20 Ways Your Body May Be Attacking Itself
Inside your veins right now, there's an army of white blood cells seeking and destroying viruses and bacteria—consider them the Armed Forces in your arm… and leg, and heart, and brain. They keep you healthy in winter. They fight against cancer. They are your friend and ally—until they aren't.
Because sometimes, this army can turn against you. Sometimes, these antibodies —instead of fighting bacteria—sneakily and skillfully attack your body, using all their know-how to destroy you from within.
To discover more about the many forms of autoimmune disease, don't miss this special report—allowing you to identify the symptoms fast, so you can fight back.
Even famous people can be misdiagnosed when it comes to multiple sclerosis or MS—that's what happened to Selma Blair, who had symptoms for years before finally being given a diagnosis in August of 2018. So what is MS? It's a rare and potentially disabling disease of the brain and nervous system that affects mostly women of Northern European descent. Most people with MS are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, with at least two to three times more women than men getting it, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Like many autoimmune diseases, signs and symptoms of MS vary widely—depending on the amount of nerve damage and which nerves are affected, and often include problems with vision, balance, muscle control, and other bodily functions. While those severe MS may lose the ability to walk independently or at all, others may have milder symptoms, or experience long periods of remission without any new issues.
The Rx: Many who have MS are able to live long and happy lives, with the proper support. Early warning signs to watch out for include tingling and numbness, pains and spasms, balance problems, dizziness and bladder issues.
Rheumatoid arthritis, or RA, affects more than 1.3 million Americans—and more than 75% of RA patients are women, according to the American College of Rheumatology. While the disease most often strikes between the ages of 30 and 50, it can start at any age. RA is characterized by joint pain, stiffness, and inflammation—usually at its worst in the morning. The hands, wrists, and feet are most commonly affected—and those with RA describe tender, warm, swollen joints that can sometimes appear red when inflamed. While this is primarily a joint disease, rheumatoid arthritis can also affect your organs, such as your lungs, skin, eyes, and heart.
The Rx: Advancements in physiotherapy and medication have helped make this disease more manageable. Pay particular attention to symmetry: it's common for those affected by RA to experience symptoms in the same joints on both sides of the body.
Known as the disease of a thousand faces, due to its complex nature, lupus is a serious disease most often diagnosed in young women between the ages of 15 and 44. According to the Lupus Foundation of America, this disease is often called "the great imitator" because its symptoms are often the same as those of rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, Lyme disease, diabetes, and several heart, lung, muscle, and bone diseases.
Symptoms include inflammation, swelling, and damage to skin, joints, kidneys, blood, heart, and lungs—and 16,000 new cases are reported each year in the United States. Diagnosing lupus can be very challenging. Here's why: there isn't a single definitive test that can give doctors a clear "yes" or "no" answer. And sometimes, it can take months—and often years—before a diagnosis is made.
The Rx: The most distinctive sign of lupus—a facial rash that resembles the wings of a butterfly unfolding across the bridge of the nose and both cheeks—occurs in many, but not all, cases of lupus. If you see this pattern, call your doctor.
Dry, cracked skin that sometimes bleeds? Red scaly patches that itch? Thick pitted or ridged nails? Itching, burning, soreness? Psoriasis may be the culprit—a common skin condition that causes cells to build up rapidly on the surface of the skin, which forms itchy scales and red patches that can be painful. Psoriasis is a chronic condition that comes and goes. There's no cure—but symptoms can be managed, particularly with lifestyle changes like managing stress and yes—moisturizing, a lot. But one of the first known therapies—according to the JAMA Dermatology, found in an ancient Egyptian medical text dating to circa 1550 BC known as the Ebers papyrus—is almost certainly the strangest… A concoction of sea salt, onions, and—wait for it—urine. Good thing that we've made some progress towards less pungent treatments since 1550 BC!
