10 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.
There’s a name for this: autoimmune disease, and it can affect nearly every organ in the human body—the nervous, endocrine, and gastrointestinal systems, along with connective tissue, skin, blood, and blood vessels. Multiple sclerosis, Rheumatoid Arthritis and Alopecia are just a few autoimmune diseases, and they can be hard to pinpoint. Most patients see an average of four doctors over three years before receiving a correct diagnosis, according to American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association.
Yet it’s not uncommon: Kim Kardashian West has it, Selena Gomez has it and more than 50 million Americans (of whom more than 75% of them are women!) live with it—often undiagnosed—for years. To discover more about the many forms of autoimmune disease, don’t miss our 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.
Recommendation: 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.
Recommendation: 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.
Recommendation: 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!
Recommendation: 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.
Recommendation: 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.
Recommendation: 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.
Recommendation: 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–here are 15 Diet Tips for those with this condition.
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.
Recommendation: 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.
Recommendation: 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) have 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.
Recommendation: The trick here is to make your gluten-free life as scrumptious as possible. Here is an amazing recipe resource so that you’ve always got delicious on speed dial.