When Your Body Attacks: The Important Facts About Autoimmune Diseases
Our bodies, by incredible biological design, have the amazing ability to protect against destructive microorganisms like bacteria, viruses, infections, and disease. It is the body’s immune system that is responsible for getting rid of these foreign substances and building protection against further harm.
This process is known as the “immune response.” Sometimes this naturally occurring process can backfire, causing the immune system to mistakenly attack itself and lead to inflammation, cellular damage, and autoimmune disorders. So what exactly causes the body to attack itself, and what can you do to help prevent it from happening to you?
A Growing Concern
Autoimmune diseases include a family of about 100 known conditions where the body’s immune system attacks its own connective tissues, organs, and systems. It’s an alarming yet little well-known fact that an estimated 23.5 million Americans suffer from autoimmune disorders, and some data suggest the number affected is closer to 50 million. Even more surprisingly, about 75% or more sufferers are women. That means one in nine women is afflicted by autoimmune disease, making it more prevalent than heart disease or breast cancer.
There’s no clear consensus on why autoimmune diseases like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis occur more frequently in women. Some clinical scientists suspect estrogen may be the culprit, causing a woman’s immune system to produce more antibodies and increasing the likelihood that her body will turn on itself. Despite the uncertainty underlying the connection between autoimmune disorders and women, one fact remains distinctly clear: the average American woman is eight times more likely to have autoimmune disease than breast cancer.
Although the rates of autoimmune disorders have doubled in the past three decades and continue to rise, most people can’t name even one autoimmune disease.. Moreover, many autoimmune diseases share similar symptoms, making it difficult for doctors to determine if you have one of these diseases, and exactly which one of the more than 100 it might be. Sadly, most patients afflicted with an autoimmune disorder visit several different doctors over a long period of time before getting a correct diagnosis. Therefore, as patients it is imperative that we learn the risks, causes, and symptoms of common autoimmune diseases.
Common Autoimmune Disease & Symptoms
Addison’s Disease: A disorder where the body produces insufficient amounts hormones produced by the adrenal glands.
- - Muscle weakness and fatigue
- - Weight loss and decreased appetite
- - Darkening of the skin (hyperpigmentation)
- - Low blood pressure, even fainting
- - Salt craving
- - Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)
- - Nausea, diarrhea, or vomiting
- - Muscle or joint pains
- - Irritability
- - Depression
Lupus: A chronic inflammatory disease that occurs when the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues and organs. Inflammation caused by lupus can affect many different body systems, including joints, skin, kidneys, blood cells, heart, and lungs.
- - Fatigue
- - Fever
- - Weight loss or gain
- - Joint pain, stiffness, and swelling
- - Butterfly-shaped rash (malar rash) on the face that covers the cheeks and bridge of the nose
- - Skin lesions that appear or worsen with sun exposure
- - Mouth sores
- - Hair loss (alopecia)
- - Fingers and toes that turn white or blue when exposed to cold or during stressful periods (Raynaud’s phenomenon)
- - Shortness of breath
- - Chest pain
- - Dry eyes
- - Easy bruising
- - Anxiety, depression
- - Memory loss
Sjogren’s Syndrome: A disorder of the immune system often defined by its two most common symptoms—dry eyes and a dry mouth. It often accompanies other autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
- - Dry eyes
- - Dry mouth
- - Dental cavities
- - Fatigue
- - Enlarged parotid glands — one particular set of salivary glands, located behind the jaw and in front of ears
- - Difficulty swallowing or chewing
- - Change in sense of taste
- - Hoarseness
- - Oral yeast infections, such as candidiasis
- - Skin rashes or dry skin
- - Vaginal dryness
- - Dry cough that doesn’t produce sputum
- - Joint pain, swelling, stiffness
Rheumatoid Arthritis: An inflammatory form of arthritis that causes joint pain and damage by attacking the lining of joints and causing swelling that can result in aching and throbbing and eventually deformity.
- - Stiffness, pain, loss of mobility, inflammation, and erosion (deterioration) in the joints
- - Fatigue, fever, the development of nodules under the skin, especially at the elbows
- - A sense of not feeling well (malaise)
Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis: The immune system inappropriately attacks the thyroid gland, causing damage to the thyroid cells and inflammation, which results in an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism). It is the most common cause of hypothyroidism.
