Defining Auto-Immune Disorders


The diseases of the autoimmune system affect approximately 14–22 million people in the United States and reveal a weighty biological, psychological, sociological and financial hardship to the country’s health care system. The onset of an auto-immune illness may range from childhood to late adulthood, and includes all age groups. The strain imposed by these illnesses includes a high cost to everyone especially to those afflicted with an illness that associates with having a lower quality of life that includes co-morbid mental distress, particularly depression and anxiety.

The majority erroneously affect women, and auto-immune diseases are among the ten leading causes of death for females in all age categories up to 64 years old.There is also a loss in productivity along with the disruption of social connections and family bonds do to the suffering from symptoms that punish women who are of  child-rearing age. People of every ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic class are afflicted, although the impact of racial backgrounds vary. However, studies have reported that genetics, family history, and lifestyle may play a significant role in their development. The body’s response may occur more often in those who have genes that contribute to them being prone to developing the disorder. The number of Americans who have an auto-immune disorder has been increasing year over year for the past two decades.

There are more than 80 known types of autoimmune disorders and their evolution becomes a diagnosis the moment the immune system launches an attack on healthy cells.  An illness of the autoimmune system occurs when the body’s immune system attacks in error and destroys healthy body tissue.The body’s white blood cells, a component of the immune system protect against harmful elements, such as bacteria, toxins, and viruses from our environment. These substances contain foreign irritants called antigens, and the Immune System produces antibodies against these antigens to destroy harmful outcomes. When someone is diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, the immune system cannot recognize the healthy cells versus the invader or antigens cells, as a result, the brain relays the message to destroy healthy tissues. One theory is that some pathogens (bacteria, viruses) or medications trigger physiological events, confusing the immune system.

What Causes Auto-immune Disorders?

The presence of just the right level of these specialized white blood cells in the immune system work like the gladiators of Rome defended their turf against foreign invaders. The body’s attackers are bacteria, damaging toxins, unwanted viruses, cancer mediums, and all forms of carriers responsible for destroying normal tissues and healthy cells. Being diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, means that the immune system is unable to determine healthy tissue from antigens. This process leads to the destruction of both healthy and unhealthy cells. As a result, not only are unhealthy tissues destroyed but also the healthy ones, like the concept of “friendly fire.” One hypothesis is that the microorganisms present in the bloodstream hide their existence and confuse the immune system. If this “friendly fire” persists in killing off normal tissue the immune disorder dominates and symptoms begin, and physical abilities decline.

The precise development of when autoimmune disorders occur and when they initially take place cannot usually be determined.  Some researchers suspect that those with autoimmune disorders may have a tendency to establish unusual reactions, especially if the condition is inherent in their family history.

Signs and symptoms experienced vary according to the type of disease that is cultivated and the location where the immune system failed to protect. Among others, the most common warning signs are:

  1. Fatigue
  2. Joint Discomfort
  3. Developing a Rash
  4. Mild to Moderate Fever
  5. A General Feeling of being Sick

How Are Auto-immune Disorders Diagnosed?

DiagnosisAs mentioned, usually, it is the work of the immune system to create antibodies that function by either destroying or blocking harmful substances from eventually advancing and causing an illness. The minute someone has developed an auto-immune disorder, the immune system continues to create antibodies yet they are damaging healthy and unhealthy organisms leading to tissue destruction. Laboratory tests are necessary in order to determine which destructive antibodies the immune system is producing for diagnosis. Below is a short list of medical diagnostics performed to  uncover the presence of a possible auto-immune disease:

  • CBC: The acronym for Complete Blood Count. CBC is preformed in order to measure the level of red blood and white blood cells. An imbalance from the normal level of both types can signify an auto-immune disorder.
  • CRP: The shortened term for C-Reactive Protein. CRP is a test run to identify if the normal CRP level is elevated because an elevation indicates inflammation.
  • ESR: Erythrocyte Sedimentation Rate or ESR is a test measuring also measuring the degree of inflammation. The test will help to identify the body parts or organs that are failing to function well due to overproduction of harmful substances.
  • Anti-nuclear Antibody Test: This Antibody Test detects anti-nuclear antibodies that may be attacking the nuclei of healthy body cells which then points to the impending auto-immune disorder.
  • Auto Antibody Test: This measurement is more specific and is ordered to determine particular antibodies present and which ones are working against protecting the tissues, leading to the identification of the type of auto-immune disorder diagnosis.

Autoimmune diseases may result in:

  1. Abnormal growth of a particular body part
  2. Changes in that organs function
  3. The destruction of body tissue

Common Auto-immune Disorders

If the immune system becomes defenseless, virus, fungi, and bacteria tend to overcome the physical body until a particular part or organ shifts into a malfunctioning mode. The correction of the impairment must be managed quickly, or the disease process may become virulent and often life threatening.

Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is a persistent disease that leads to inflammation of the joints and surrounding tissues.

