All About Autoimmunity

Author: Ron Hunninghake, MD

More and more, it seems that people have or know someone that has an autoimmune condition. An article published by the NIH in 2020 indicated that autoimmunity is on the rise in the U.S., and it already affects more than 24 million Americans. 1,2 Other statistics from the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association indicate that the number may be even higher, hovering around the 50 million mark. Whatever the case may be, both statistics show that far too many people are suffering. There are more than 80 diseases classified as autoimmune conditions, some more common than others. I thought it might be helpful to share information about some of the common things I see here at Riordan Clinic.

What is autoimmunity?

Britannica defines autoimmunity as “the state in which the immune system reacts against the body’s own normal components producing diseases or functional changes.” When functioning correctly, our immune system acts as a surveillance system. It identifies and disposes of antigens – materials such as toxins or infectious microbes that are considered foreign invaders. In autoimmunity cases, the immune system, for unknown reasons, begins to attack the body itself. Several theories about what initiates an autoimmune condition exist, but the specific cause is unknown to date. Many suspect that a preceding infection (such as a virus) may be an initiating factor in autoimmunity. 3

Are autoimmune conditions hereditary?

A family history of autoimmune diseases is considered a risk factor for developing an autoimmune disorder yourself. However, in families predisposed to autoimmune disease, the same conditions are not necessarily passed from parent to child. Having one type of autoimmune disorder in the family can predispose children to other types of autoimmune disease. For example, one parent may have lupus, but the child develops multiple sclerosis. Or, one family member has celiac disease, and another is diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Autoimmune diseases are not passed down by one single gene but likely a combination of several genes. Genetics, when coupled with other factors, can trigger the development of disease.

Common Autoimmune Conditions:

  • Rosacea
  • Eczema
  • Psoriasis
  • Type 1 Diabetes
  • Hashimoto’s disease (underactive thyroid)
  • Grave’s disease
  • Lupus
  • Celiac Disease
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Sjogren’s Syndrome
  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis – ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease)
  • Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue

Who is most commonly affected by autoimmune disease?

Females are more prone to autoimmune conditions than males. Autoimmune diseases are among the ten leading causes of death for girls and women in all age groups. 4 Autoimmune conditions may be more prevalent amongst racial minorities, but the data is limited, so no firm conclusions can be drawn.

Autoimmune disease symptoms don’t always announce their arrival loudly. Some people develop a condition without an awareness that it exists. Others will experience vague symptoms that often get attributed to other factors such as stress or poor sleep. It can be challenging for people to receive an autoimmune diagnosis, and many visit 6-10 doctors before identifying the cause of their symptoms.

Common Symptoms may include:

  • Headaches
  • Anxiety
  • Brain Fog
  • Attention deficit
  • Body rashes, red bumps on the skin, red, flaky skin
  • Acne
  • Dermatitis
  • Allergies
  • Asthma
  • Dry Mouth
  • Frequent Colds
  • Fatigue or hyperactivity
  • Weight gain or loss
  • General feeling of malaise
  • Muscle pain or weakness
  • Stiffness and pain
  • Feeling wired and tired
  • Exhaustion
  • Digestive problems (i.e. gas, bloating, cramping, diarrhea, constipation)

Many of these symptoms accompany several other conditions, so it can be challenging to pinpoint autoimmunity. It is important to remember that symptoms are signs that something is off-kilter. Even if symptoms aren’t autoimmune-related, they need to be addressed.

Autoimmune conditions come in a lot of different forms, many of which you are probably familiar with. The most common things I see here at Riordan Clinic are Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, Eczema, and Rheumatoid Arthritis.

Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis is the most common cause of hypothyroidism in the United States. It is an autoimmune condition characterized by chronic inflammation of the thyroid gland. Over time the thyroid gland has a diminished ability to produce adequate amounts of thyroid hormone.

Eczema (AKA atopic dermatitis) is characterized by red, swollen and itchy skin. Traditionally, Eczema has been associated with other common atopic diseases such as food allergies and asthma, but recent research is showing that Eczema is often associated with other autoimmune conditions. 5

Rheumatoid Arthritis is a chronic inflammatory condition that attacks the joints. It may also affect other parts of the body. Joint symptoms of RA include pain, swelling, and stiffness. In more severe cases, joint deformity and loss of function may occur. Symptoms generally come and go in periods of flare and remission.

Treating autoimmune conditions

Unfortunately, it is rare for an autoimmune condition to be “cured,” meaning that symptoms may come and go throughout a person’s lifetime. However, they can be managed through diet and lifestyle changes and, in some cases, require medication. When working with autoimmune patients here at Riordan Clinic, we focus on healing the gut, correcting nutritional deficits, and removing any other forms of “stress” that may impact the body’s ability to function optimally. These stressors may come from poor dietary and lifestyle habits or exposure to environmental toxins such as mold and heavy metals.

Adequate vitamin C in the body is crucial, as is vitamin D. We use lab testing to determine other nutrient deficiencies and employ dietary changes and supplementation to help correct them. Our Inflammation, Methylation, or Real Health lab profiles can help determine a specific treatment plan.

The diet for autoimmune patients may be different from person-to-person based on their individual needs. However, most autoimmune patients benefit from an anti-inflammatory diet that excludes foods they are sensitive to. An elimination diet or lab testing can be used to help determine food sensitivities. Specific foods such as probiotic-rich, fermented foods, or bone broth may also be beneficial for repairing and repopulating the gut microbiome.

Regular movement and exercise may also improve some autoimmune symptoms. However, some patients may experience flares in symptoms if they overdo it. It is essential to find activities that encourage movement while also supporting the person’s particular circumstances.

Getting an autoimmune diagnosis can feel like both a relief and a curse. On the one hand, it is helpful to know that your symptoms finally have an explanation, but on the other, it may feel like getting a life sentence. The good news is that there are several things that YOU can control to improve your quality of life. Most autoimmune conditions respond well when they are caught and managed early. We are always here to help you navigate your journey toward Real Health and feel your best when living with an autoimmune condition.