What You Need to Know About Autoimmune Disease
Autoimmune Disease and Women
The immune system plays an essential role in keeping people healthy. It helps to fight off bacteria, viruses and other foreign substances that could make a person sick. When it's working as it should, the immune system detects antigens on foreign substances, such as proteins found in viruses or bacteria.
After detecting the antigens, the system develops a way to fight the invader. If it's the first time that the body has encountered a particular germ, such as a new virus or different strain of bacteria, the immune system needs to develop a way to fight the germ. It will then store that information in case a person is exposed to the germ in the future1.
In some cases, the immune system can get confused. In addition to detecting and fighting foreign invaders, it sometimes fights the body's own cells. When that occurs, a person can develop an autoimmune disease. More than 80 types of autoimmune disease exist2 and they are more likely to occur in women than in men. Learn more about autoimmune disease, what your risk level might be, and what you can do to manage it.
What Is Autoimmune Disease?
A person can develop an autoimmune disease when their immune system begins attacking part of the body. The immune system produces antibodies that go after the body's own cells. As a result of the attack, an organ can become damaged or stop functioning the way it should, body tissue can be destroyed or damaged, or organs can develop growths.
More than 23 million people have at least one autoimmune disease3. The types of diseases range from very rare to fairly common. In some cases, diagnosing an autoimmune disease can be tricky, as the symptoms of many often seem similar to other health concerns, such as high stress levels.
What Are the Most Common Types of Autoimmune Disease?
Some autoimmune diseases are more common than others. Some affect women more frequently than men. A few types of autoimmune disease that often affect women include:
- Grave's disease. Grave's disease causes hyperthyroidism, meaning the body ends up producing more thyroid hormone than necessary. When a person has Grave's disease, an antibody stimulates the thyroid gland, leading to overproduction of the hormone.
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). IBD refers to a group of medical conditions, such as Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, that cause inflammation in the digestive system. In addition to digestive issues, IBD can cause reproductive issues in women, such as more painful periods or difficulty getting pregnant.
- Lupus. When a person has lupus, the immune system can damage the organs, skin or joints. A common sign of lupus is the formation of a butterfly-shaped rash over the nose and cheeks.
- Multiple sclerosis (MS). MS causes the immune system to attack the coating around the nerve, leading to damage to the spinal cord and brain. Symptoms of MS include difficulty walking or with balance, numbness in the arms and feet, and tremors.
- Psoriasis. When someone has psoriasis, the skin cells grow quickly and shed quickly. The condition often leads to the formation of scaly patches on the skin.
- Rheumatoid arthritis. Several types of arthritis exist. When the condition is linked to an immune response, it's known as rheumatoid arthritis.
Why Do Autoimmune Diseases Affect Women More Than Men?
Although a look at the numbers makes it easy to see that autoimmune diseases occur more often in women than in men, it's not easy to explain why that is the case. One potential cause for the higher prevalence of autoimmune disease in women is hormones, particularly estrogen, which women have more of.
Women are also more likely to experience hormone fluctuations throughout their lives, such as during pregnancy or menopause, which could play a role in triggering an autoimmune disease.
How Do You Manage an Autoimmune Disease?
Management of an autoimmune disease depends in large part on the type of disease you're diagnosed with. Medications to treat the diseases usually do at least one of the following:
● Suppress the immune system
● Replace the substances or hormones the body no longer makes on its own
● Ease symptoms
You might find that combining medications with lifestyle changes, such as exercising more or changing your diet, can help keep your symptoms in check. Learning what triggers your symptoms, such as stress, and avoiding those triggers, can also help you minimize flares and live more comfortably.
If you're concerned about autoimmune disease or are experiencing symptoms you think might be due to one, the first thing to do is talk to your family doctor. They can order lab tests or refer you to a specialist to help you figure out what's going on with your body and immune system.
1. How does the immune system work?, National Center for Biotechnology Information, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279364/
2. Autoimmune Diseases, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, https://www.niaid.nih.gov/diseases-conditions/autoimmune-diseases
3. Autoimmune Diseases, Office on Women's Health, https://www.womenshealth.gov/a-z-topics/autoimmune-diseases