The Rx: While there's no cure for psoriasis, symptoms can be managed, particularly with lifestyle changes like managing stress, quitting smoking and moisturizing. And there are other remedies that can calm the inflammation and irritation, like turmeric or fish oil. Looking for inspiration? Check out these 21 Winning Turmeric Recipes.
Sometimes things get hyper, which is exactly what happens with Graves' disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes hyperthyroidism—or overactive thyroid. With Graves' your immune system attacks your thyroid gland, causing it to produce more thyroid hormone than you need. Your thyroid is a little, butterfly-shaped gland located in the front of your neck—the hormones it produces control quite a number of different body processes, and symptoms can be wide-ranging, including bulging eyes, enlargement of the thyroid gland (also known as a goiter), weight loss despite normal eating, heart palpitations, fine tremors in fingers or hands, an increase in perspiration or warm, clammy skin, frequent bowel movements and more.
Graves' disease is seven to eight times more common in women than in men according to the NIH— typically affecting people between the ages of 30 to 50, though it can develop at any age. Serious problems with the heart, muscles, bones—and for women, with infertility and irregular menstrual cycles—if Graves' (and hyperthyroidism in general) is left untreated.
The Rx: There are a number of treatments available for Graves' disease. Most are aimed at inhibiting the overproduction of thyroid hormones while others focus on symptom reduction.
Hashimoto's thyroiditis can be a stealthy disease. You may not notice symptoms at first, as it typically progresses quite slowly over a number of years, causing chronic thyroid damage that leads to a drop in overall thyroid levels in your blood. According to the American Thyroid Association, Hashimoto's disease is the leading cause of hypothyroidism—underactive thyroid—in the United States. In fact—it's the most common thyroid disorder, affecting 14 million people in the United States alone!
Here's what happens with Hashimoto's disease: your immune system mistakenly attacks your thyroid gland, which is part of your hormone or endocrine system. And when your thyroid comes under attack from malfunctioning immune cells, it impairs the ability to produce thyroid hormone, which helps regulate many of your bodily functions. When this happens many internal systems can go awry. Classic symptoms include fatigue or a sense of sluggishness, unexplained weight gain, joint pain and stiffness, brittle nails, hair loss, constipation, increased sensitivity to cold, among others. And just in case you were wondering, Hashimoto's thyroiditis is named after the Japanese surgeon who discovered it in 1912.
The Rx: Treatment is very effective for Hashimoto's thyroiditis. Depending on levels of thyroid hormone in the blood, doctors may simply observe. For those with overt hypothyroidism, synthetic levothyroxine taken orally works very well. Getting the right dose may take some finessing, our advice: find a doctor with whom you'd want to collaborate.
Type 1 Diabetes
Your body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose, which it uses for energy. With type 1 diabetes, your body produces little or no insulin, the hormone needed to move glucose (or blood sugar) from the bloodstream into the cells of your body to produce energy.
Type 1 diabetes doesn't discriminate. It can occur at any age, in people of all races, shapes, and sizes. According to the NIH, type 1 diabetes accounts for about 10% of all cases of diabetes–occurring most frequently among people of European descent, affecting 2 million people in North America and Europe. There is a remarkable geographic variance in incidence of type 1—according to the NIH, a child in Finland is about 400 times more likely than a child in Venezuela to acquire the disease. Pretty astonishing, right? Researchers do not know exactly what causes type 1 diabetes—but believe that a combination of genetic and environmental factors are to blame.
The Rx: The good news is that type 1 diabetes can be successfully treated via insulin therapy and other treatments, allowing those with the condition to live long, healthy lives. Regular exercise and a healthy diet are key to living well with type 1.
Vitiligo is a skin disorder in which pigment-free patches of skin appear on the body. It occurs when melanocytes—the cells responsible for skin pigment—are destroyed. While the cause of vitiligo is unknown, scientists believe it may be an autoimmune disease, where the body's immune system attacks the pigment-producing cells.
