What is an Autoimmune Disease? • Holtorf Medical Group
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What is an Autoimmune Disease?

What is an Autoimmune Disease?

Autoimmune dysfunction is the source of many impactful conditions that are notoriously difficult to identify and treat. Sadly, many are not aware of or do not understand the incredible impact that autoimmune dysfunction has on individual wellness.

There is a significant lack of understanding regarding identification and treatment of autoimmune disease in both the general public and medical community. Because of this, patients suffering from an autoimmune disease often do not seek the aid they need and if they do, they may not receive effective treatment. To resolve this issue, it is important to be familiar with function of the immune system and the basic characteristics of autoimmune disease.

How Does the Immune System Work?

The immune system is one of the primary defenders against dangerous foreign substances such as germs, bacteria, allergens, and viruses. When functioning correctly, the immune system identifies harmful agents and releases fighter cells to eliminate them. If the immune system does not recognize the attackers a response will not be triggered, thereby allowing the foreign substances to enter the body and cause potentially serious damage.

Learn even more about your immune system here.

A Picture of Autoimmune Dysfunction

Autoimmune disorders involve the misidentification of healthy cells such as tissue, as a threat to the body. When the immune system incorrectly targets these elements, it releases proteins called autoantibodies to attack and eliminate the perceived threat. If left unchecked, this can result long-lasting or irreparable damage and disruption of important systems.

The assault of autoantibodies on healthy cells and tissues also prompts significant inflammation. This contributes to the development of other conditions and worsening of symptoms. Symptoms of autoimmune disease typically start slow and non-specific. However, as the condition progresses, symptom intensity can become severe and debilitating. In some cases, a patient with an autoimmune condition may not notice symptoms for years and only recognize them after the condition has become well established and difficult to treat.

Symptoms of Autoimmune Disease

There are over 100 known autoimmune disorders, each of which affect the body in unique ways. Even though some symptoms can be indicative of specific autoimmune disorder, there are far more symptoms shared between conditions. Because of this, it can be exceptionally difficult to identify specific disorders. Diagnosis is made increasingly difficult due to the fact that it is common for multiple autoimmune conditions to be present at the same time. The overlapping or conflicting symptoms caused by such situations can make diagnosis exceptionally challenging.

Some of the most common symptoms of autoimmune disorder include:

  • Changes in mood
  • Chronic low-grade fever
  • Depression
  • Difficulty remembering or thinking clearly
  • Dryness in the eyes or mouth
  • Hair loss
  • Increased occurrence of infection and difficulty recovering from infection
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Long-lasting fatigue and extreme fatigue
  • Numbness in the hands or feet
  • Pain in muscles and joints
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sudden or unexpected changes in weight
  • Unexplainable rashes
  • Weakness

Am I At Risk for Autoimmune Disease?

Despite relatively little being known about autoimmune disorders, a large percentage of the population is affected by them. According to the American Autoimmune Related Disease Association (AARDA) an estimated 50 million Americans have some form of autoimmune disease.

There are some markers such as gender, race, and genetics that may inform an individual’s risk for developing an autoimmune disease in the future. Additionally, there is a clear association between patients with a preexisting autoimmune condition and greater risk of future autoimmune dysfunction.

Common Cases of Autoimmune Disease

Autoimmune dysfunction may be more prevalent than people think. There are several common conditions that many may not know are actually related to autoimmune dysfunction. Type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, and rheumatoid arthritis are just a few of the exceptionally common autoimmune disorders.

Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 Diabetes causes the immune system to incorrectly target the pancreas. The pancreas is responsible for producing insulin, which regulates blood sugar and helps glucose enter cells to be used as energy. When the pancreas is damaged, insulin levels decline resulting in an increase of circulating blood glucose and slowed cellular activity. Maintaining elevated blood glucose can cause damage to many areas including the heart, eyes, kidneys, nerves, gums, and teeth. Type 1 Diabetes is most often seen among children and young adults but may occur later in life as well.

Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes the immune system to aggressively attack the intestine when gluten is present. Gluten is a protein most commonly found in wheat, rye, and barley. In addition to grains, gluten may be present in certain products such as vitamins, supplements, medications, and lip balms. For this reason, those with celiac disease must be particularly vigilant regarding what foods they eat and the products they use.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis causes the immune system to attack various joints resulting in pain, swelling, stiffness, and loss of function. The effects of rheumatoid arthritis are most often seen in the wrists and fingers, but damage may be caused to any joint in the body. This autoimmune condition typically affects older individuals but can develop in an individual as early as 30. In some cases, rheumatoid arthritis may affect unexpected areas such as the eyes, mouth, and lungs.

Even though these and many other common conditions fall in the category of autoimmune dysfunction, treatment for these disorders rarely looks the same. The unique qualities of autoimmune dysfunction and individual patient factors makes patient-specific treatment a necessity. No matter what autoimmune condition or conditions are present, it is critical that treatment plans are optimized for individual patients.

Spread the Word about Autoimmune Dysfunction

Studies suggest that autoimmune disorders are increasingly common in the United States and elsewhere. Sadly, many are not aware of the potential threat of autoimmune dysfunction or the significant impact it has on individual wellness. Having a strong understanding of the basic characteristics of autoimmune disease may provide great assistance on the path to improved wellness. You can help protect the health of yourself and others from significant long-lasting dysfunction by raising awareness of autoimmune disease and its powerful impact on the body.


1. Scott M.Hayter, Matthew C.Cook. “Updated assessment of the prevalence, spectrum and case definition of autoimmune disease.” Autoimmunity Reviews. Volume 11, Issue 10, August 2012, Pages 754-765.

2. AARDA Staff. “Autoimmune Disease List.” American Autoimmune Related Disease Association.

3. Andrew W. Campbell. “Autoimmunity and the gut.” Autoimmune Dis. 2014;2014:152428.

4. Christopher T. Ritchlin, M.D., M.P.H., Robert A. Colbert, M.D., Ph.D., and Dafna D. Gladman, M.D. “Psoriatic Arthritis.” N Engl J Med 2017; 376:957-970.

5. Lebwohl B, Ludvigsson JF, Green PH. “Celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity.” BMJ. 2015;351:h4347.

What is an Autoimmune Disease? was last modified: November 1st, 2018 by Holtorf Medical Group

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