Autoimmune Disease and Women
When the body harms itself: Autoimmune diseases are now the third most common type, after heart disease and cancer
It’s a popular House scenario (I wish I had a dollar for every time a member of that team shouts “Sarcoidosis!”): a patient’s body attacking itself. Autoimmune disease makes for great TV drama, but in real life, it’s an all-too-common, life-altering theme.
One in five Americans suffers from an autoimmune disease, and three quarters of them are women, according to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association. There are more than 80 conditions under the autoimmune umbrella, but they all share a single modality: the body’s immune system, intended to fight infection, identifies the body’s own tissues as foreign and attacks them instead. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease; so are multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Here’s a rundown of several other types you may not have heard of:
Sjogren’s Syndrome Much more common among women than men, Sjogren’s occurs when your white blood cells attack moisture-producing glands. In its milder forms, it can cause dry eye and dry mouth. In severe cases, it can create inflammation in vital organs, nervous system dysfunction (tingling, pain, numbness) and can lead to lymphoma. If you have Sjogren’s and intend to become pregnant, you should be tested for antibodies that are associated with heart problems in newborns. Various drugs are used to treat Sjogren’s, including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories, corticosteroids, cyclosporine and immunosuppressants. One study suggests injections of rituximab may help.
Celiac disease The gluten in wheat and certain other grains causes your body to attack the villi, or hair cells, that line your small intestine, leading to diarrhea, bloating and abdominal pain and an inability to absorb nutrients. The treatment is simple to describe, harder to adhere to: avoid gluten.
Raynaud’s disease Do your fingers and toes feel numb in the cold? That’s a symptoms of Raynaud’s, which can attack these extremities as well as the nose, lips and ears. It’s much more than garden-variety cold hands, though. The skin turns white then blue as blood vessels constrict or spasm. The cause isn’t known, but Raynaud’s occurs as a secondary condition in patients with various autoimmune diseases. Calcium channel blockers and vasodilators are sometimes prescribed, and other drugs, including Viagra and Prozac, are being studied for Raynaud’s.
Vitiligo Years ago, Michael Jackson told Oprah he has it. One or two in a hundred of us develops it, half before the age of 20. Vitiligo causes patches of the skin to lose pigment, and it’s theorized than immune dysfunction may be the cause. Corticosteroids may restore pigmentation, and other topical ointments can help. New studies are exploring the use of ginkgo biloba and piperine, a chemical in black pepper, to treat the condition.
Sarcoidosis The House favorite, sarcoidosis generates clusters of inflammatory cells in various parts of the body, often the lungs, lymph nodes, eyes and skin. The condition sometimes vanishes without treatment, but if it progresses, it can cause scarring, interfering with breathing if it occurs in the lungs. Corticosteroids are often prescribed.