Autoimmune diseases affect more than 24 million people in America alone. Exhausting to experience and difficult to diagnose, autoimmunity is an issue that’s gaining more research in modern medicine. Doctors, immunologists, and patients all want answers. Keep reading to learn why autoimmune disease is likely on the rise and what you can do to pursue healing.
What is Autoimmune Disease?
The immune system’s job is to protect the body from illness by defending against threatening “invaders”, like viruses and bacteria. When the immune system detects these threats, it works to attack and eliminate them from your body. But some people’s immune systems wrongfully target healthy cells, resulting in pain and inflammation. This is the case with autoimmune diseases.
Autoimmune diseases happen when antinuclear antibodies (ANA)— or abnormal antibodies— direct themselves against a person’s own cells and tissues. Depending on the type of autoimmunity, it can negatively impact the skin, internal organs, joints, nervous system, and any part of the body.
What Causes Autoimmune Disease?
There are many types of autoimmune diseases (more than 80) with no known cause. But two factors play a big role:
Genetics (it runs in the family).
Environment (external triggers that spark disease).
Autoimmune disease has been rising significantly for over 40 years. Diagnoses go up an average of 3-9% every year. In healthcare, this presents a big question: Why are we seeing such a big increase in autoimmunity?
We now know that chemicals and environmental stress trigger autoimmune responses. There’s a big connection between how genes respond to exposure to our rapidly changing environment with so many chemicals, toxins, and everyday stressors. Our bodies cannot handle excess stress, so the immune system likely kicks into overdrive to handle perceived threats to health.
Listen to the Fempower Health podcast to learn more about autoimmune diseases that affect women.
Autoimmune Diseases in Women
Today, an estimated 5-10% of people have an autoimmune disease. Women make up 80% of these diagnoses. Why are women more prone to autoimmune diseases?
Research points largely to environmental burdens women face in modern society. These burdens include pollution, water quality, inadequate nutrition, cleaning chemicals, beauty products, plastics, and more.
One 2015 Stanford study showed how important environmental factors are to health:
"...We measured 204 different parameters, including cell population frequencies, cytokine responses, and serum proteins, and found that 77% of these are dominated (> 50% of variance) and 58% almost completely determined (> 80% of variance) by non-heritable influences."
This means autoimmune symptoms are more likely a result of non-genetic external factors. Other randomized controlled trials have proven this finding not just in women, but in many individuals diagnosed with chronic illness.
What to Do if You Have Autoimmunity Symptoms
Treatment for autoimmunity can be confusing, and it often takes multiple specialists to finalize a sustainable treatment plan that works. Lifestyle changes can help people gain control over their symptoms and health. Nicole Bundy and Millennia Lytle of Mymee, a lifestyle solutions app for autoimmune women, explain what women can do to get healthier.
Click here to listen to Mette Dyhrberg, the founder of Mymee, discuss autoimmune disease healing on Fempower Health.
Know Your Body
When experiencing ongoing symptoms, here are some questions you can answer to help your doctor (and you) find clarity:
When was the last time you felt well?
When did symptoms start?
What signals is your body giving you?
When are you most tired?
What drains you?
What gives you energy?
What are your most painful (immediate) symptoms?
Addressing these questions brings awareness to your situation and can point toward the next steps you can take.
There is support and guidance available for women concerned about unexplained symptoms. Labs, allergy tests, blood tests, and leaky gut evaluations are normal when dealing with autoimmune signs.
Getting multiple lab tests is a start. Try to keep track of results and observe your lab work over time with various doctors. Autoimmune specialists include:
Keep your options open and don’t be afraid to get a second (or third… or tenth) opinion.
Do Your Research
Stay open-minded in your quest to heal. Because autoimmunity is so complex and varied, learning more information provides you with resources to ask your doctor or care team about*. The more you learn about your disease, the more treatment options will be revealed.
* Always talk to your medical providers and get approval before making any major health changes.
It often takes special guidance from a well-integrated care team to feel a difference in autoimmune symptoms. Finding a strong support team is essential for relieving women’s autoimmune disease. Some tips from autoimmune experts:
Find yourself a care team: professionals and advocates who care.
Have realistic expectations. Healing takes time.
Increase your awareness of what experts do and how they can help you.
Explore different modalities of care.
Implement lifestyle medicine no matter what.
“The good news is, the body can heal itself. An autoimmune disease diagnosis doesn’t mean you can’t get healthier as you get older.” - Nicole Bundy, Medical Director at Mymee
Assisting Your Body to Heal from Autoimmunity
There are ways to aid yourself on the road to healing. Chemicals, medications, and natural remedies can be a great tool, but only get you so far. Lifestyle changes have been shown to make a huge difference in patients finding relief from autoimmune symptoms. Lifestyle changes include:
Sleep and rest
Proper waste elimination
Consistent health check-ups
Involvement with your care team
If you or someone you care about is struggling with autoimmunity, keep pursuing health. It can be a long journey, but there’s hope. Listen to more interviews with autoimmunity experts on the Fempower Health podcast here.