- - Increased sensitivity to cold
- - Constipation
- - Pale, dry skin
- - A puffy face
- - Hoarse voice
- - An elevated blood cholesterol level
- - Unexplained weight gain — occurring infrequently and rarely more than 10 to 20 pounds, most of which is fluid
- - Muscle aches, tenderness and stiffness, especially in shoulders and hips
- - Pain and stiffness in joints and swelling in knees or the small joints in hands and feet
- - Muscle weakness, especially in lower extremities
- - Excessive or prolonged menstrual bleeding (menorrhagia)
- - Depression
Graves’ Disease: Occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks the thyroid gland and causes it to overproduce the hormone thyroxine. It is the most common form of hyperthyroidism.
- - Anxiety, irritability, difficulty sleeping
- - Fatigue
- - A rapid or irregular heartbeat
- - A fine tremor of your hands or fingers
- - An increase in perspiration
- - Sensitivity to heat
- - Weight loss, despite normal food intake
- - Brittle hair
- - Enlargement of your thyroid gland (goiter)
- - Light menstrual periods
- - Frequent bowel movements
Type 1 Diabetes: A chronic condition in which the pancreas produces little or no insulin, a hormone needed to convert sugar (glucose) into energy.
- - Increased thirst and frequent urination
- - Extreme hunger that may persist after eating
- - Weight loss
- - Fatigue
- - Blurred vision
Scleroderma: A progressive disease that leads to hardening and tightening of the skin and connective tissues of the body. It usually starts with a few dry patches of skin on the hands or face that begin getting thicker and harder. These patches then spread to other areas of the skin.
- - Thickening and hardening of skin
- - Numbness, pain, or color changes in fingers, toes, cheeks, nose, and ears, often brought on by cold or emotional distress (Raynaud’s phenomenon)
- - Stiffness or pain in joints and curling of fingers
- - Digestive problems ranging from poor absorption of nutrients to delayed movement of food due to impaired muscular activity in the intestine
- - Sores over joints, such as elbows and knuckles
- - Puffy hands and feet, particularly in the morning
Multiple Sclerosis: A chronic, potentially debilitating disease that affects the central nervous system, which is made up of the brain and spinal cord.
- - Numbness or weakness in one or more limbs, which typically occurs on one side of the body at a time or the bottom half of the body
- - Partial or complete loss of vision, usually in one eye at a time, often with pain during eye movement
- - Double vision or blurring of vision
- - Tingling or pain in parts of the body
- - Electric-shock sensations that occur with certain head movements
- - Tremor, lack of coordination, or unsteady gait
- - Fatigue
- - Dizziness
Crohn’s Disease: A type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) in which the lining of the digestive tract becomes inflamed, causing severe diarrhea and abdominal pain.
- - Diarrhea
- - Abdominal pain and cramping
- - Blood in stool
- - Ulcers
- - Reduced appetite and weight loss
- - Fistula or abscess
Celiac Disease: A digestive condition triggered by consumption of the protein gluten, which is found in bread, pasta, cookies, pizza crust, and many other foods containing wheat, barley, or rye. When a person with celiac disease eats foods containing gluten, an immune reaction occurs in the small intestine, resulting in damage to the surface of the small intestine and an inability to absorb certain nutrients from food.
- - Weight loss
- - Diarrhea
- - Abdominal cramps, gas, and bloating
- - Upset stomach
- - Joint pain
- - General weakness
- - Foul-smelling or grayish stools that may be fatty or oily
- - Stunted growth (in children)
- - Depression
- - Osteoporosis
Cushing’s Syndrome: A condition that occurs when the body is exposed to high levels of the hormone cortisol for a long time. The most common cause is the use of oral corticosteroid medication. The condition can also occur when the body makes too much cortisol.
- - Weight gain, particularly around midsection and upper back
- - Fatigue
- - Muscle weakness
- - Rounding of the face (moon face)
- - Facial flushing
- - Fatty pad or hump between shoulders (buffalo hump)
- - Pink or purple stretch marks (striae) on the skin of abdomen, thighs, breasts, and arms
- - Thin and fragile skin that bruises easily
- - Slow healing of cuts, insect bites, and infections
- - Depression, anxiety, and irritability
- - Loss of emotional control
- - Thicker or more visible body and facial hair (hirsutism)
- - Acne
- - Irregular or absent menstrual periods in females
- - Decreased libido
- - Erectile dysfunction in males
- - New or worsened high blood pressure
- - Glucose intolerance that may lead to diabetes
- - Headache
- - Bone loss, leading to fractures over time
What Causes Autoimmune Diseases?
The exact cause of autoimmune disorders is not known, but clinical and epidemiologic evidence implicate genetics and environment as the two primary factors. These diseases tend to run in families, with close relatives more likely to develop a related—but not necessarily the same—autoimmune disease. While one family member may have rheumatoid arthritis or Type 1 diabetes, another may have Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (hypothyroidism ), or lupus. That’s why it is so important to educate ourselves on the symptoms of some common autoimmune diseases.
