When it comes to major health concerns, many of us worry about getting cancer or heart disease. But you may be surprised to learn that autoimmune diseases are far more common than either of these conditions. Approximately 50 million Americans, 20% of the population or one in five people, suffer from autoimmune diseases.
Autoimmunity is a result of a misdirected immune system that causes one's own immune system to attack itself. Women are more likely than men to be affected. Some estimates say that 75 percent of those affected are women.
There are over 100 autoimmune diseases but surveys have found that only 13% of us can name one. It’s not that we haven’t heard of diseases like diabetes, Crohn’s disease, or multiple sclerosis. It’s the fact that they share a common thread, autoimmunity, that is not well known.
Therein lies the goal of Autoimmune Awareness Month: to bring a national focus to autoimmunity as the common factor in all autoimmune diseases in order to bring a collaborative effort to research, funding, early detection, and eventually, prevention and cure for all autoimmune diseases.
To that end, we are sharing important information about autoimmune disorders and how you can get involved in an Autoimmune Walk to raise awareness and funds for research.
Types of Autoimmunity
Autoimmune disorders are frequently classified into organ-specific disorders and non-organ-specific disorders:
In organ-specific disorders, the autoimmune process is directed mostly against one organ. Examples, with the organ affected, include Hashimoto's thyroiditis (thyroid gland), pernicious anemia (stomach), Addison's disease (adrenal glands), and type 1 diabetes (pancreas).
In non-organ-specific disorders, autoimmune activity is widely spread throughout the body. Examples include rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE or lupus), and dermatomyositis.
What Causes Autoimmunity?
It is believed that autoimmune disorders consist of two components: one is genetic and the other is an environmental trigger. Therefore, if you have a family history of autoimmune disorders, you may be predisposed for an autoimmunity disorder but may not develop one unless it is set-off by a trigger.
Common triggers include: chemicals, drugs, foods, bacteria, viruses, toxins, stress, hormones, diet, and weight gain.
Some autoimmune disorders and their triggers are well established. For example celiac disease—an autoimmune affliction of the small intestine—is triggered by exposure to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. For other immune disorders, there are many “suspect” triggers--or worse--they are unknown.
Diagnosing many autoimmune diseases can be challenging as symptoms can be vague, attributable to other causes or not easily diagnosed with blood tests, imaging, and other standard tests. Clinicians who aren’t familiar with these illnesses can find them perplexing. It’s not uncommon for some autoimmune disorders to exist for years until the condition becomes acute and vital organs have been damaged. Once a diagnosis is established, treatments involve eliminating known triggers, dampening the immune response and, in some cases, hormone replacement.
Linking Together for a Cure
You can help raise awareness of autoimmune disorders by participating in one of the Autoimmune Walks organized by the American Autoimmune Related Disease Association (AARDA). “Virtual Walks” will also allow anyone anywhere to participate in this campaign. Funds raised through the walks will be used by AARDA to support critical research funding aimed at solving the underlying immune issues that link all autoimmune disorders. Learn more about the Autoimmune Walks here.
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