Winnie Harlow is the first model with vitiligo to ever walk in the vaunted Victoria's Secret fashion show. Living with a skin disorder like vitiligo can be difficult, but Harlow has shown that it does not need to hold you back from living your best life.
The Rx: Vitamin B12, folic acid, and sun exposure may be a viable treatment for vitiligo, according to the results of a two-year study done at University Hospital in Sweden. Researchers found that more than half of the study participants experienced repigmentation when on a cocktail of vitamin B12, folic acid, and sun exposure. And in 64% of those in study, the spread of vitiligo was halted! Living with a skin disorder like vitiligo can be difficult, but Harlow has shown that it does not need to hold you back from living your best life.
Experiencing hair loss on your scalp or face? It may be due to alopecia areata, a common autoimmune disease affecting as many as 6.8 million Americans alone, according to the National Alopecia Foundation. With this disorder, the body's immune system attacks healthy hair follicles, causing them to become smaller to the point that they drastically slow down production to where hair growth stops.
Alopecia does not discriminate—affecting males and females of all ages and ethnicities. Scientists believe that both nature and nurture are at play when it comes to this disease. In fact, identical twins, who share all the same genes, only have a 55% of both developing alopecia—highlighting the interplay between genetic predisposition and environmental factors.
The Rx: Struggling with a recent diagnosis of alopecia areata? Please know that you're not alone. Becoming part of a community can really help, find a local support group meeting at naaf.org.
Someone in your immediate family (parent, child, sibling) has celiac disease? There's a 1 in 10 chance of your developing it according to the Celiac Disease Foundation. A serious autoimmune disease, the hallmark of celiac disease is the inability to process gluten normally. When a person with celiac consumes gluten—a protein found in wheat, rye, barley—their body mounts an immune response that attacks the small intestine. Repeated attacks lead to damage of the small fingerlike projections that line the small intestine, known as villi, which are crucial for proper nutrient absorption.
Celiac disease can be tricky to diagnose as it affects people differently. In fact, some who have the disorder have no symptoms at all, despite testing positive for the disease. One thing is certain though—if left untreated, celiac disease can lead to serious health problems. Today, there is only one treatment for celiac disease: a lifelong adherence to a strict gluten-free diet. This means no bread, pasta, pancakes, beer, and some other food items like soy sauce.
The Rx: The trick here is to make your gluten-free life as scrumptious as possible.
Guillain-Barré syndrome, also referred to as GBS, is a rare neurological disorder affecting one person in 100,000 each year. What happens is, the body's immune system mistakenly attacks part of its peripheral nervous system—the network of nerves located outside of the brain and spinal cord.
Some cases of GBS are very mild, characterized by brief weakness. Other more extreme cases can result in nearly devastating paralysis—sometimes resulting in a person being unable to breathe independently.
Fortunately, most people eventually recover from even the most severe cases of GBS. However, post recovery, some people will continue to experience a degree of weakness.
Guillain-Barré syndrome doesn't discriminate. It can strike anyone regardless of gender at any age. However, it is more frequent in adults and older people, explains the NIH.
The Rx: There is no known cure for GBS. However, there are therapies—including plasma exchange and Immunoglobulin therapy—that can reduce the severity of symptoms as well as shorten recovery time.
Crohn's disease is a type of irritable bowel disease characterized by inflammation in the digestive tract. It can lead to abdominal pain, severe diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss, and malnutrition, according to the Mayo Clinic. Symptoms can range from mild to severe, with some experiencing debilitating pain.
According to the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America, it is quite common, with approximately 1.6 million Americans diagnosed with it.
The Rx: While there is no cure for Crohn's, treatments are focused on decreasing inflammation in the intestines, which can help control flare-ups. Some people are prescribed anti-inflammatory drugs, immunosuppressants, or antibiotics, while others may find relief with over-the-counter medications or dietary changes.
