When your doctor tells you that you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), he may also say it's an autoimmune disease. You might not think it has anything in common with conditions like type 1 diabetes or multiple sclerosis. But it does. They all result when something misfires in your immune system. Instead of attacking threats, it goes after you.
What Are Autoimmune Diseases?
Normally, your immune system acts like a loyal bodyguard with two main jobs:
- It helps find cancer cells and get rid of them.
- It protects you from outside invaders, like viruses or bacteria.
“When you have an infection like a cold or the flu, for example, the immune system launches a battle,” says Virginia T. Ladd, president and executive director of the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA). This causes inflammation inside the body, and symptoms like watery eyes and a runny nose. It fights the germs to get rid of them. That’s a great thing.
When you have an autoimmune disease a similar thing happens. But the results aren’t so good. Something causes your immune system to mistake your own cells, tissues, or organs as the bad guys. So it fights them. With RA it attacks your joints and their lining, called synovium.
What Triggers Autoimmune Diseases?
That's still not clear. But researchers are making progress.
As with other life-long conditions like heart disease, it’s probably not just one thing that causes these disorders. Many things work together to raise your risk, like your genes, environment, and lifestyle choices, says John A. Peyman, PhD, program officer in the autoimmunity branch of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).
For starters, it seems that you can be more likely to get an autoimmune disease if other members of your family have one. Your parents can pass down genes that make it more likely.
One gene has been linked with most autoimmune diseases, Peyman says. It’s called human leukocyte antigen (HLA).
“200 other genes contribute a tiny bit to the chance of getting RA,” he says.
So what happens if you inherit one of the genes?
You may be more likely than the average person to get an autoimmune disorder. While another person might get an infection and get better, the same infection might trigger the inflammation inside your body that leads to the disease, Peyman says.
For example, researchers are studying super-tiny living things called microbes in your gut, mouth, and on your skin. They may work more closely with the immune system than people thought, Ladd says. If they're out of balance, it may trigger your immune system and make more inflammation.
Other possible triggers include pesticides and smoking, she says. Hormones also probably play a role, since autoimmune diseases are much more common in women than in men.
What Are the Treatments?
Medicine and lifestyle changes can often control symptoms and slow these diseases.
Medication. Many drugs can now treat RA and other autoimmune disorders. Some are used for pain relief. Others target inflammation. Early treatment with drugs like these may be the best way to prevent joint damage. See your doctor to talk about your options.
Lifestyle choices. While you can’t change your genes, you can sometimes change how you live. That can help your treatment work better.
Even if you don’t have an autoimmune disease, but you think you might be at risk, these steps may help lower your chances.
To fight inflammation:
- Don’t smoke.
- Get enough sleep.
- Lower your stress. Try techniques like deep breathing or meditation. Or find a hobby you enjoy. Strengthen your relationships, too. Peyman says research shows that lonely people tend to have more inflammation in their bodies.
- Don't get too much sun.
- Avoid foods that boost inflammation. A nutritionist can tell you what those might be and how to cut them in a healthy way.
- Choose foods that lower inflammation, like ones that have a lot of omega-3 healthy fats. Salmon and enriched dairy foods or eggs are options.