Autoimmune Disease: When Your Immune System Goes Haywire
While many people are familiar with the term autoimmune disease, many don't have a clear understanding of what that means. Perhaps much of the mystery and confusion behind diseases such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and thyroiditis lies in the fact that the biological basis and the symptoms that accompany such debilitating illnesses may not be linked to a specific infection. Rather, autoimmune disorders occur when our very own immune system—a complex system to begin with—begins to attack our body.
Given that many different kinds of proteins and molecules comprise our immune system, it is often a challenge to understand how and why a crossed signal or miscommunication can lead to an autoimmune disease. Yet given the complexity of a healthy and properly functioning immune system, it is not so difficult to see why autoimmune diseases are so prevalent in our population.
There are many different scientific hypotheses to explain the cause of autoimmunity; among these include viral infection, bacterial infection, stress and genetic susceptibility.
Infection, whether viral or bacterial, is especially regarded as a culprit as it has been found to precede the onset of an autoimmune disease in many confirmed diagnoses.
Viruses and bacteria gain access into our bodies in the first place by devising methods to avoid detection. Normally our immune system reacts by recognizing antigens (foreign substances that reside on the surface of bacteria and viruses) and then creating antibodies (special proteins designed to destroy the foreign invaders). Yet our immune system is sometimes tricked into triggering an immune response that instead attacks our own organs and tissues, as well as the pathogens that cause infection.
Our Immune System: The Basics
To better understand how these situations in which the "body attacks itself" can lead to an autoimmune disease, it helps to know some of the basics of immunology, such as the various organs, the cells they produce, and the roles these cells play in protecting us from illness.
Immunology basics include:
Bone marrow: The location within our bones where immune cells are derived.
Thymus: A flat, pinkish-gray gland, located in the upper chest in front of the heart, where T-cells pass through and mature.
Lymphatic system: Made up of lymph fluid, lymphatic vessels, bone marrow, lymph nodes, spleen and tonsils, the lymphatic system is critical in the elimination of toxic waste from tissues.
T-cells: Considered the "warriors of the immune system," these cells mature in the thymus enabling each individual T-cell to recognize only one of millions of antigens. T-cells then migrate into the lymphatic system and circulate in the blood.
B-cells: Immune cells that are produced in the bone marrow and then secrete antibodies.
When discussing autoimmune diseases, the role played by T-cells is of great importance. As Lorna Vanderhaeghe and Dr. Patrick Bouic explain in their book The Immune System Cure, T-cells are taught to recognize the difference between invading cells ("nonself") and our own cells ("self"). Normally, the immune system attacks only substances and infections that are thought of as foreigners, such as invaders from outside the body, or cancer cells made within the body; however, sometimes the immune system may be confused and attack healthy body cells. (Click to be re-directed to the full article by Connections)
Some Known Autoimmune Diseases
Autoimmune Disease Affected area
Rheumatoid arthritis Cartilage and joint linings
Multiple sclerosis Brain and spinal cord
Systemic lupus erythematosus Most tissues, DNA, platelets
Graves' disease Thyroid
Hashimoto's thyroiditis Thyroid
Myasthenia gravis Nerves and muscles
Crohn's disease Gut
Insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus Pancreatic beta-cells
Juvenile diabetes Cells that secrete insulin
Autoimmune hemolytic anemia Red blood cell membranes
Ankylosing spondylitis Spine
Perhaps much of the mystery and confusion behind diseases such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and thyroiditis lies in the fact that the biological basis and the symptoms that accompany such debilitating illnesses may not be linked to a specific infection.