Our immune system contains cells that are part of us, and they evolved to protect us. They generally do a good job of this, as witnessed by our survival in a sea of viruses, microbes, and parasites.
However, just like our police force, occasionally the protective function goes awry and damage is done to our own body, in the protective act. For many years I was a practicing allergist, and observed this protective function misfiring. In allergic rhinitis and allergic asthma, tiny harmless particles in the air are interpreted by the body as a threat. The TH2 immune system, initially evolved to fight parasites, is activated, and causes considerable disease and misery.
Some of the antigenic determinants on the surface of the pollen, animal dander or dust particles are interpreted as being dangerous by the immune system, which causes chronic inflammation with acute allergy attacks.
Autoimmunity is a similar misreading, in which our own cells are deemed dangerous. In this case the immune agency is the more powerful Th-1 system, which often causes crippling or even fatal results.
Millions of people are sickened by an immune system that is supposed to defend them.
An article in the September 2021 issue of the Scientific American lists 76 of these disorders, and classifies them as to frequency, patient gender and age of onset. It is worth reviewing, at least for the listing on page 32 and 33.
Auto immunity must be considered as a possible cause in any illness that is not easily diagnosed, common, and well known to your doctor. Many patients have to be their own advocates, and persist in trying to get themselves diagnosed.
Celiac disease, Lupus, and Addison’s disease come to mind as tricky customers. Although “autoimmune disease” in toto is common, many of the individual diseases occur in less than one in 1000 patients, and are not high on the diagnostic list of most doctors.
The skin, nervous system, endocrine system, and digestive system are the most common areas involved. Recent advances in blood and antibody testing offers to give needed diagnostic help to the medical profession. These illnesses must be detected early to avoid functional loss in the tissues and organs affected.
Treatments are improving. In the past, immune suppressing cancer drugs and cortisone were the main drugs available. With increasing knowledge of the mechanisms of the separate diseases, treatment can be directed towards the specific causative antibody, receptor, or interleukin involved, hopefully with less side effects than the shotgun drugs previously available.
As with medicine in general, these modern treatments are excessively expensive as a rule, because much money and research went into their development. Prevention is obviously preferable. A healthy diet, with its attendant healthy microbiome comes to mind, as well as the avoidance of cigarette smoking and environmental toxins.
Proper sleep, exercise, and stress relief should also be helpful.