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  • Patricia Pearce, ND

The Autoimmune Disease Series Part 4: An Overview of Common Autoimmune Conditions

The various autoimmune and inflammatory diseases all share a common cause: an overactive, hyper-vigilant immune system that has “lost tolerance for self,” and is mistakenly attacking organs and tissues. The diseases differ in which organs and tissues are being targeted, as well as the component of the immune system that has become hyper-vigilant. In this article we will briefly discuss the causes and the targeted organs of several common autoimmune/inflammatory diseases. Keep in mind that this is by no means an exhaustive list of autoimmune conditions!

1. Multiple Sclerosis (MS):

-Organs/Tissues Affected: Central nervous system (CNS)-brain and spinal cord

-Cause: Inflammatory attack by the immune system against myelin, which is the covering on neurons that allows them to conduct electrical signals. T-cells identify myelin as “foreign” (non-self) and initiate an inflammatory cascade which includes antibodies to myelin and leads to neuronal dysfunction.

2. Psoriasis:

-Organs/Tissues Affected: Skin, nails, sometimes joints (as in psoriatic arthritis)

-Cause: Surface skin cells called “keratinocytes” are stimulated by immune cells and cytokines to mature and reproduce much more rapidly than normal, creating red, scaly plaques. Immune system function is often “skewed,” with one subset of immune cells ("Th1) predominating over the other (Th2.)

3. Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA):

-Organs/Tissues Affected: Joints, especially the wrists and hands, occasionally other organs

-Cause: Inflammatory infiltration of the lining of certain joints called the synovium, causing joint thickening, granulation (scar tissue), and destruction.

4. Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE):

-Organs/Tissues Affected: Systemic, but frequently skin, musculoskeletal tissue, heart, lungs, kidneys, CNS, reproductive, and other organ damage.

-Cause: B-cells of the immune system mistakenly produce antibodies against components of the nucleus of any cell in the body. These antibodies are able to then form “complexes” with other proteins, and due to decreased clearance, can become deposited anywhere in the body and have a myriad of detrimental effects.

5. Celiac Disease:

-Organs/Tissues Affected: Small intestine

-Cause: In a process of cross-reactivity, the immune system attacks and produces antibodies to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, spelt, and barley, as well as the lining of the small intestine. The villi, or finger-like absorptive lining of the small intestine become severely damaged and malabsorption of nutrients follows.

6. Inflammatory Bowel Diseases (IBD):

-Organs/Tissues Affected: Small intestine (Crohn’s) and colon/rectum (Crohn’s & UC)

-Cause: Inflammatory reaction against the full thickness of the intestinal wall (Crohn’s) or the surface layer/mucosa (Crohn’s & UC). Possible mechanisms for this inflammatory reaction are dysbiosis, intestinal permeability, and diet.

7. Hashimoto’s Disease:

-Organs/Tissues Affected: Thyroid (mainly hypothyroidism)

-Cause: Gradual thyroid destruction by both direct targeting of thyroid cells by T-cells and antibodies to components of thyroid cells. Hashimoto’s disease can have a characteristic period of hyperthyroidism at the onset of disease, followed by the more typical hypothyroid picture.

8. Grave’s Disease:

-Organs/Tissues Affected: Thyroid (mainly hyperthyroidism)

-Cause: Antibodies called “thyroid stimulating immunoglobulins” stimulate the thyroid to produce thyroid hormone, using a similar mechanism to our innate “thyroid stimulating hormone.” This overproduction of thyroid hormone leads to a state of hyperthyroidism.

9. Type 1 Diabetes (T1D):

-Organs/Tissues Affected: Pancreas, disrupts insulin production and leads to hyperglycemia (elevated blood sugar)

-Cause: Destruction of insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas via autoimmune processes and auto-antibodies, causing cessation of insulin production and elevated blood sugar levels.

10. Scleroderma:

-Organs/Tissues Affected: Skin, can also involve cardiovascular, digestive, pulmonary, musculoskeletal, genitourinary, and other organ damage (CREST syndrome)

-Cause: Initial injury or damage, often to the wall of a blood vessel, causes an inflammatory cascade of events which culminates in fibrosis and excessive production of collagen and other scar tissue.

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