Your body is made of billions of cells, and each one of those cells has a tag, or marker, that identifies it as part of you. Your immune system protects your body by seeking out and destroying any cells that don’t have the “you” marker. These cells could include:
- Dust; and,
- Cells from other organisms, like blood, skin grafts, or organ transplants.
Your immune system will also destroy your own cells if they mutate and the “you” marker is corrupt, which means your immune system plays a vital role in preventing cancers from forming.
However, because your immune system has the ability to attack your own sick and mutilated cells, it can sometimes become overzealous and attack healthy, non-mutated cells. This phenomenon is called autoimmunity, and it can lead to a host of diseases and disorders.
There are more than 80 known types of autoimmune diseases, and some resources put the number at well over 100. Because your immune system can affect any cell in your body, autoimmunity can also affect any cell, resulting in diseases and disorders in every part of your body.
Some autoimmune diseases, like type I diabetes, are highly common and well known; others are quite rare. One thing that all of these diseases have in common is that they tend to occur an average of three times more frequently in women than in men; and in some cases the ration of women to men is as high as 10:1.
Diagnosing and Treating Autoimmune Diseases
Autoimmunity is often difficult to diagnose and treat because the symptoms can mimic so many other diseases. Also, there is not one branch of medicine that specializes in autoimmunity.
If a patient presents with vision impairment and headache, her doctor might believe that she has some kind of neurological disorder, like a pituitary tumor. However, there is also an autoimmune disease, called autoimmune hypophysitis, that has the exact same symptoms as a pituitary tumor and it’s sometimes difficult to differentiate between a pituitary tumor, and pituitary swelling on a brain scan.
Treating it like a pituitary tumor might relieve her symptoms, but it won’t correct the underlying autoimmunity, which means the antibodies could attack the pituitary again. Based on her scans the patient’s doctor could refer her to a group like the Skull Base Institute, which specializes in the treatment of pituitary tumors.
However, because there is no actually autoimmune specialty, or autoimmune specialist to treat the patient, the pituitary specialist could be the only option for any kind of treatment. Even in cases where the autoimmune disease is fairly common, patients still run into the same issue. The autoimmune disease Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis is the most common type of hypothyroidism in the United States. It affects approximately ten times as many women than men, and patients often exhibit the symptoms of hypothyroidism, even when their thyroid test results usually come back normal.
As a result, patients get diagnosed with, and treated for, a variety of other illnesses and it takes patients an average of four and a half years, and as many as five different doctors to finally get a diagnosis. Even when they get a diagnosis, the treatment doesn’t address the underlying autoimmunity, but it’s the only treatment option available.
Autoimmunity affects several different organ systems, and many of the symptoms vary depending on what’s affected. However, because it involves the immune system, there are some symptoms that almost all women with autoimmunity tend to experience. Familiarizing yourself with those symptoms can help you determine if you should talk to your doctor. If you have any of the common autoimmune symptoms and other symptoms, you should enter the symptoms into an online symptom checker to see if they match up to any known autoimmune diseases.
You should also pay close attention to your family medical history. Autoimmunity tends to run in families. If a close relative had an autoimmune disease, such as lupus, then you are more likely to develop one yourself.
Once you have gathered all of your information, you should approach your doctor with your findings. If the autoimmune disease has an antibody test, you should request that the doctor run that test. Don’t just rely on standard medical testing because they may not detect the problem.
Finally, familiarize yourself with the current treatment protocols for your illness, as well as any alternatives. Because there is no treatment specifically for the autoimmunity, both you and your doctor will be learning how to treat your illness.