Celiac Disease creates inflammation in the small intestine, and damage to the intestinal lining. This deterioration inhibits essential vitamins, minerals and elements of food from being absorbed. The impairment of the lining correlates to an immune reaction or allergy from consuming gluten found in rye, wheat, barley, and perhaps oats.

Multiple Sclerosis is an illness that relates to the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system) causing damage to nerve tissue and the myelin sheath. This sheath is the protective covering that surrounds a nerve cell and the message or signal slows down when there is erosion.

Type I Diabetes exact cause is not known and may be multi-factorial. However, many researchers believe that the illness is an autoimmune disorder. Without enough insulin, glucose builds up in the bloodstream instead of going into the cells, labeled hyperglycemia. The body is not able to take advantage of glucose for energy, leading to the symptoms of type 1 diabetes.

Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis or Chronic thyroiditis is swelling and inflammation of the thyroid gland, often resulting in reduced function labelled hypothyroidism.

Addison Disease is a disorder that occurs when the adrenal glands do not produce enough hormones.

Dermatomyositis is a muscle disease that is an inflammatory process producing a skin rash creating discoloration, itching and discomfort.

Graves’ Disease is an autoimmune disorder that leads to over-activity of the thyroid gland or hyperthyroidism.

Myasthenia Gravis is a neuro-muscular condition of muscles and their controlling nerves fibers.

Pernicious Anemia is a decrease in red blood cells that occurs when the intestines cannot adequately absorb vitamin B12. Therefore, the body does not have enough healthy red blood cells to provide oxygen to body tissues producing a type of anemia.

Reactive Arthritis is a group of conditions that may involve the joints, the urethra, and the eyes. The area involved becomes swollen or inflamed and often can be in response to an infection.

Sjogren Disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the glands that produce tears and saliva malfunction causing dry mouth and dry eyes. The illness may affect other area’s of the body, including the lungs and kidneys.

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue. Symptoms vary, and they may be intermittent causing joint pain and swelling. The disease can cause reactions to the skin, joints, kidneys, brain, and other organs.

Auto-Immune Disorders and Psychology

There is an evolving new field called psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), which integrates features of immunology, psychology, and neurology incorporating many other sciences. This specialization attempts to understand the communications between the immune system, the central nervous system, and psychological/sociological conditions. This fertile area of research includes many different theories, but, more precisely, one profoundly active area of study is where psychologists are examining the side effects that anxiety has on the immune system and physical pathology.

stressDefining stress can be confusing because it can be a demand (stimulus) or a reaction (response), and the definition may involve both processes. Seyle believes in the theory of stress creating physiological responses that cover the alarm, resistance and exhaustion stages. This theory is called the general adaptation strategy. Lazarus promotes an alternative that involves the emotional or psychologically based reaction of the individual when confronted with a stressful situation. In this theory, the individuals thoughts or cognitive elements come into play along with someones’ cultural background or past experiences. First someone analyzes a perceived degree of threat of the stress and then coping behaviors are assessed to manage the situation.

Those who have experienced a tragic event and express their feelings appear to have an improved immune response and are healthier than those who do not express their emotions. O’Leary, discovered in 1990 that there was considerable evidence that talking about situations and stress by using mental health services, decreased employment sick days, and these individuals had lower healthcare costs. Storing negative emotions seems to disrupt the immune systems functioning. Therefore, the blocking of emotions for some may be a stress factor adversely affecting physical health. Internal factors such as chronic anxiety have been implicated in producing deficiencies in the immune system because of the way in which the physical body reacts to managing a problem. The functioning abilities of the immune system diminish after numerous activations of the autonomic nervous system, describing the theory behind chronic stress.

Auto-Immune Disorders, Depression and Stress

Depression affects the health of an individual by having a straightforward relationship with the immune system or in a round about way by influencing the way someone takes care of themselves. The idea of whether anxiety causes depression or vice versa is another area being examined, and some researchers wonder if stress causes depression or if depression is a type of stress. An individual’s psychological state is a dominant factor that relates to physical health. However, partitioning out the primary cause for the defective immune response is a difficult task.

One theory of how anxiety can cause depression has its origins that relate to mood and the brain’s pleasure pathways. The exposure to a stressful event can cause the glucocorticoid hormone to become hyperactive thereby creating a depletion of norepinephrine levels in the brain. This reduction produces a slowing of attentiveness, and the person becomes inactive and emotionless (Salzano, 2003).  There are various types of stress. These stressors can cause depression, depression can cause stress, and life events can also cause stress. Stress can also trigger a major depressive disorder. Anxiety and depression can be byproducts of each other, therefore, it is almost impossible to determine which plays a more significant role in effecting physical health.

Perceived stress may be a cause in and of itself, and one person may view a stressor as a far bigger problem than someone else experiencing the same event. If  a person experiences high anxiety because of constant thinking about a problem, their fight or flight system is in a constant heightened response state. Just thinking about the stressor could set off an elevated response. It is hard to to believe that immunity and psychological makeup are not interrelated, but the problem is in explaining the causal relationship. Some researchers argue that stress causes depression, which causes the immune system to malfunction because resources are utilized in stimulating the fight or flight system. Others push for the theory of depression causing the stress, which in turn ignites fight or flight mechanism. The last group contends that a person’s psychological condition causes the person to harm their health because of not having adequate nutrition, physical exercise, or enough sleep. Future studies need to address these issues.

