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What do you do when your body turns against you?

Autoimmune diseases are some of the most poorly understood disorders in the medical field. But they can also be the most deadly: They are among the top 10 killers of women under age 65 and the fourth-leading cause of disability in females in the U.S.

But what causes these mysterious diseases?

Normally, your immune system defends your body against outside invaders such as viruses and bacteria. When germs enter your body, your immune system’s cells go into attack mode to destroy these harmful organisms. In an autoimmune response, however, your body becomes confused and attacks its own healthy tissues and cells as if they were foreign invaders.

More than 75 percent of autoimmune disease sufferers are female and most of them are of childbearing age.

The culprits

More than 80 diseases are classified as autoimmune. Some of the more common are:

  • Hashimoto’s disease. The most common cause of underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism), Hashimoto’s is an autoimmune disorder in which the gland is slowly destroyed by the body’s immune system. It can cause weight gain, fatigue, mental confusion and goiter (a swelling of the neck caused by an enlarged thyroid gland). Usually thyroid hormone replacement therapy is prescribed to offset these symptoms.
  • Graves’ disease. Graves’ disease is the leading cause of overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism) in young women. In this disorder, the immune system tells the thyroid gland to produce excess thyroid hormone. Too much thyroid hormone can result in weight loss, increased appetite, a jump in heart rate and blood pressure, excessive sweating and nervousness. Your doctor may opt to destroy part or all of the thyroid gland with radioactive iodine. If so, prescribed thyroid medicine will have to be taken indefinitely.
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS). Multiple sclerosis is a debilitating disease of the central nervous system. Immune cells attack the fatty tissue that covers the nerves, which interrupts nerve signals. This can lead to weakness, numbness, vision and memory problems and extreme fatigue. Treatment involves drugs that try to halt the body’s attack. Such drugs can slow down the progression of the disease, but there is no cure.
  • Lupus. A disease that can attack many organs, lupus triggers an immune response in the joints, tendons and other connective tissue. For some patients, lupus’ effects are slight. But for others, lupus can affect the skin, kidneys, joints, lungs, heart, nervous system, blood and other body organs. The many symptoms include weight loss, fever, hair loss, mouth and nose sores, malaise, fatigue, seizures, joint inflammation and a facial rash. Exposure to sunlight aggravates the condition. Treatment: Anti-inflammatory drugs and oral steroids are taken, as well as topical corticosteroid creams for skin symptoms.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is an incurable disease in which a person’s immune system attacks its own joints. This causes inflammation in the lining of the joints and sometimes other organs. The symptoms include pain, stiffness, warmth, redness and swelling of the joints. Pain relievers like NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) and the COX-2 inhibitor celecoxib are used to treat symptoms.
  • Psoriasis. One of the more common autoimmune disorders of the skin is psoriasis. Itchy, dry patches, red bumps and scales can occur on any part of the skin, including the scalp. Psoriasis varies in severity, with some patients having only mild symptoms and others having very severe patches that cover large parts of the body. Topical medicines like cortisone and special shampoos for the scalp are often prescribed.
  • Diabetes (type 1). Type 1 diabetes, also known as juvenile diabetes, is caused by the destruction of the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. Insulin regulates blood sugar, and when the immune cells attack the pancreas, your body’s blood-sugar regulation system goes haywire. Untreated, diabetes can cause blindness, foot problems that can lead to amputation, heart disease and death. Insulin shots, as well as dietary and lifestyle changes, are usually required.
  • Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. These disorders, known collectively as inflammatory bowel disease, affect the digestive tract lining. They can cause bloating, diarrhea and abdominal cramping. Aminosalicylates (like sulfasalazine) and corticosteroids can help inflammation, but sometimes surgery that removes the inflamed tissue may be required.

Still a mystery

Some experts believe that certain disorders such as chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia and endometriosis have autoimmune components. And having one disorder increases your risk of acquiring others. Because sometimes the cause of these disorders is not clear, sufferers may experience a loss of hope. However, take heart by knowing that you are your best advocate for accurate diagnosis and treatment of your autoimmune disease by making your symptoms—and concerns—known to your doctor.

What else can I do?

If you are diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, there are things you can do to help ease your suffering:

  • Lose weight. Losing weight will lessen the stress on joints and keep blood sugar levels steady.
  • Get your ZZZs. Too little sleep taxes the immune system.
  • Exercise. Moderate exercise 30 minutes a day can lead to improvements in your condition.
  • Eliminate stress. Stress increases cortisol production, and prolonged elevated cortisol levels can wreak havoc on the immune system.
  • Stop smoking. Smoking can exacerbate autoimmune disorders.
  • Drink eight. Eight glasses of water a day is optimal for a healthy immune system.
  • Seek out support. Joining a support group will help you to know that your symptoms are not “all in your head.”
  • Be positive. An upbeat attitude is especially important since evidence suggests a mind-body connection in these disorders.