It’s finally happened. Your doctor's put a name to your illness. The years of not feeling quite right, of fatigue, achiness, and brain fog finally have an explanation, and it all makes sense. You have an autoimmune disease. Maybe it’s multiple sclerosis, or celiac disease, or lupus, or rheumatoid arthritis, or something else. Whatever it is, you have a name, and you’ve longed for answers for so long that part of you feels like everything is going to be OK now. A diagnosis means a treatment plan … doesn’t it?
You are not alone in your diagnosis, or your thoughts about it. About 24 million Americans have an autoimmune diagnosis. Another 50 million people have not felt well for years, with symptoms of pain and fatigue and autoantibodies, but they do not yet have enough damage to their bodies to make an actual diagnosis.
That means a total of 75 million Americans have immune cells that are inflicting damage to their bodies. That's far more than are affected by cancer (approximately 25 million) or heart disease (also around 25 million). Scientists aren’t sure why, but the rates of autoimmune diagnoses have sharply climbed over the last two decades.
Currently, more than 140 diseases have officially been classified as autoimmune diseases, and the number is steadily rising with each passing year, as we learn more about autoimmunity and its ravaging effects on the body.
Your doctor might be able to give you a name for your disease. We’ve categorized many, but not all, autoimmune conditions. (Some we still call “Unspecified.”) Your doctor can also tell you that an autoimmune problem means that your immune cells are damaging your healthy cells and organs, in a mistaken attempt to rid the body of something it sees as other than itself. Scientists don’t know the precise reason why this happens, but they do know the result: progressive damage to vital organs (like the kidneys, heart, brain, and more) and tissues of the body (like the joints and skin).
Furthermore, your doctor will give you a treatment plan: medication that blocks the immune cells, or a specific step in the immune pathways, in order to slow the damage being inflicted by the immune cells on the body. The first drugs used to suppress the immune cells were a mild poison to the rapidly dividing immune cells, so they were not as vigorous in their attack of "self."
We are developing more potent and effective drugs now, which block specific steps in the immune cell pathways. These new autoimmune drugs are part of a multi-billion dollar industry, and they aren’t cheap. With prices ranging from $1,000 to $45,000 a month (or more), many people have a hard time affording them, or simply cannot afford them. These drugs also come with side effects, ranging from mildly annoying fatigue, mouth sores, heart palpitations, to life threatening infections and more.
But there is more to know about autoimmune disease—much more. And now we get into what doctors won’t tell you about your disease. What doctors usually don’t tell their patients (unless they are functional medicine doctors) is that hundreds, perhaps thousands of studies have demonstrated that all autoimmune conditions are a complex interaction of a person’s genes and the environment. Each individual gene known to increase the risk of an autoimmune condition increases that risk by only 1 to 2%. The rest of the risk comes from the interaction between those the genes and the environment.
This is significant. It means that autoimmunity has a genetic component, as we have long suspected, but it's very small. It also means it has a major lifestyle component.
Therein lies the good news for you, so it’s a shame more doctors aren’t spreading the word. Seventy to 95% of the risk for getting autoimmune conditions (as well as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer) is due to what you do: What you eat, how much you move, how you live your life, how much support you have, and what you're exposed to every day, from agricultural chemicals and industrial toxins to pollution.