What qualifies as an autoimmune disease?

A busy life keeps you focused on the immediacy of the task in front of you rather than allowing yourself to rest and cherish those things that are more important but less obvious.

This is a bit of a longer post, mostly because there are so many complexities to autoimmune disease, and it deserves some explanation. Even now, with the research we’ve done so far, there is more to know. Research uncovers many new connections and interactions all the time. This article isn’t intended to be a complete encyclopedia of autoimmune disease, but instead some information to help you understand it a bit better and recognize the reasons why managing symptoms can be a challenge for patients and practitioners. Autoimmune disease is a broad category of immune system dysfunction, that has only recently come into our vocabulary. While many of these diseases have been described in medical literature since the 1900s, and the term ‘autoimmune’ was first used in the 1950’s, the connection between different symptoms and disease profiles is a recent development.

At its root, the category of autoimmune disease is a collection of named diseases (and some others that aren’t fully described yet) that are caused by an overly active immune system. The body’s immune system begins to attack its own, healthy tissue. Unlike AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), autoimmune disease is defined by an overly active immune system.

There isn’t a single cause of autoimmune disease, but there are a lot of triggers being investigated. Some findings suggest it is triggered by an infection, other research indicates that there are environmental triggers. In some cases, it is diet and lifestyle factors that create the right conditions, and even further research suggests that it’s a major stress, like pregnancy or a major injury or illness.

Whatever the cause, what we do know is that all autoimmune diseases have a common thread – the body’s immune system attacking its own, healthy tissue. The presentation of the disease, and the symptoms it creates are what we use to give it a name. Rheumatoid Arthritis attacks the joints. Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis attacks the thyroid. Type 1 diabetes attacks the pancreas. Myasthenia Gravis attacks the proteins that connect nerves to muscles.

There are over 100 named autoimmune diseases – The AARDA keeps a current list, and every time I look at it, I shake my head in disappointment over just how widespread this epidemic is.  I encourage you to take a look – and see how many of these diseases you recognize. I bet there’s at least one on the list that will take you by surprise. The most common autoimmune diseases are:

  • rheumatoid arthritis - inflammation of joints and surrounding tissues
  • systemic lupus erythematosus - affects skin, joints, kidneys, brain, and other organs
  • celiac sprue disease - a reaction to gluten (found in wheat, rye, and barley) that causes damage to the lining of the small intestine
  • pernicious anemia - decrease in red blood cells caused by inability to absorb vitamin B-12
  • vitiligo - white patches on the skin caused by loss of pigment
  • scleroderma - a connective tissue disease that causes changes in skin, blood vessels, muscles, and internal organs
  • psoriasis - a skin condition that causes redness and irritation as well as thick, flaky, silver-white patches
  • inflammatory bowel diseases - a group of inflammatory diseases of the colon and small intestine
  • Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis - inflammation of the thyroid gland resulting in hypothyroid symptoms
  • Addison’s disease - adrenal hormone insufficiency
  • Graves’ disease - overactive thyroid gland
  • reactive arthritis - inflammation of joints, urethra, and eyes; may cause sores on the skin and mucus membranes
  • Sjögren’s syndrome - destroys the glands that produce tears and saliva causing dry eyes and mouth; may affect kidneys and lungs
  • type 1 diabetes - destruction of insulin producing cells in the pancreas
  • Multiple Sclerosis - destroys the lining (myelin) that covers nerves
  • Myasthenia Gravis  - attacks the proteins that allow nerve impulses to connect to muscles

What makes this all more confusing is that the body can mount what looks like an autoimmune response, but it doesn't fall neatly into any of these diseases. So, while you have an overactive immune response, you don’t have the right symptoms to lead to a diagnosis – and ultimately a treatment plan. All you get is a strategy of suppressing symptoms and not really addressing the root cause.

What does qualify as an autoimmune disease? Certainly a diagnosis of any of the listed diseases on the AARDA site would qualify. Or, you may get a diagnosis by exclusion when your medical provider can exclude other diseases, but doesn’t have a solid indicator. Many times, people can have an autoimmune response but not have the antibodies show up in their lab tests. These are called ‘seronegative’ diagnoses, and are most controversial with insurance companies and other providers.

Then you have providers who are more interested in treating the person who has a disease, and not the disease who has a person. This is commonly called Integrative Medicine, and an integrative practitioner may be an MD, or could have other specialized training. For an integrative practitioner, they’re looking at how your body systems respond and tracing the dotted lines between cause and effect that sometimes get hidden in the noise of lab tests, physical exams, and the way things ‘are supposed’ to be.

An integrative practitioner might identify an immune process out of control and be able to get things back in control with some modifications to your lifestyle and ensuring you’re nutritionally replete. This kind of imbalance isn’t a diagnosed autoimmune disease, or even any disease at all. It’s an imbalance in your body that needs some support to restore normal function. What it does say is that your body is capable of a full-scale autoimmune disease, and without careful strategies, you can find yourself with symptoms and damage that are irreversible.

Autoimmune disease, like so many other things, exists on a spectrum. Each person will have different symptoms and different intensities. What works well for one person, may only be marginal for another, and might even make things worse for someone else. That’s why my approach is to always work with clients to listen to the messages from their body and to nourish themselves with food, nutrients, amazing self care, and a safe space to heal their emotional selves.

I find that my approach works for those people who seem to be at the end of their options. Maybe you feel that the medical treatment either isn’t enough, or it just doesn’t work. Perhaps the holistic treatment is great, but doesn’t seem complete. When your symptoms aren’t bothersome anymore, but you’re not doing anything to actually get to the root cause. Sometimes the physical impact is lessened, but you’re struggling with all the crazy emotional upset. Ultimately, you just feel like what you’re doing isn’t enough.

If that sounds like you, I’d love to talk with you about what’s going on and see if I can help. You can send me an email to  see if what I’m doing makes sense for you.

Lisa Akers