Common Autoimmune Diseases: Symptoms, Causes & Diagnosis

Table of Contents

Autoimmune disease occurs when your immune system attacks your own body. Autoimmunity may lead to diabetes, skin disorders, thyroid disease, and more.

Autoimmune conditions affect a surprising percentage of the population. Since the end of World War II, autoimmune disease has been on the rise. Research suggests environmental triggers for autoimmunity — specifically, factors that influence gut health — have increased exponentially during that time, accounting for this widespread problem.

Some scientists and researchers rightly call the spread of autoimmune disease a pandemic, though autoimmune disease is not contagious.

Below, we list the most common autoimmune diseases, as well as risk factors, causes, and treatments. This is your one-stop shop for everything you need to know about autoimmune disease.

What are autoimmune diseases?

An autoimmune disease is a medical condition in which the immune system attacks the body. Your own tissues can be damaged and painful symptoms can result from the body’s unintentional attack on itself.

Autoimmune diseases can be triggered by many underlying causes. Diseases on this list may cause many diverse symptoms.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimated in 2005 that autoimmune disease affects at least 23.5 million Americans. That is 7% of the United States population, though some experts estimate a higher percentage. This number may have increased in the subsequent years.

If you think you may have an autoimmune disease, visit us at PrimeHealth in Denver, Colorado. We offer free phone consultations and can work with anyone in the United States. 

List of Common Autoimmune Diseases

There are more than 80 types of autoimmune diseases affecting tens of millions every year. Many are rare or not well understood. 

What are the most common autoimmune diseases? Below are the most common autoimmune diseases:

  • Addison’s disease affects your adrenal glands, resulting in fatigue, low blood sugar, and undesired weight loss.
  • Celiac disease happens when your immune system attacks your gastrointestinal tract whenever gluten is present.
  • Dermatomyositis is an autoimmune condition that causes skin problems and muscle weakness.
  • Graves’ disease leads to hyperthyroidism, in which your thyroid is producing too much thyroid hormone.
  • Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when your immune system attacks the nerves in control of your muscles, primarily in the legs and perhaps arms.
  • Hashimoto’s thyroiditis leads to hypothyroidism, AKA an underactive thyroid gland. 90% of underactive thyroid cases are due to Hashimoto’s. Common symptoms of underactive thyroid include fatigue, weight gain, and general soreness.
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a condition in which your intestinal lining is inflamed because of immune system dysfunction. IBD is split up into two distinct conditions: Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS) may lead to blindness, muscle spasms, and chronic pain as your immune system attacks nerve cells.
  • Myasthenia gravis happens when immune cells disable nerves, preventing muscles from working correctly.
  • Psoriasis affects the skin. Immune system cells (called T-cells) stimulate excess skin growth, which builds up and sheds or forms red patches. Up to 30% of psoriasis sufferers also experience psoriatic arthritis, a severe complication of this autoimmune disease, resulting in joint pain and inflammation.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis is a very common autoimmune condition in which your immune system attacks your joints.
  • Scleroderma is also known as systemic sclerosis. Your immune system attacks connective tissues. The primary symptom of scleroderma is hardening skin.
  • Sjögren’s syndrome leads to dry eyes and/or dry mouth, since the immune system is attacking the glands that lubricate your eyes and mouth.
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE, or “lupus”) affects the skin, joints, kidneys, blood cells, heart, and brain.
  • Type 1 diabetes mellitus is an autoimmune form of diabetes in which your immune system destroys pancreatic cells that produce insulin. Type 1 diabetes used to be referred to commonly as juvenile diabetes.
  • Autoimmune vasculitis is a cardiovascular-related condition in which your immune system attacks your blood vessels, lowering blood flow and increasing blood pressure.

Causes of Autoimmune Diseases

Autoimmune diseases are caused by immune system dysfunction. Your over-active immune system causes harm to your overall health.

What may cause immune dysfunction and autoimmune disease?

Who is at risk?

The most common risk factors for autoimmune disease are:

Autoimmune Disease Symptoms

According to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, there are over 100 distinct autoimmune diseases, each with their own unique set of symptoms. 