How Auto-Immune Disorders relate to Sociology

A person’s social and cultural environment can play a large role in immune system performance and is an external factor relating to a healthy immune system. If someone has adequate social support research has shown this will indirectly improve the immune’s systems abilities. For example, those with cardiovascular problems could have a positive response to social support which in turn aides in blood pressure management, thus reducing the probability of causing further damage to their heart-related condition.

The psychological and sociological conditions can also have a direct impact on the immune system. For example, anxiety or stress has various effects on the endocrine systems, including the well-known fight or flight activation. The fight or flight mechanism activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical network, the sympathetic adrenal-medullary system, and other endocrine functions. Many psychologists believe that psychological, sociological and physiological factors are equally important. Most researchers recognize that everyone develops their own unique coping strategy, and the approach someone uses to manage stress correlates with the functioning of their immune system. The ability to effectively teach how to cope with everyday stress could decrease the steady activation of the endocrine system, which will increase the performance of the immune system (Jones, 2003). Both cognitive-behavioral stress management and mindfulness therapies have shown to be practical, effective ways to accomplish these goals.

How Are Auto-immune Disorders Treated? Time to heal

To apply treatment methods, the results of the tests run upon diagnosis are interpreted by the health experts. Their aim is to

  1. Reduce the symptoms triggered by the disorder.
  2. Inhibit the auto-immune procedure from continuing this self-destructive path.
  3. Assist the immune system so it can maintain the natural ability to prevent disease carriers from invading your body and producing symptoms.

Treatments may vary according to your physician’s suggestions, but they will surely be dependent on the particular illness and the symptoms people have experienced. These procedures and recommendations are likely to include the following:

  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle that includes a balanced diet, exercise, and adequate rest.
  • Professional Cognitive Behavioral and Relaxation Therapies
  • Education regarding triggers and flares avoidance
  • Limit Exposure to the Sun’s Rays
  • Immunosuppressant Medication
  • Anti-inflammatory Medication
  • Dietary Supplements
  • Herbal Medications
  • Blood Transfusions
  • Physical Therapy
  • Pain Reliever
  • Acupuncture

Tips to Avoid Auto-immune Disorders

The idea is to live simply without harming your immune system because it purpose is to serve you and this network is your health powerhouse. A failure to maintain a healthy lifestyle by engaging in stressful events, overexposure to the vices or uncontrolled comforts, can make someone more prone to developing auto-immune diseases. Before your condition gets any worse, there are a few tips you can live by which will be beneficial. There are many ways to improve your immune system functioning:

  1. Exercise on a regular basis.
  2. Treat bowel symptoms before they escalate.
  3. Consult with your doctor and for check possible infections.
  4. Learn deep relaxation exercises, such as yoga or meditation.
  5. Participate in some functional and or integrative medicine practices.
  6. Work on eliminating allergens from food intake and your environment
  7. Undergo a Celiac Disease blood test which can be performed by any doctor.
  8. Test to count heavy metals present in your body which can be highly toxic.
  9. Eat foods that are naturally rich in nutrients that have a calming effect on the immune system.

One purpose of this review was to explain that the psycho-social environment directly or indirectly relates to how a person physically and emotionally adapts or recovers from illness. Understanding this concept could have profound implications for future treatments administered to those having an acute and/or chronic disease. Psychotherapy is an extremely useful method assisting people to recover or cope with their illness without interfering with the natural abilities of the immune system, such as the overuse of medications. If science discovers the real cause-effect relationship, practitioners could develop psycho-social treatments to manage not only the physical health condition, but also the depression or the triggers in a more accurate fashion. In turn, these treatments will improve their odds of physical recovery.

Take Home Message

This article has shown that the immune system does not live an isolated existence apart from someone’s psychological or sociological environment. People experience many stressors throughout their day, and these triggers influence the ability of the immune systems function. Many significant studies have shown that there is a relationship between stress and a person’s health.

Autoimmune disorders may occur for unknown reasons. Live your life to the fullest, but see to it you are observing the proper care of yourself just the same. Treatment may lessen symptoms of the disorder, but once the illness takes hold it may be difficult to manage. It is well-known that prevention has always been better than a treatment or cure. So instead of correcting some negative health behaviors, people can live a healthy life prior to developing a disease. More importantly for parents, children are likely to adopt unhealthy habits that parents are participating in especially if they are not tending to their physical needs. Therefore, live a proactive, healthy lifestyle for yourself and your family’s health because the children will pass on your message.

Live Well

© Dr. Cheryl MacDonald

Health Psychology for Everyday Life the book

 Video of Health Psychology and Therapy


 Cheryl Ann MacDonald Psy’D

Health Psychology of San Diego

                  To ask a question or schedule an appointment, lecture/seminar feel free to call 1 669-200-6033

Health Psychology



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