Is Autoimmune Disease Another Women’s Health Issue?

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Autoimmune Disease Is A Women’s Health Issue.
One day when talking to my then 35 year old son on the phone, he mentioned that he had lost much of the hair on his scalp and his eyebrows. This was particularly annoying for him since he is a performing musician and was on tour in Europe.

He said he had developed an autoimmune disease called “alopecia areata,” and that it was MY fault.

MY fault?
Yes, said he, he inherited it from me. “Thanks, mom.” He was thankfully fairly light about it, but explained that it wasn’t that I had THAT disease, it was just that autoimmune disease as a category is usually passed down through the mother. My thyroid disease, fibromyalgia, food and chemical sensitivities, gastritis and more pointed to me as the culprit.

Aha! Now I have one more thing to blame my own poor mother for. Ah, but she probably had a mother too.

What exactly IS an autoimmune disease?
As I read more about it, I discovered that, in simplest terms, an autoimmune reaction occurs when the body’s immune system mistakes a protein molecule produced by the host body for an invading organism. It then does what it is supposed to do with any invader. It attacks. In my son’s case, his immune system attacked his hair follicles.

Autoimmune reactions happen to us all the time, and we don’t even notice. But in some cases, the attacks result in a sometimes life-threatening chronic disease. Exactly why and how that happens is still not well understood – but researchers believe that both genetics and environmental factors are at play.

Why do I call autoimmune disease a women’s health issue?
Although it was my son who had called with the alopecia, evidently we women have three times the chance as men of developing an autoimmune disease, according to the CDC (LINK: http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/10/11/04-0367_article). That includes some 6.8 million women in the United States alone. Some theorize that this is because we are blessed with stronger immune systems to begin with. Others say our feminine hormones are to blame, as shown by fluctuations in severity of symptoms associated with menstrual cycles, pregnancy or use of “the pill.” Still others point to attributes of the X chromosome, of which we have double the number, of course, than men.

How many autoimmune diseases are there?
The American Autoimmune and Related Diseases Association, (AARDA) has tasked itself with providing a central repository for information about these diseases. AARDA provides an exhaustive list of autoimmune diseases (Link http://www.aarda.org/descriptions-of-diseases/), explaining many but not all of the 80 or so that have already been identified. The site is a great starting point for researching any autoimmune connection to your own symptoms or those of someone you care about.

It can certainly be confusing. Virtually every organ system in the body can develop an autoimmune disease. Many of us remain under-diagnosed, misdiagnosed, or left to suffer our symptoms simply because of the way doctors are trained.

How are autoimmune diseases related?
When my son pointed at me as the culprit in his autoimmune disease, he was presenting a fairly new understanding that autoimmunity was itself a field of study and an underlying CAUSE of disease, just as bacteria, viruses and parasites have been shown to be.

We have heart specialists, lung specialists, neurologists, allergists, endocrinologists and so on, each treating a symptom we have developed somewhere in the body. None of them are talking to the other one, and no one is likely to spot a possible underlying cause to seemingly unrelated symptoms.

There is a whole field of “functional medicine” developing to understand and intervene these relationships, but that approach is still not fully accepted by traditional medicine (and insurance companies).

My son, by the way, has excellent medical care and now has all his hair back – and now sports a shaggy beard besides.

In summary
Autoimmune disease affects 6.7 million Americans, 75 % of them women, and can attack any organ or system of the body. More than 80 separate conditions have already been identified as autoimmune disease, and the symptoms can range from annoying to fatal. Causes and effective treatment of underlying causes are still being researched.

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