Although your genes determine whether or not you’re predispositioned for developing an autoimmune disorder, something has to trigger your immune system to attack your own body. More and more clinical research points to environmental factors including stress, toxins and chemicals such as cleaners and pesticides, viruses, medications, and poor diet. As with any other health issue, lack of exercise, sleep deprivation, alcohol, and tobacco abuse all can weaken your immune system and flip the internal switch that triggers an unhealthy autoimmune response.
The Stress Effect
We’ve all heard that stress can be very damaging to our health, yet we continue to engage in stressful behaviors like overworking, ingesting toxic chemicals, and not getting enough sleep. Stress is cumulative and affects us over time, so it is easy to kid ourselves and believe we can keep living with stress without any health repercussions.
Stress accounts for 75% to 90% of all primary care doctor visits in the US, and almost all disease is either caused by or aggravated by stress. In fact, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis are two autoimmune diseases known to be directly related to stress. The bottom line is: If you experience constantly elevated cortisol levels caused by chronic stress, or a single intensely stressful situation, you are compromising your immune system and significantly increasing your risk of autoimmune disease.
While we can’t often avoid significantly stressful events like losing a job, having a death in the family, or any other catastrophic event, we can try and avoid the common causes of stress like working too much, not getting enough sleep, not exercising or taking care of your body, and “running on empty” without adequate rest and relaxation.
Every day new research studies report the link between food and autoimmune conditions.
There is growing clinical evidence to support the belief that certain foods trigger the body to attack its own tissues. Researchers believe that one of the possible causes of autoimmune aliments is certain foods that are new to humanity (grain products, dairy products, lentils , beans and yeasted foods) which have only appeared in the past 40,000 years. Meats nuts, vegetables and fruits have been eaten for over 2 million years. Therefore, returning to a diet that is made of meats, nuts and produce may remove on of the main offending causes behind autoimmune problems.
In addition, there are many health hazards associated with dangerous fats and refined carbohydrates found in processed foods. Processed foods lack the essential vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and phytonutrients needed to promote and support healthy cellular function. For example, enriched white bread has 24 nutrients taken out during the bleaching process, and only four are added back in—along with thyroid-suppressing chemicals like bromate. Whole wheat products naturally contain 24 nutrients, as well as fiber, and are free of harmful chemicals.
Doctors and scientists agree that diets with high amounts of processed food are contributing to the growing autoimmune epidemic. For example, several recent studies show that immigrants from South Asian countries who move to Western countries and start eating processed foods have an increased incidence of autoimmune diseases such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
Whole foods, which are those foods as close to the natural state as possible, add essential vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients to your diet. Dr. Harper recommends a balanced diet of optimal protein choices like chicken, lean beef, and fish combined with nuts and fruits and vegetables for those suffering from autoimmune conditions.
Boost Your Immune System
How can you boost your immune system and lower your risk for autoimmune disease? The answer is surprisingly simple: take care of yourself and incorporate healthy habits into your daily routine:
- - Manage stress (yoga, guided imagery, exercise, art, music, etc.—whatever works for you!).
- - Get eight or more hours of uninterrupted sleep per night.
- - Remove toxic chemicals like caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, artificial sweeteners, and sugar from your diet.
- - Eliminate or minimize processed foods.
- - Eat a balanced diet of optimal protein, healthy fats, fruits and vegetable, nuts and seeds, avocadoes and olives in small meals and snacks every 3-4 hours.
- - Avoid environmental toxins such as cleaners, pesticides, and chemicals.
- - Build in downtime and fun activities to your routine.
- - Exercise.
Dr. Harper draws on her extensive clinical experience to design aggressive and personalized preventive care programs for individuals wanting to treat or prevent autoimmune conditions and achieve optimal health.
A Sweet by Any Other Name
The average American eats about 130 pounds of sugar each year, which adds up to 25% of total calories per day or 40 teaspoons. And the more sugar we eat, the more we want. It’s bad enough that excessive sugar causes us to pack on extra pounds, but now many researchers blame sugar as a causative factor in a wide range of degenerative diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Because sugar comes in many different varieties, it’s important to learn to recognize some of its disguises by name.
- - Sucrose
- - Dextrose
- - Fructose
- - High fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
- - Maltose
- - Lactose
- - Honey
- - Maple syrup
- - Sucanat
- - Cane sugar
- - Barley malt
- - Concentrated fruit juice
- - Rice syrup
- - Molasses
- - Invert sugar
- - Tapioca
- - Corn sweeteners
- - Maltodextrin
Is Your Skin Stressed Out?
