What is Autoimmunity?
Many of us don’t know what Autoimmune means, and don’t need to – until one day it’s applied to us.
So, what does autoimmune actually mean?
What is an autoimmune disorder?
One way that’s often used to explain the term ‘autoimmune’ is that for some reason your immune system has started attacking part of you, as if your immune system can’t recognise your cells as your own, so treats them as a foreign body and a threat.
This causes inflammation which can then damage healthy tissue. In such cases, the resulting group of symptoms is labelled as ‘autoimmune’ and called an autoimmune disorder.
Different autoimmune conditions affect different body parts. If we look at some of the most commonly known autoimmune disorders, we can see how they affect different areas and systems of the body:
- In coeliac disease, the immune system causes a reaction in the small intestine when you eat gluten.
- In type 1 diabetes, the immune system affects the cells in the pancreas that make insulin.
- In multiple sclerosis (MS), the immune system affects the myelin sheath which covers nerve cells in the brain.
- In rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system affects the cells that line the joints.
- In Hashimoto’s disease, the immune system affects the thyroid.
- In lupus, the immune system affects multiple body systems and organs.
Whichever body part or system is affected, in all cases, it’s believed that the reaction is caused by the immune system producing antibodies against substances which are naturally present in the body, such as a particular type of cell.
This then leads the immune system to react to these cells as if they are ‘foreign’ and not part of its own body.
What’s going on in an autoimmune condition?
Here’s how the British Society of Immunology explains it:
“Autoimmunity occurs when the immune system attacks the body. The immune system, which normally protects you from infection, instead targets part of the body and destroys it or stops it functioning properly.”
Oxford University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust provide a succinct explanation of what’s going on, here.
The common feature is that, in conventional Western medical terms, little is known or understood about what triggers the immune system to act this way in each case.
Which conditions count as autoimmune?
There isn’t an agreed number of autoimmune disorders, but sources agree that there are more than 80 conditions recognised as autoimmune, with some American autoimmune specialists estimating over 100 disorders.
There is debate about a number of other conditions and their relationship to autoimmunity, such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and irritable bowel syndrome.
This is because they produce similar symptoms which are often found in autoimmune disorders, which leads some commentators to refer to them as ‘suspected’ autoimmune disorders.
Why are we hearing more about autoimmune conditions?
The fact is that autoimmune disorders are increasing, so we’re more likely to know someone with an autoimmune condition, or to develop one ourselves.
Research by a group of UK medical research charities in 2018 found that autoimmune conditions are becoming more common, and in some cases the incidence is increasing by as much as 9%.
This research also found the direct and indirect costs to the UK of just 3 of these conditions – rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and type 1 diabetes – is estimated to be in excess of a whopping £13 billion per year. 
Who is affected?
In the UK there are estimated to be 4 million people living with autoimmune disorders in 2021.
Up to a third of these are believed to have more than one autoimmune condition. That’s up to 1.3 million people.
And that’s just in one country! Imagine the numbers globally, and the effects on so many lives.
Around 75% of people affected by autoimmune conditions are women. It’s believed that hormonal change plays a part in why women are more likely to develop a condition.
What these statistics don’t reveal is the person behind each of those numbers, and the effects on their everyday life – pain, fatigue, negative effects on their work and personal life, and health risks due to their condition.
And for every person living with the condition themselves, those around them are also affected – their family, friends and colleagues.
If you’re living with an autoimmune disease…
…then welcome. I’m Sarah and I have some idea what you may be going through. I have two conditions myself (rheumatoid arthritis and Raynauds).
Learning to live with these, improve how I feel, and look after myself so I can live well has led me to do what I do now, so I can help others in a similar position to where I found myself.
Feel free to check out the information and resources about autoimmune disease on my site, for help whether you’re newly diagnosed, or you’ve been living with this for a while.
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