However, many autoimmune disorders present with similar symptoms. Common symptoms of autoimmune disease include:

  • Inflammation
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle aches
  • Swelling
  • Redness
  • Hair loss
  • Rash
  • Fever
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Numbness of the hands or feet
  • Abdominal pain
  • Joint pain

What are the worst autoimmune disorders? The worst autoimmune diseases are generally those considered to be fatal or that shorten life expectancy. These may also cause the most severe symptoms. Potentially fatal autoimmune diseases include: 

  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Lupus
  • Autoimmune myocarditis
  • Psoriatic arthritis
  • Vasculitis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis

Autoimmune Disease Diet

An unhealthy diet is a risk factor for autoimmune disease. Diet can also affect other autoimmunity risk factors like gut health, obesity, toxin exposure, and oxidative stress.

It is vital to your immune health that you eat a healthy, gut-supporting diet. The AIP and GAPS diets are two common diets for correcting gut issues and autoimmunity, which are inextricably connected. 

A less commonly known diet, the Carnivore Diet is also used to improve or cure autoimmune diseases, and was recently popularized by Dr. Paul Saladino’s book, the Carnivore Code. 

Below, we briefly outline what to avoid on these diets. The “approved” foods to eat on both of these diets typically include nutrient-dense, whole foods. However, they also restrict certain foods otherwise considered to support health.

AIP Diet

The AIP diet is a novel approach to decreasing inflammation through dietary changes. It is a strict elimination diet, similar to the paleo diet. AIP stands for “Autoimmune Protocol”.

AIP is often used to cure leaky gut syndrome, a controversial condition in the mainstream medical community. 

Leaky gut syndrome occurs when inflammation in the gut lining creates gaps between the cells that line the intestinal tract, therefore leading to inflammation throughout the body. It has been associated with an increased risk of Autoimmune diseases by various researchers like Dr. Alesio Faisano at Harvard University. 

In the past decade, more and more peer-reviewed research has been published that illuminates leaky gut’s impact on autoimmunity, the immune system, and whole-body health. A study published in 2017 demonstrated the efficacy of the AIP diet on improving IBD (inflammatory bowel diseases). 

What to avoid on the AIP diet:

  • Grains
  • Legumes, nuts, seeds
  • Dairy
  • Eggs
  • Nightshade vegetables
  • Refined carbohydrates
  • Alternative sweeteners
  • Processed foods

GAPS Diet

The GAPS diet is an elimination diet that was derived from the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, in order to naturally correct chronic inflammatory conditions, particularly in the gut.

GAPS stands for “Gut and Psychology Syndrome”. Because autoimmunity causes such inflammatory conditions, some dietitians have suggested the GAPS diet for autoimmune disease.

What to avoid on the GAPS diet:

  • Grains
  • Refined carbohydrates
  • Starchy vegetables
  • Dairy (unpasteurized may be acceptable)

Carnivore Diet

The Carnivore Diet is an extreme elimination diet, where participants avoid all, or almost all, plant foods completely, and only consume animals.  There are 4 “tiers”, or variations, of this diet discussed in Dr. Paul Saladino’s book.

In the classic carnivore diet (tier 2), you eat:

  • Grass-fed beef
  • Salt
  • Organ meat from grass-fed cows

Other tiers of this diet include other animals like pork, fowl, and seafood.  And the most lenient of the tiers would also include a few plant foods like olives, avocados, berries, cucumber, and romaine lettuce with olive oil and vinegar.

Diet Tips for Autoimmune Prevention and Treatment

Whatever diet you follow to address autoimmune diseases, these 9 diet tips are a good place to start:

  1. Eat probiotic foods, like sauerkraut and sugar-free yogurt.
  2. Drink water or green tea, instead of soda and alcohol.
  3. Steer clear of added sugar.
  4. Use anti-inflammatory spices like turmeric, ginger, and garlic.
  5. Avoid caffeine that can raise blood pressure and lead to insomnia.
  6. Look for healthy dietary fats.
  7. Focus on clean, high-quality protein like fish and grass fed and finished red meat.
  8. Add more vegetables to your diet.
  9. Don’t consume common food allergens, like gluten and dairy.

Diagnosis & Testing

Because autoimmunity encompasses many distinct disorders, there is not one single test that can diagnose autoimmunity.

An antinuclear antibody (ANA) test, however, is often the first test a doctor will administer when diagnosing autoimmunity. ANAs attack the healthy proteins inside the nuclei of your cells. While it can be normal to have some ANAs, an excess amount can indicate you suffer from autoimmunity.

It is common to have high levels of ANAs when you have cancer or infections, but high ANAs may help your doctor to determine whether your immune system is attacking the body.

Other diagnostics and blood tests used to diagnose autoimmune disease may include:

  • Autoantibodies
  • Immunoglobulin A
  • C-reactive protein
  • Erythrocyte sedimentation rate

Treatment of Autoimmunity

Treatment of autoimmune disorders will depend on the specific autoimmune disease and which doctor you see.

