The Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) diet

AIP is a specialised dietary approach designed to help individuals with autoimmune diseases manage their symptoms and reduce inflammation. The diet looks to cut foods that may trigger or worsen autoimmune responses while focusing on nutrient-dense options.32
Elimination Phase: During the initial phase, individuals remove potentially ‘inflammatory’ foods, including grains, legumes, dairy, processed foods, eggs, nightshade vegetables (like tomatoes and peppers), nuts, seeds, and certain spices. This phase aims to identify specific triggers.33 
Emphasis on Nutrient-Rich Foods: The AIP diet promotes the consumption of nutrient-dense foods like vegetables (except nightshades), fruits, lean meats, fatty fish, organ meats, and bone broth. These foods provide essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to support the immune system and overall health.34
Prioritising gut health: The diet prioritises gut health, as there is an observed link between the gut and autoimmune diseases. Fermented foods (like sauerkraut and kombucha) and bone broth can help support a healthy gut microbiome.35
Inclusion of healthy fats: ‘good’ fats from sources like avocado, coconut oil, and olive oil are encouraged for their anti-inflammatory properties.36
Limiting sweeteners: Added sugars are restricted, and natural sweeteners like honey and maple syrup are used sparingly.33
Avoiding Nightshades: Nightshade vegetables, including white potatoes, tomatoes and chillies, which contain compounds that some people with autoimmune conditions are sensitive to, are typically avoided during the elimination phase.32 
Reintroduction Phase: After a period of strict elimination and symptom improvement, some foods can gradually be reintroduced one at a time to identify specific triggers.33

It's important to note that the AIP diet is highly restrictive and can be challenging to follow. The AIP diet is not a cure for autoimmune diseases, but it has anecdotally helped manage symptoms and improve the quality of life for some individuals by helping to identify potential dietary triggers.32

Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation:

Physical therapy and occupational therapy can be valuable for improving mobility, managing pain, and enhancing daily functioning.37

Many autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, cause joint pain and stiffness. Physical therapists can design exercise programs that target specific joints, muscles, and tissues to reduce pain and increase mobility.38 

Physical therapists can also supply exercises and stretches tailored to the individual's needs to improve joint function and flexibility. This helps individuals regain or keep their ability to perform daily activities.39

Fatigue is a common symptom in autoimmune diseases. Physical therapists can teach energy conservation techniques and pacing strategies to help individuals manage fatigue and support a more active lifestyle.40

These therapies aim to improve function, reduce pain, enhance quality of life, and empower individuals to better manage their condition and its associated challenges.

The final say...

  • Autoimmune disorders occur when the immune system mistakenly attacks the body's own cells and tissues, affecting about 1 in 10 people in the UK.2 
  • These conditions and their symptoms vary widely so the treatment of autoimmune conditions will depend on an individual’s unique needs. 
  • Physical therapy and rehabilitation are valuable for improving mobility, managing pain, and dealing with fatigue, helping individuals better cope with autoimmune diseases. 
  • While there is no cure, various treatments, including medications, dietary changes like the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) diet, and physical therapy, can help manage symptoms and improve the quality of life for those with autoimmune diseases.32

Disclaimer

The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP or healthcare professional before trying any supplements, treatments or remedies. Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle. Before taking any supplements or minerals, it’s best to make sure you’re getting all the nutrients through your diet first.
 

Sources

1. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0029646518300409?via%3Dihub
 
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