Do you generally feel fine, but you know you could feel better? Are you getting increasingly “aware” that you feel tired more often than you used to? That a glass of wine seems to appeal more than sex? That the amount of hair that you are leaving in the shower after each wash is a bit much? That you have some skin reactions? Problems with bowel movement? (too slow? too frequent?); Joint pain? Anything else?
How could this relate to your immune system? And what does it mean: “immune system gets confused”?
Before you start saying “ahh, it’s normal” let’s clarify one thing – There are no “normal” symptoms. If they were normal everybody would have had them (or would it make you feel better, if I said “everybody your age” would have had them?). Some symptoms may be common, but it does not make them “normal.” Have you considered that this might be your body gently nudging you to address the symptoms before they develop into something serious?
Immune System at work – Let’s start with an analogy
You are very likely to be familiar with the fact that your body has an immune system – a system that protects you. It is like a sovereign country’s Army, Navy, Air Force and other security forces ready to fight at any time when there is an attack. Intelligence is gathered continuously to check if there are any unwelcome intruders. If an intruder is “recognized,” the security forces go into action to ensure that the country is protected. If this is a “new offender” however it is possible that (s)he can get through the border, as there is no “intelligence” available. Only after this new intruder attacks, our security forces adds his/her name to their “wanted” list and make sure that (s)he is not able to attack again. (think for example measles – it is likely that it attacked you once, but rather unlikely that the attack was repeated) .
This is all fine when the majority of “visitors” that enter your “country” have peaceful intentions, and you have only an occasional serious “intruder.” Now imagine a situation, when your country is under a continuous assault. Your security forces are on a high alert, overworked and stressed fighting a number of intruders. If you don’t reinforce your security forces at the time of the high alert, when the new challenges are mounting every day, it is very likely that your security will eventually make a mistake. It may launch an attack on a civilian only because (s)he looks similar to the person on the “wanted list.”
What does it all mean? How does the analogy relate to your immune system?
In your body, the defense forces are called “antibodies.” Just like a sovereign country has an army, navy, air force, etc, you have various types of antibodies that are mobilized to attack different types of intruders (1). These could be viruses, bacteria, fungi, toxins others. Intruders in your body are called “foreign antigens” or “targets.” “Foreign” obviously means that such an antigen is not normally found in your body. If your defense forces [antibodies] identify an intruder [foreign antigen/target], they attach to the intruder and often destroy it.(1)(4). Your immune system is working and protecting you.
Foreign antigens that may enter our body nowadays are not limited to bacteria and viruses (2). You have already noticed that an intruder can be a non-living organism like toxicants or chemicals and indeed, we have pesticides, insecticides, air pollution, you name it. We put them willingly on our skin, breathe in, clean our houses with(14). The list is long.
Your “defense force” may be overworked, continuously screening for intruders. While doing this, it may find a “name” that is very similar to the one already on their “wanted” list. If during such screening it finds a name that has three or more letters in the sequence identical to the name on their wanted list, it may try to eliminate it as well. It means that if Jon is on their wanted list. Jonathan may be arrested (as three letters in Jonathan’s name have the same sequence as in Jon’s name).
It means that if our immune system is continuously “overworked,” then it may be enough that only three (or more) letters in the sequence of foreign antigens are identical to your own tissue for an antibody to attach to the tissue in your body that displays such similarity (3). Now your army has turned against you and is attacking you. It’s not a good situation, Is it?
What may happen when your body launches such a “mistaken identity” attack?
Well, initially you may not even know about it. This initial stage may last a few years depending on the severity of the attack. After a while, you may start developing symptoms that are characteristic to the organ that is under attack. This organ may be your liver, thyroid, brain, joints, you name it. It depends on your “weakest link.”
The interesting part about it is, that even that your organ is under attack and you start developing symptoms, when you go to a doctor and have a blood test done to check the function of that particular organ, the results may come back completely fine…err… for the time being. By completely “fine,” I mean that the function test is “within the standard laboratory range” (we will talk about the standard tests and ranges more in our future blogs). What it may also mean is that you may come back home thinking everything is indeed “fine.”
The question is “for how long”? There is a very high likelihood that eventually the organ “under attack” will start losing its function, and the symptoms will become more severe. Such stage is often called autoimmune disease (15). Why is it important to react to symptoms at their early stages (or even better, get screened for antibodies before you have an onset of symptoms)? Well, why would you have smoke detectors installed and try to stop the smoke before it develops into a fire? No difference with your health. You have a higher likelihood to address the causes of the attack and prevent the development of an illness further down the line if you react early. Your body has “installed” some “smoke detectors” for you. Why would you ignore them?
What is also important to know is that having one autoimmune disease predisposes you to have more autoimmune conditions (5). If your security force is overworked and has already made a mistake, the likelihood of further mistakes increases when the security gets more and more tired and is still not reinforced.
Examples of autoimmune diseases
Before you read what conditions are classified as autoimmune and say “ahh this definitely can’t be me”, please keep in mind that it may take a number of years before you experience any symptoms or an onset of symptoms characteristic for the disease. You would want to prevent it from happening, wouldn’t you?
So what diseases are classified as “autoimmune”? The list is long and includes Celiac, Diabetes, Psoriasis, Ulcerative Colitis, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Multiple Sclerosis, Schizophrenia, Hashimoto’s disease, and a number of others. For a more comprehensive list you are welcome to review Wikipedia (7) or other relevant sites (6). It is estimated that there are over 80 illnesses caused by autoimmunity (6), but I’ve also heard much higher numbers. In terms of statistics for developed economies – the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA) estimates that about 50Milion Americans have an autoimmune related disorder (8). This compares with 9Milions for cancer and 22Milions for heart disease. Considering the size of the population, we are talking about 1 in 6 Americans may have an autoimmune condition (some of them undiagnosed) (12).
So what is the point of all of this?
- The probability that you may be affected by an autoimmune condition now or in the future is reasonably high (keep in mind the 1 in 6 Americans statistic)
- Your organ(s) may be under antibodies attack now and you may not have any symptoms
- If you do have some symptoms, it is good to ask your doctor to check for antibodies. You are welcome to have a look at a nonexhaustive list of symptoms here (10)
- It is your health and your responsibility. On average it “takes five years and four doctors to get a correct diagnosis”(13). If you are not interested in your health and assuming that it is only your doctor who should be, you may have a “good run around” before you feel better.
- What may trigger an antibody attack will be discussed in our next blog: “Why my immune system is attacking me and what can I do about it?
- Having one autoimmune disease predisposes you to have more autoimmune attacks (5) (as one of my favorite doctors eloquently put it – if your immune system is overworked and just shot your dog it is likely that it may shoot your cat as well)
OK, Now What?
What can you do about it? It is always good to get tested to establish your “status quo.” If you don’t feel like running to doctors and labs just yet (or if you already know your status), perhaps you could try reducing your exposure to the potential triggers of autoimmune conditions.
We will be discussing such triggers in our next blogs – our next blog in this series is “Why my immune system is attacking me and what can I do about it? (please also join our discussion on Facebook and share).
In the meantime, please have a look at our comments “What is this fuss about GLUTEN and what has MILK got to do with it” as sensitivity to gluten is considered to be one of the triggers of autoimmune conditions.