The National Institutes of Health estimates over 23 million Americans suffer from autoimmune disease, and that number is increasing every year. But chances are, 10 years ago you likely didn't know anyone who had Crohn's, IBS, or a similar disease. Here's why they're increasing, and what you can do about it.
If you've been feeling icky lately and made a visit to your doc, you might have noticed that she checked for a number of issues. Depending on the reason for your visit, she may have checked for several autoimmune diseases, which is when your immune system makes antibodies and immune cells that mistakenly attack your own healthy tissues, says Geoff Rutledge, M.D., Ph.D., a California-based physician and chief medical officer at HealthTap. The most common symptom of an autoimmune disease is inflammation, which is why any recurring complaint from tummy troubles to a funky rash that just won't quit may point to an underlying autoimmune disease.
In fact, autoimmune diseases are increasing. "A recent review of literature concluded that worldwide rates of rheumatic, endocrinological, gastrointestinal, and neurological autoimmune diseases are increasing by 4 to 7 percent per year, with the greatest increases seen in celiac disease, type 1 diabetes, and myasthenia gravis (a rapid fatigue of the muscles), and the greatest increases occurring in countries in the Northern and Western Hemispheres," says Dr. Rutledge. (Did you know there's a new way to test for celiac disease?)
But are autoimmune diseases really rising, or are doctors more educated on the symptoms and signs of them and therefore able to diagnose patients more effectively? It's a bit of both, according to Dr. Rutledge. "It is true that as we broaden the definitions of autoimmune disease, and as more people learn about these conditions, more people are diagnosed," he says. "We also have more sensitive lab tests that detect autoimmune conditions that are not yet symptomatic."
Dr. Rutledge also points out that there are a combination of factors that lead someone to be diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. Someone may have a likelihood of getting an autoimmune disease, such as Crohn's, lupus, or rheumatoid arthritis because of their genetics. If that person encounters a viral infection, that strain can set off an immune reaction and onset of an autoimmune disease. Rutledge says that environmental factors may also contribute to the rise of autoimmune disease, but at this point, that idea is simply a hypothesis and more research still needs to be done. Those environmental factors may include factors such as smoking, or pharmaceutical drugs used to treat other conditions like high blood pressure, according to a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives.
While there's no known way to prevent autoimmune disease, Dr. Rutledge says many doctors believe preventing vitamin D deficiency helps prevent type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and Crohn's disease. The two most common triggers for autoimmune diseases are diet (it may help to eliminate things like gluten, sugar, and dairy) and periods of high stress. And while many autoimmune diseases tend to reveal themselves by a certain age (like rheumatoid arthritis and Hashimoto's thyroiditis) you can be diagnosed with an autoimmune disease at any point in life.
Today many more cases of autoimmune disease are being diagnosed and this may lead to better technology for helping patients get diagnosed more quickly, before an illness turns serious. "Doctors hope for better technologies to identify and treat autoimmune symptoms early—such as by detecting autoimmune antibodies early in the course of one's illness—to help prevent a patient's early, minor symptoms from developing into a lifelong autoimmune disease," says Rutledge.