Sjögren syndrome—a disorder that can be characterized by dry eyes and a dry mouth—rarely occurs on its own. In fact, it regularly accompanies other autoimmune diseases, including lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. How it works, is that the mucous membranes and moisture-secreting glands of your eyes and mouth are usually attacked first—hence the decreased tears and saliva—explains the Mayo Clinic.
When it comes to gender, this disorder definitely discriminates—nine out of 10 of the 4 million Americans who suffer from it are women. Most of those who are diagnosed are also over the age of 40.
The Rx: Treatment for Sjogren's syndrome will depend on what parts of the body are impacted. For example, some people will use over-the-counter eye drops to treat dry eyes or simply focus on hydration methods. Increasing humidity in the home via a humidifier can also help.
Vasculitis is a condition defined by inflammation of the blood vessels that occurs when the body's immune system accidentally attacks the blood vessel. While the cause is unknown, it can happen as a result of an infection, a medicine, or another disease, per the NIH. It is extremely rare, with a worldwide reported annual incidence ranging from 1.2 to 2.0 cases per 100,000 individuals.
Vasculitis can lead to serious problems—including organ damage and aneurysms. This is due to the fact that inflammation in the blood vessels can affect arteries, which carry blood from the heart to the body's organs, veins, the vessels that carry black back to the heart, and capillaries, the tiny blood vessels connecting the small arteries and veins.
Symptoms can include fever, swelling, weight loss, fatigue, pain, rash, and a general sense of feeling ill.
The Rx: Treatment for vasculitis varies, depending on the type of vasculitis you have, the organs that are affected, and the severity of your condition. The ultimate goal of treatment is to reduce inflammation. For those with mild vasculitis, over-the-counter pain medicines may be helpful. However, for severe cases, prescription medications — including anti-inflammatories and Corticosteroids may be prescribed.
If you are experiencing the paradox of being unable to sleep despite being exhausted paired with "brain fog" and widespread achiness and pain for more than three months, you may have fibromyalgia. "Fibromyalgia is another example of an immune system which goes on overdrive and then gets exhausted," explains Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, author of the best-selling From Fatigued to Fantastic!.
Fibromyalgia can attack many parts of your body, including key brain chemicals such as acetylcholine (the memory molecule), along with the thyroid and adrenal glands.
The Rx: According to Dr. Teitelbaum, many doctors are poorly trained in this condition, partially due to its "overwhelming mix of symptoms"—which can include widespread musculoskeletal pain accompanied by fatigue, sleep, memory and mood issues per the Mayo Clinic—that they don't recognize.
However, once diagnosed, treatments usually include medications—ranging from pain relievers to antidepressants—to physical or occupational therapies.
Dr. Teitelbaum points out that even simple things can be dramatically beneficial. "Two studies showed that supplementing with an energy molecule called ribose increased energy an average of 61%," he explains, adding that hemp oil has been very helpful for improving sleep and pain.
Polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR) is an inflammatory disorder that causes widespread aching, stiffness and flu-like symptoms, according to the Arthritis Foundation. While the cause of PMR is unclear, it is believed to be the result of the body's immune system attacking healthy tissues. Genetic and environmental factors—including infections—may play an important role.
Women are more likely to get it than men, as are Caucasians compared to other races. Age is also a factor, as it is rarely seen in anyone under 50 and often developed by age 70. Because of this, it may be somehow linked to the aging process.
The Rx: While there is no cure for PMR, it usually lasts from one to five years. Treatment is focused on relieving symptoms such as stiffness, achiness, fatigue, and fever, and reducing pain and inflammation. Anti-inflammatory medication, such as prednisone, and physical therapy are common treatments.
According to the Mayo Clinic, Meniere's disease is a disorder of the inner ear leading to dizzy spells (aka vertigo) as well as hearing loss. In most cases, Meniere's disease affects only one ear. Oddly, about one-third of cases appear to be a result of an autoimmune origin—however the exact way in which the body attacks itself is not clear. The others seem to be related to improper fluid drainage, or a viral infection. While Meniere's disease can occur at any age, it usually develops between young and middle-aged adulthood.
