Autoimmune disorders are rising in the U.S. Women make up 80 percent of diagnoses. National Women’s Health Month in May offers the opportunity to examine why women are more prone to autoimmune disorders and share advice for finding help.
Autoimmune disorders are conditions in which the immune system attacks the body, because it cannot distinguish between healthy tissue and potentially harmful invading antigens. The immune system is overactive. There are no cures for autoimmune disorders, but treatments may be available.
Common autoimmune disorders:
- Grave’s disease: The thyroid gland overproduces the thyroid hormone into the blood as a result of the immune system’s antibody production, resulting in bulging eyes, weight loss, nervousness, irritability, rapid heart rate, weakness and brittle hair.
- Guillain-Barre syndrome: Nerves in the legs, and sometimes arms and upper body, are attacked by the immune system resulting in weakness.
- Inflammatory bowel disease: As the immune system attacks the intestinal lining, individuals can experience diarrhea, rectal bleeding, abdominal pain, fever, weight loss and urgent bowel movements.
- Lupus: Antibodies can attach to tissues across the body – including the joints, lungs, blood cells, nerves and kidneys.
- Multiple sclerosis: Nerve cells are attacked by the immune system, leading to muscle spasms, poor coordination, pain, blindness and weakness.
- Psoriasis: A type of blood cell collects in the skin, prompting the skin to rapidly regenerate.
- Rheumatoid arthritis: The immune system produces antibodies that latch onto the linings of joints. As the immune system cells attack the joints, the result is swelling, inflammation and pain.
Diagnosing autoimmune disorders
Many autoimmune disorders have the same early symptoms, and they may flare up or go away during different times. Common symptoms include achy muscles, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, hair loss, low-grade fever, numbness or tingling in the hands and feet, skin rash and swelling or redness.
These symptoms, along with tests and physical exams, are used to diagnose autoimmune disorders. Symptoms alone aren’t specific enough to be diagnostic. While a professional examination is recommended, a single test cannot diagnose one autoimmune disorder. Even when a diagnosis is solidified, treatment may only be available for symptoms.
Women are more affected
There are no clear answers to why women are predominately affected by autoimmune disorders, but scientists have some clues.
- Genetics: Women are born with two of the same sex chromosome – XX – while men have XY chromosomes. The X chromosome is larger than the Y chromosome, suggesting that it contains more genes, and a larger chance of mutations that could lead to an autoimmune disorder.
- Hormones: Hormonal changes in menopause can increase the risk of rheumatoid arthritis for women, as the drop in the protective hormones estrogen and progesterone can leave the joints and bones vulnerable.
- Pregnancy: The surge of hormones during pregnancy can trigger autoimmune diseases, especially when combined with physical changes including increased metabolism, weight gain and lipid levels. The mother’s immune system is suppressed to sustain the fetus and prevent it from being attacked, which can trigger autoimmune diseases.
If someone suspects an autoimmune disorder behind their symptoms, talk with a primary care provider. Rheumatologist, gastroenterologist, endocrinologist and dermatologist appointments may be needed, depending on the symptoms.
About the author: Patricia Ferguson, M.D., is a physician consultant at Senior Health Services, Emergent Holdings — a separate entity contracted by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan to perform administrative services for the Blue Cross Medicare Advantage program. Learn more at AHealthierMichigan.org.