Understanding Autoimmune Diseases

Man holding his aching knee joint in pain.

What is an Autoimmune Disease?

An autoimmune disease is any condition in which your immune system mistakenly attacks your own body. This happens when the immune system is unable to differentiate foreign cells with your own healthy cells, and tries to fight off your own healthy cells as if they were harmful. 1 There are many autoimmune diseases that each have their own set of symptoms, but the initial symptoms of any autoimmune condition can be similar.

Common Autoimmune Symptoms

  • Muscle aches
  • Redness & swelling
  • Skin rashes
  • Hair loss
  • Fatigue
  • Mild fever
  • Numbness in hands and/or feet

Who Gets Autoimmune Diseases?

Doctors do not know exactly what causes autoimmune diseases, but some run in families, suggesting a genetic predisposition. Diet and environment may also impact whether or not an autoimmune condition expresses itself in one’s lifetime. 2 3 Additionally, women are more likely to have autoimmune issues than men and comprise approximately 75% of cases in the US. 4 

What are Common Examples of Autoimmune Diseases?

The following are some of the most common autoimmune diseases. There are many different types of autoimmune conditions and this list is by no means comprehensive.

Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)

Rheumatoid arthritis occurs when the immune system attacks the joints, resulting in achy, red and stiff joints. 5 RA is more common in younger people than other types of arthritis. 

Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is a result of the destruction of pancreatic beta-cells by the immune system, which hinders the body’s ability to produce insulin. When the pancreas cannot produce enough insulin, blood sugar levels are not able to be maintained in a healthy range. Long term, elevated blood sugar damages blood vessels and organs. 6 

Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that is triggered by gluten, and causes the immune system to inflame the small intestine, resulting in abdominal pain, diarrhea, and other digestive issues. People with Celiac disease do not have symptoms if they avoid gluten, which is found in wheat flour, other grain products and is often an additive in processed foods. 7 

Multiple Sclerosis (MS)

MS is characterized by the immune system damaging the protective coating around nerve cells in the body, which means that it is more difficult for your body to send messages from your brain and spinal cord to other parts of the body, resulting in damage to the central nervous system. Common symptoms of MS include weakness and numbness in the body which can impact the ability to walk. MS can progress to additional neurological symptoms. 8 

Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)

Inflammatory bowel diseases, including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, cause the immune system to attack the gastrointestinal tract, resulting in inflammation of the intestinal wall. People with IBD experience severe abdominal pain and other digestive issues. 9 

Naturopathic Medicine & Autoimmune Diseases

Many people experiencing autoimmune conditions find it useful to see a naturopathic doctor (ND). An ND will work with patients suffering from autoimmune diseases in the following ways:

  • Conduct a full assessment including lifestyle, environmental factors and genetic predisposition
  • Provide a multimodal treatment approach including preventive care, diet, lifestyle, herbs/supplements, acupuncture, mind-body medicine and other therapies
  • Work as part of the health care team – that may include specialists and other integrative practitioners


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