Lupus and autoimmune diseases

GLENN ELLIS | 5/22/2017, 9:26 a.m.
Many chronic diseases are the result of the body’s immune system mistakenly perceiving that the body is under attack from ...
Facial rashes are one of the most common symptoms of lupus.

Strategies for Well-Being

Many chronic diseases are the result of the body’s immune system mistakenly perceiving that the body is under attack from foreign bodies. A counterattack is then launched – an inflammatory response meant to vanquish the intruder. In reality, the immune system has misinterpreted the threat and is actually attacking the body’s own cells and tissue.

Immune system disorders cause abnormally low activity or over-activity of the immune system. In cases of immune system over-activity, the body attacks and damages its own tissues (autoimmune diseases). Immune deficiency diseases decrease the body’s ability to fight invaders, causing vulnerability to infections.

There are more than 80 known autoimmune diseases. Many of them have similar symptoms, which makes them hard to diagnose. They usually fluctuate between periods of remission or no symptoms, and flares where symptoms become worse.

More and more, we are all hearing about friends, family and even celebrities, like Nick Cannon, who are “victims” of autoimmune disease – especially lupus.

Lupus is a systemic autoimmune disease driven by inflammation in which the immune system indiscriminately attacks “self-tissues” throughout the body. It is estimated that more than 16,000 people are diagnosed with lupus each year in the United States. Approximately 1.5 million Americans, and 5 million people worldwide, currently live with lupus. Anyone can get lupus, but it most often affects women. Lupus is also more common in women of African American, Hispanic, Asian and Native American descent than in Caucasian women. Women of color are two to three times more likely to develop lupus than Caucasians.

Lupus autoimmunity can cause variable symptoms from person to person. Parts of the body frequently affected by lupus include the skin, kidneys, heart and vascular system, nervous system, connective tissues, musculoskeletal system, and other organ systems. Lupus is not contagious, not even through sexual contact. You cannot “catch” lupus from someone or “give” lupus to someone.

Your immune system is the network of cells and tissues throughout your body that work together to defend you from invasion and infection. You can think of it as having two parts: the innate and the acquired immune systems.

When the immune system is working properly, foreign invaders [antigens] provoke the body to produce proteins called antibodies and specific types of white blood cells that help in defense. The antibodies attach to the invaders so that they can be recognized and destroyed.

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.

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.

These diseases tend to run in families. Women – particularly African American, Hispanic American and Native American women – have a higher risk for some autoimmune diseases. The diseases may also have flare-ups, when they get worse, and remissions, when they all but disappear. The diseases do not usually go away, but symptoms can be treated.