The Rx: While there is no cure and it is considered a chronic condition, there are treatments to treat vertigo spells as well as hearing complications due to it. They can include middle ear injections, a hearing aid, or various surgeries. Your medical expert might also recommend dietary changes, such as limiting salt, caffeine, alcohol and tobacco.
Autoimmune Addison's Disease
In Autoimmune Addison's disease, the adrenal glands—the small hormone-producing glands located on top of each kidney—are attacked as a result of a malfunctioning immune system. Because of this attack, hormone production is disrupted, negatively impacting many of the body's systems. Autoimmune Addison disease is very rare, with an incidence rate of 11 to 14 in 100,000 people of European descent.
There are extensive symptoms of the condition, according to the NIH. Extreme tiredness (fatigue), nausea, decreased appetite, and weight loss are all common. Many affected individuals will also experience low blood pressure (hypotension), resulting in dizziness when standing up quickly, muscle cramps, and a craving for salty foods. Hyperpigmentation can also occur, especially in regions that experience a lot of friction, such as the armpits, elbows, knuckles, and palm creases. Darkness of the lips and inside lining of the mouth are also possible. As for women, the imbalance of hormones may result in the loss of underarm or pubic hair.
Autoimmune Addison disease can lead to adrenal crisis—a life threatening condition defined by vomiting, abdominal pain, back or leg cramps, and severe hypotension leading to shock. This condition is often triggered by a stressor, such as surgery, trauma, or infection.
The Rx: Per the Mayo Clinic, treatment for Addison's disease focuses on medication. Hormone replacement therapy can help correct the level of hormones your body isn't producing. Oral cortisones are also used. As for dietary modifications, consuming sodium is recommended.
Systemic sclerosis (SSc) or scleroderma skin disease results, in part, from an abnormal wound healing response, explains Monique Hinchcliff, MD, a Yale Medicine rheumatologist who specializes in scleroderma. "Normally large amounts of new collagen in the skin is only produced in response to injury: you cut yourself and your skin repairs the wound with collagen and other proteins," she explains. However, for unclear reasons, patients with scleroderma develop too much collagen in skin and that excess tissue impairs the function of other skin components like nerves and skin pigment cells. The result can be painful and itchy skin and darker skin like you have been out in the sun.
Luckily, scleroderma is treatable and that the prognosis in many patients is quite good. "There is a misconception out there that there are no effective treatments for the various aspects of scleroderma. While it is true that we do not know the cure at present, there are many effective treatments for scleroderma that can help patients be able to pursue the activities they enjoy," explains Dr. Hinchcliff.
The Rx: At present, when someone is diagnosed with scleroderma, a coordinated team care approach works best where patients have access to expert clinicians who can address the many potential symptoms of the disease. "It is through these clinics that patients can participate in clinical studies to permit testing and discovery of new treatments," says Dr. Hinchcliff.
Myasthenia gravis (MG) translates—from Greek and Latin—to "grave, or serious, muscle weakness." According to the NIH, it is a chronic autoimmune neuromuscular disease that results in weakened skeletal muscles — those that are responsible for breathing and moving parts of the body, including the arms and legs. Like other autoimmune disorders, this happens because the immune system mistakenly attacks itself.
There are specific muscles that are generally impacted by the condition, including those that control eye and eyelid movement, facial expression, chewing, talking, and swallowing. Also, muscle weakness typically worsens after activity and improves after rest.
While it impacts both genders and all ethnicities, young adult women (under 40) and older men (over 60), are more prone to being diagnosed.
The Rx: While there is no known cure, there are treatments—including surgeries and medications, to control symptoms for those who suffer from myasthenia gravis.
As for yourself: To get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these Things You Should Never Do During the Coronavirus Pandemic.