Sooner or later, life’s daily stressors will show up on your skin. Whether it’s wrinkles or whiteheads, freckles or frown lines, age spots or acne, your skin is sure to tell all! To help reverse the signs of stress and get your skin back in sumptuous shape, our Laser and Skin Care Clinic offers a comprehensive range of aesthetic services:
Initial Skin Care Consultation: All first-time clients receive a complimentary consultation to assess your specific skin care needs and goals.
Customized Facial Treatments: Our aesthetician uses a combination pure enzymes and natural exfoliating acids to help minimize age spots, freckles, acne scarring, sun damage, fine lines, and wrinkles to create firmer, younger-looking skin.
Anti-Aging Treatment: A program of customized treatments is the foundation for age-defying skin care. We apply nourishing and replenishing ingredients to help take away the signs of aging and leave you with a fresh look. We recommend these treatments in a series for maximum effectiveness.
Petite Treatment: Perfect for people on the go, this treatment is designed to give you all the benefits of our customized facial in half the time.
Acne Treatment: Our acne program is designed to normalize and balance troubled complexions by reducing excess oil, clearing superficial blemishes, reducing inflammation, exfoliating dead skin, and killing off acne-causing bacteria. The result is an improvement in the health and appearance of the skin.
Teen Treatment: Learning to take care of your skin is especially important during the teen years. With this service, our aestheticians not only treat the client’s skin to help normalize and balance complexion, but they also teach the client how to maintain healthy skin for a lifetime.
Gentlemen’s Treatment: This treatment unclogs pores, prevents ingrown hair, and helps revive sun-damaged or neglected skin. During this treatment, the skin is cleansed, and a series of hot towels prepare the skin for rejuvenating enzymes and restorative acids that exfoliate and rejuvenate the skin.
Décolleté Treatment: A treatment specially designed to renew the health and appearance of the delicate area between your face and chest.
Back Treatment: A unique deep-cleansing back treatment that uses steam and exfoliation to clear up problem areas and leave you with fresh, glowing skin on your beautiful back. Extractions are performed on problem areas and a customized mask and moisturizing body oil is applied to hydrate the skin and round out the experience.
Hand Treatment: Roll back time with this specially designed treatment to make your hands hide your age. This restorative treatment includes cleansing and exfoliation, followed by a hydrating masque and warm paraffin wrap.
Eye Treatment: This delicate moisturizing treatment hydrates the skin around the eyes and helps reduce puffiness and discoloration to give you rested, refreshed look.
Vibradermabrasion: This quick and painless procedure exfoliates the skin and infuses healing and rejuvenating nutrients deep into your skin’s dermal layers, leaving you with a fresh and healthy glow. By stimulating the underlying epidermis, this procedure helps stimulate circulation and boost your skin’s natural collagen production, which thickens the dermis and reduces the signs of aging.
Epidermal Planing: This treatment effectively removes a layer of dead skin cells while removing fine facial hair without the harsh effects of waxing. It helps increase the absorption of active products, increase firmness and elasticity, and minimize fine lines and wrinkles.
Chemical Peel: This treatment uses a chemical solution to improve and smooth the texture of the skin by removing its damaged outer layers. This treatment is especially helpful for reducing fine lines and wrinkles, improving the appearance of mild scarring, and reducing age spots, freckles, and dark patches.
Did You Know?
You may be able to revitalize your immune system with the amazing benefits of broccoli. New scientific evidence reveals a phytonutrient in broccoli called sulforaphane may rejuvenate the immune system and help stave off common diseases of aging such as cardiovascular disease, degenerative joint disease, and diabetes.
The sulforaphane found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli has been previously linked to lower rates of cancer, but in a recent UCLA study, scientists discovered that the special phytonutrient activates antioxidant pathways at the cellular level. When injected into the immune cells in the skin of old mice, the sulforaphane turned on a set of antioxidant genes and enzymnes to fight off free radicals. The immune responsiveness of the old mice equaled that of the young mice, leading the scientists to conclude that broccoli may protect the immune system from some ailments of aging. To give your immune system a boost, be sure to beef up your cruciferous consumption with veggies like cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli.
Ruthie Harper, MD
Dr. Harper founded Ruthie Harper MD, her internationally recognized practice in Austin, Texas, in 1999. Since that time, she has consulted with more than 10,000 patients and offers the latest services and techniques in health and wellness in the medical division of her practice, as well as non-surgical rejuvenation and skincare in the cosmetic portion of her practice. Her ongoing success serving the health and beauty industries is based primarily on her innovative integration of research, nutritional science, advanced functional testing, and advanced aesthetics.