Conventional doctors will often ignore the root cause of autoimmunity, instead opting to manage symptoms. Conventional doctors like to prescribe 2 types of drugs for autoimmunity:

  1. Anti-inflammatory medication
  2. Immune-suppressing medication

However, many all-natural anti-inflammatories play a part in integrative treatment for autoimmunity:

  • Curcumin (the active ingredient in turmeric)
  • Ginger
  • Cat’s claw
  • Green tea extract
  • Peppermint oil
  • Rosemary oil
  • Omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish oil)
  • Vitamin D3
  • Medicinal mushrooms
  • Systemic enzymes
  • Cannabidiol (CBD) and Hemp oil

All-natural immune suppressants may also improve treatment outcomes for autoimmune disease, such as:

  • Curcumin
  • Ginger
  • Green tea
  • Ashwagandha
  • CBD
  • Licorice
  • Sarsaparilla

This 2018 case report shows that lifestyle changes can lead to lasting remission of autoimmune diseases, like Graves’ disease. The changes observed during this case report included:

  • Healthy diet
  • Improved oral hygiene
  • Avoiding environmental toxins

Is autoimmune disease curable?

Conventional doctors will say that autoimmune disease is not curable. But here at PrimeHealth, we disagree.

Conventional doctors tend to look for a single cause for disease. If there is not one single cause, then they cannot treat that single cause with a single medication. To them, this means that autoimmune diseases are incurable.

To integrative specialists and functional doctors, we accept years of research that reveal multiple root causes for a single disease. Diagnosing which root cause applies to you allows us to treat that root cause, and effectively cure the autoimmune disease.

Preventing Autoimmune Disease

Because all autoimmune diseases have multiple potential root causes, there is no one prevention method that works all the time.

Experts estimate that genetics play a part in at least a quarter of autoimmunity cases. While  you can’t control your genetics, you can control whether certain genes are expressed through epigenetics

There are several things you can do to reduce your risk of developing an autoimmune disease. To improve your chances of preventing autoimmune disease:

  1. Reduce stress. Your daily stress levels can induce a chronic immune response that leads to immune dysfunction. Your immune response to stress is supposed to be short-term, not an everyday occurrence. Try meditation or going outside. Having a gratitude practice is also extremely helpful.
  2. Take care of your gut, which houses 70-80% of your immune system. Gut health is inextricably linked with immune health.
  3. Quit smoking. Smoking has been linked with both weakening your immune system and autoimmune disease development.
  4. Wash your hands to prevent infection that could trigger immune dysfunction.
  5. Eat an anti-inflammatory diet, which has been linked with a decreased risk of autoimmunity. The Mediterranean diet is a popular and highly accessible anti-inflammatory diet plan.
  6. Exercise regularly. Exercising reduces excess body fat and helps maintain a healthy body weight. Obesity increases risk of autoimmunity. Fat that collects around our internal organs is called visceral fat and is highly inflammatory.
  7. Get a full night’s sleep. Research has only begun to scratch the surface on sleep’s connection to autoimmunity, but it is thus far a scientifically significant connection.
  8. Move away from farms that use pesticides. Childhood exposure to pesticides seems to be linked with adult-onset autoimmune disease.

When to See a Doctor

If you think your immune system is attacking your body, seek help right away. Common signs of autoimmunity include swelling, redness of the skin, and chronic fatigue.

Also, if you experience flare ups of an autoimmune disease that you thought you had under control, seek help right away.

Conventional doctors may say there is no cure for autoimmune disease. These doctors will simply manage your symptoms, instead of treating the underlying cause.

Examples of conventional doctors who you may want to see for autoimmunity:

  • Dermatologists manage symptoms of skin conditions, such as psoriasis.
  • Endocrinologists manage symptoms of gland disorders, like Graves’ disease and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.
  • Gastroenterologists manage symptoms of gastrointestinal tract conditions, including ulcerative colitis.
  • Rheumatologists manage symptoms of joint disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis.

Integrative medicine and holistic doctors, on the other hand, are more willing to look for an underlying cause of your specific autoimmune disease, even if there is not one single cause.

Click here to schedule a free over-the-phone consultation with us. Here at PrimeHealth, we deliver results you can’t find at a conventional doctor. We empower patients to take an active part in their whole-person health.

— Medically reviewed by Soyona Rafatjah, MD. on September 20, 2020

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