In last week’s article, we discussed how a healthy body can defend itself from disease causing microscopic invaders by a highly sophisticated immune system. This system consists of a number of specialized white blood cells (WBC’s) that interact, identify potentially harmful substances, and destroy them. The result of the normal immune response is inflammation and this inflammatory response isolates harmful substances that enter the body inhibiting the spread of the invading substance allowing specialized WBC’s time to destroy the intruder. Once the intruder (as in infection) has been controlled, the immune system ceases its acute response and inflammation ceases.
Substances that are foreign to the body contain antigens which are proteins on their cell surface that are capable of stimulating an immune response. WBC’s involved in the immune response produce proteins called antibodies that are highly specific to the identified antigen. The antibodies attach to the antigen and tag them for destruction. Under normal circumstances, the inherent cells in the body are not antigenic and do not cause a response from the immune system. However, the immune system of the body, like any complex multi-component system, is subject to malfunction of some or all of its parts. A particular flaw is when the immune system fails to recognize its own constituent parts as “self”. The result is an immune system that makes autoantibodies that attack normal cells and tissue of the body and this is known as autoimmunity. Autoimmunity can cause serious damage to cells/tissue and organs resulting in autoimmune disease and chronic inflammation. These diseases can be organ specific or system wide.
The exact cause of autoimmune disorders is unknown. One common theory is that some microorganisms, drugs or environmental pollutants, trigger changes that confuse the immune system into identifying normal body cells as antigens and the system responds accordingly. In addition to environmental factors, scientific studies indicate there is a genetic predisposition to these diseases as well as influences by ethnicity, gender, and race. All of these factors are linked to a likelihood of developing an autoimmune disease.
Autoimmune disease can potentially affect any part of the body and symptoms are dependent on which tissue or organ gets targeted by the rogue immune system. Scientist have identified more than 80 types of autoimmune disease.
As previously described, the result of an active immune system is inflammation which tends to be chronic and destructive in autoimmune disease.
Evaluation of a patient with illness suggestive of autoimmunity involves measuring autoantibodies in the blood. A person with autoimmunity may produce one or many autoantibodies and the type of autoimmune disease that occurs and the amount of injury done to tissues and organs depends on which systems are targeted by the autoantibodies:
· Examples of autoantibodies that attack a single organ are type 1 diabetes mellitus where autoantibodies attack and destroy the insulin producing cells in the pancreas. Also, the thyroid gland may be attacked causing damage to its cells resulting in hypothyroidism (low thyroid hormone output). Autoantibodies that attack joints result in rheumatoid arthritis.
· Disorders due to systemic autoantibodies, which affect multiple organs or systems such as SLE (systemic lupus erythematosus). This devastating disease produces autoantibodies that attack joints (arthritis), skin (dermatitis), kidneys (nephritis), arteries (vasculitis), and other systems.
· Two neurological illnesses caused by autoantibodies are myasthenia gravis and multiple sclerosis. In the former disease, autoantibodies block the chemical that transmits neurological signals to muscle causing severe muscle weakness and even paralysis. In the later disease, autoantibodies attack the myelin sheath that surrounds nerves, again interfering with nerve impulses.
Therapy for autoimmune diseases involves the use of anti-inflammatory medications and immunosuppressive agents depending on the type and severity of the disease. These drugs can induce a remission but thus far there is no cure.
Dr. Tippett is the founder of Comprehensive Quality Healthcare Providers, a concierge internal medicine practice located at 1210 Commerce Dr. Suite 106 Greensboro, Ga. 30642. He can be reached at 706-510-3659. Visit his webpage at www.drtippett.com