An autoimmune disorder is a condition that occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys healthy body tissue. Normally the immune system's white blood cells help protect the body from harmful substances, called antigens. Examples of antigens include bacteria, viruses, toxins, cancer cells, and blood or tissues from another person or species. The immune system produces antibodies that destroy these harmful substances. However, in patients with an autoimmune disorder, the immune system can't tell the difference between healthy body tissue and antigens. The result is an immune response that destroys normal body tissues.
What causes the immune system to no longer tell the difference between healthy body tissues and antigens is unknown. One theory is that some microorganisms (such as bacteria or viruses) or drugs may trigger some of these changes, especially in people who have genes that make them more likely to get autoimmune disorders.
An autoimmune disorder may affect one or more organ or tissue types. Organs and tissues commonly affected by autoimmune disorders include:
- Blood vessels
- Connective tissues
- Endocrine glands such as the thyroid or pancreas
- Red blood cells
The most common types of autoimmune disorders include Hashimoto disease and Graves disease. In both diseases, the thyroid gland becomes infiltrated with lymphocytes and is partially destroyed.
Pernicious anemia stems from a failure to absorb vitamin B12, which is necessary for the proper maturation of red blood cells. It is characteristically accompanied by a failure to secrete hydrochloric acid in the stomach and is in fact a symptom of severe autoimmune gastritis.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disease that affects connective tissues throughout the body, particularly the synovial membranes that line the peripheral joints. Rheumatoid arthritis is one of the most common autoimmune diseases. Its cause is not known, but a variety of altered immune mechanisms probably contribute to the disorder, especially in more severe cases.
Additional autoimmune disorders include:
- Addison's disease
- Celiac disease (gluten sensitivity)
- Multiple sclerosis
- Myasthenia gravis
- Reactive arthritis
- Sjogren syndrome
- Type 1 diabetes
- Women of childbearing age - More women than men have autoimmune diseases, which often start during their childbearing years.
- People with a family history - Some autoimmune diseases run in families, such as lupus and multiple sclerosis. It is also common for different types of autoimmune diseases to affect different members of a single family. Inheriting certain genes can make it more likely to get an autoimmune disease. But a combination of genes and other factors may trigger the disease to start.
- People who are around certain things in the environment - Certain events or environmental exposures may cause some autoimmune diseases, or make them worse. Sunlight, chemicals called solvents, and viral and bacterial infections are linked to many autoimmune diseases.
- People of certain races or ethnic backgrounds - Some autoimmune diseases are more common or more severely affect certain groups of people more than others. For instance, type 1 diabetes is more common in white people. Lupus is most severe for African-American and Hispanic people.
Three main sets of genes are suspected in many autoimmune diseases. These genes are related to:
- T-cell receptors
- The major histocompatibility complexes (MHC)
Nearly 75% of the more than 23.5 million Americans who suffer from autoimmune disease are women, although it is less-frequently acknowledged that millions of men also suffer from these diseases. According to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA), autoimmune diseases that develop in men tend to be more severe.
Women are affected more often than men with most of the better-known disorders, including myasthenia gravis, systemic lupus erythematosis, Graves disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and Hashimoto disease. The reason for this is not fully understood, but researchers believe it is related to hormonal effects on immune responses.
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