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Monday, June 4, 2018

The Causes of Autoimmune Diseases

An autoimmune disease is a result of breakdown or malfunction of the immune system. There are more than one hundred immune system disorders. Modern medicine is unable to explain or specifically identify the causes of autoimmune diseases. Despite the advancement of modern science and technology, frustration and disappointment are part of modern medicine in the area of autoimmunity.

Autoimmune disorders are becoming more rampant. By and large, women are more vulnerable to them than men are. Men have a higher incidence of mellitus diabetes and myocarditis than women; other than those, women are 3 to 6 times more prone to autoimmune diseases than men. Are you at risk?

It is important to understand how and why you may have an autoimmune disease.

First and foremost, you must have an understanding of your immune system in layman's term. Your immune system is made up of four parts, and each part has its unique function. The human immune system is very complex—a testament to the ingenuity and mystery of human creation—in that it involves the whole human body, not just certain body organs and tissues. Its basic function is to warn the body of imminent dangers of viruses and bacteria (unfortunately, many of us just ignore these tale-telling signs, or we simply fail to decipher these body messages). In addition, the immune system "remembers" these foreign invaders or antigens (the intention is to identify similar invaders in future for better disease-prevention purpose). Furthermore, the white blood cells in the immune system produce antibodies, which are chemicals that attach to and attack specific antigens. These white blood cells also send "messages" that cause "inflammation" in response to an injury or antigen, and thus instrumental in preventing an infection from spreading elsewhere. In other words, they receive "chemical instructions" to nip the disease or infection in the bud.

In short, the immune system serves different functions of identification, activation, mobilization, and restoration. It is akin to a police department in a city: it recognizes the city's potential crime scenario, takes strong measures to protect the public, trains the local police force, and regulates the law and order of the city.

Autoimmunity occurs when the immune system attacks its own cells, mistaking them for foreign invaders. To illustrate, in myasthenia gravis, which is an autoimmune disease, it is an autoantibody attack on the receptor responsible for the communication between the nervous system and voluntary muscles, and thus causing miscommunication that results in muscle weakness, a hallmark characteristic of myasthenia gravis.

In general, there are multiple causes of autoimmune diseases.
Environmental agents can trigger the onset or deterioration of an autoimmune disease. Heavy metal, in particular, mercury, is said to play a pivotal role, although the medical community has little information on how or why it may be the culprit of many immune disorders. According to studies, Americans whose work has no direct contact with heavy metals may have more than 200 chemicals in their bodies. According to Dr. Ahmet Hoke of John Hopkins University Medical Center, the volume of toxic chemicals found in humans is so huge and staggering that it is beyond the immune system's capability to handle. The scenario may be compared to an under-staffed police station in a crime-infested city. The immune system generally takes hundreds, if not thousands, of years to adapt to environmental stresses. Therefore, given the very toxic environment we are living in, the immune system may easily compromise its functions, leading to errors and mistakes, which are the root causes of autoimmunity.

Another important factor in the causes of autoimmune diseases is the genetic factor. Unfortunately, there is little you can do about your genes inherited from your parents..

Lifestyle and diet may also trigger an attack. For example, inadequate vitamin D from the sun may be implicated in the disease; however, too much ultraviolet from the sun may not be beneficial to the immune system. A diet with too much gluten, which is a protein, may cause inflammation in the small intestine, resulting in pain, and thus blocking the absorption of nutrients. If you are allergic to gluten, it may cause celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disorder. The iodine in seafood may be problematic to mice, although it has not been proved to affect humans.

All in all, an autoimmune disease may be caused by not just one factor but a combination of several factors. Given the complexity of the disease, it is important to have a holistic approach to treating the disease and disorder. Using medications alone is an inadequate approach to autoimmune diseases. In addition, medications cannot cure the disease: at best, it only attempts to suppress some of the symptoms by compromising the immune system. It is like a police station in which there are some bad guys within the police force; without identifying the bad guys, you simply disarm all the policemen so as to prevent the bad guys from causing trouble. Like wise, using medications to suppress an "overactive" immune system will suppress some of the symptoms but also at the expense of weakening the immune system. It is just a catch -22 situation.

Stephen Lau 
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