What Are Autoimmune Diseases?

Autoimmune diseases are caused when your immune system attacks healthy tissues and organs. There are many variations, and each has its own set of symptoms. Treatment options vary according to illness, so read this to learn more about autoimmune diseases.

9 minute read

Last Updated June 25, 2020

What Is Autoimmune Disease - Digestion - 1MD

Autoimmune diseases are caused when your immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissues and organs. Normally, your immune system will protect against bacteria and viruses, but sometimes it is unable to distinguish between harmful pathogens and healthy cells.

As a result, your body releases antibodies that target parts of your body, including your digestive system, causing diseases such as celiac disease, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease.

What Causes Autoimmune Diseases?

Researchers are not entirely sure what causes the body to start attacking itself, but some people are more prone to these attacks than others. There seems to be a genetic aspect to autoimmunity, and women get diagnosed more frequently than men. 

It is also thought that environmental factors play a part, such as exposure to chemicals or toxic solvents. The typical Western diet of fatty, high-sugar, and processed foods has also been linked to autoimmune conditions.

Autoimmune Diseases Symptoms

The symptoms will vary according to which autoimmune disease you have, but many are similar for all the digestive autoimmune conditions. General symptoms include fatigue, achy muscles, low-grade fever, trouble concentrating, and hair loss. 

In addition to these, you may also experience the following symptoms based on the disease you have.

Celiac disease: weak or brittle bones, skin disorders, joint stiffness, and malnutrition
Crohn’s disease: diarrhea, blood in the stool, abdominal cramps, loss of appetite, and frequent need for bowel movements
Ulcerative colitis: rectal pain, diarrhea, bloody stools, weight loss, malnutrition, and abdominal pain

Autoimmune Diseases Diagnosis

Your doctor will start with a physical examination as well as a discussion about medical and family history. For a more accurate diagnosis to determine which autoimmune disease you have, further testing will be needed. 

Blood tests are common for identifying celiac disease as well as specific antibody testing. An endoscopy and colonoscopy can examine your upper and lower digestive tracts to determine whether you have ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease.

Treatment for Autoimmune Diseases

Treatment towards an autoimmune condition focuses on controlling the overactive inflammatory response released by your immune system. Anti-inflammatory medications are the first step, but these are only meant to be used for short term relief of inflammation. 

Antibiotics may also be prescribed should any infections occur as a result of intestinal wall damage, and biologics can also help to reduce inflammation and flare-ups. For long-term management and treatment, dietary and lifestyle changes are needed. 

Autoimmune Diseases Diet

The typical Western diet contributes to inflammation and has been linked to more severe autoimmune symptoms. Dietary changes will vary depending on which autoimmune diseases you have. For celiac disease, you must strictly adhere to a gluten-free diet. For all the inflammatory bowel diseases, an anti-inflammatory diet is best. 

There are foods that trigger inflammation that you need to avoid, and those that fight it, which you need to eat more often.

What not to eat: red meats, processed foods, dairy products (except for yogurt), sugary foods, fried foods, spicy foods, 

What to eat: fresh fruits (especially berries) and leafy green vegetables, lean meat such as seafood and poultry, nuts, flaxseeds, beans, whole grains, and omega-3 fortified foods.

Natural Treatments for Autoimmune Diseases

After making dietary changes, there are natural treatment options you can use to reduce flare-ups and successfully manage your autoimmune condition. Controlling inflammation is the key to reducing flare-ups and symptoms, and there are several options to try that are proven to effectively reduce inflammation in the body.

♦ Turmeric contains curcumin, which is a natural anti-inflammatory compound that has been proven to successfully reduce inflammation. 

♦ Ginger contains gingerol, which is a highly-effective anti-inflammatory compound.

♦ Garlic possesses compounds that have the ability to block the actions of pro-inflammatory cytokines.

It is also beneficial to get regular exercise to reduce inflammation. This reduces body fat, which triggers inflammatory chemicals and also reduces stress, which can increase inflammation. 

Relieving stress through yoga, meditation, and deep breathing will also help reduce inflammatory-related symptoms of autoimmune diseases. 

Autoimmune Diseases Surgery

There are surgical options for digestive autoimmune diseases for cases when medical treatment and lifestyle changes are not helping. Typically, surgery is not performed unless you have been experiencing severe bleeding or have larger perforations in your intestines. 

Procedures vary according to which autoimmune disease you have, but they all involve removing the damaged or defective part of the intestinal tract and reconnecting healthier segments.

What Are the Variations of Autoimmune Diseases?

The various digestive autoimmune diseases that you can have are celiac disease, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease.

Celiac disease: This is a reaction to the protein gluten found in wheat, barley, and rye products, and it causes damage to the villi that line your intestinal walls. As a result, your intestines are unable to properly absorb nutrients from food, and you experience malnutrition and chronic inflammation.

Ulcerative colitis: This is a chronic inflammation along your gastrointestinal tract, specifically the large intestine. There is no cure unless you remove your entire colon surgically, but treatment can be successful, so long as doctor recommendations and diet changes are adhered to.

Crohn’s disease: This is caused by chronic inflammation causing severe abdominal pain. It is different from ulcerative colitis, as it affects all layers of the intestinal wall, whereas ulcerative colitis impacts only the inner lining of the colon. Left untreated it can cause scarring and possibly gastrointestinal cancer.

Autoimmune thyroid disease: This is also common, and this is inflammation of your thyroid. Excess thyroid hormones are leaked as a result, and it can cause extreme fatigue as well as weight gain. The hormones that impact your digestion and hunger are affected by this disease.

Autoimmune liver disease: This is marked by chronic inflammation of the liver, and without treatment, scarring and cirrhosis can develop. The liver plays a role in fat digestion and removing waste. Liver failure, as a result of untreated autoimmune liver disease, can cause severe digestive disruption.

Autoimmune Diseases Statistics

♦ Over 80 autoimmune conditions have been discovered by researchers and scientists.

♦ Close to 50 million Americans are currently diagnosed with some form of autoimmune disease.

Crohn’s disease affects around 780,000 Americans, and hospitalization rates for this disease have increased by 61 percent.

♦ 13 million Americans are currently diagnosed with celiac disease.

Ulcerative colitis increases your risk for colon cancer, and one in five patients will require surgery in their lifetime.

Autoimmune Diseases and Children

Autoimmune diseases that impact the digestive system are typically diagnosed in adults over the age of 20, but they can appear in children too. Treatment involves antibiotics, medications, biologics, and dietary and lifestyle changes. Children that are diagnosed with celiac disease need to modify their diet in to reduce symptoms and live a healthy life.

What Is the Long-Term Outlook?

Autoimmune conditions have no cure, but they can be successfully treated. Working closely with your doctor to get an accurate diagnosis and effective treatment plan is the only way to manage these diseases. Surgery is only necessary if complications develop as a result of not following treatment programs. 

A successful outlook involves following your doctor’s advice and taking medications as well as making all recommended lifestyle and dietary changes.

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