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Life With an Autoimmune Disease

If you have general, lingering symptoms, you may be suffering from an autoimmune disease -- which means your immune system is attacking healthy tissue.

Research Continues

Although autoimmune disorders can make life miserable, they usually are chronic and not fatal, Shomon says. Most are handled by a range of doctors from internist to rheumatologist to dermatologist. "There is no such thing as an autoimmunologist," she says. Usually, it's the researchers that are seeking to attack the disorders as a common group.

According to Rose, some approaches being tried include a complete "reboot" of the immune system -- the famous bone marrow transplant. "This is only tried if other treatments have failed," he says. "The idea is that if the entire immune system is erased, it might to a better job the second time around." Doctors at Johns Hopkins use a chemotherapy drug called cyclophosphamide to "reboot" the immune system. This has showed promise in a number of lupus patients.

If the causative agent of the disease is known, a vaccine can be developed. Immunoglobulin or antibodies are being used in children with the heart disease called Kawasaki disease, as well as Guillain-Barre and multiple sclerosis.

What You Can Do Now

If you suspect you may have an autoimmune problem, it's very important to identify and deal with any food allergies, according to Shomon. The main offenders are wheat, dairy, corn, soy, fish (especially shellfish), nuts, and fruits. High sugar, she contends, stresses the immune system. Make sure you eliminate trans fats and other bad fats and get enough good fats such as olive oil, fish oil, and avocado.

You also want to minimize infections -- wash your hands frequently. Take care of your teeth for the same reason: Gum diseases leak triggers into the body. Some people even lavage their noses with warm salt water to remove possible troublemakers.

Each autoimmune disorder also will have separate dietary and therapeutic recommendations. It's important to follow your doctor's orders. This is not a quick fix -- it's a lifestyle.

For more information, check out the web site of the American Autoimmune-Related Diseases Association, www.aarda.org.

Star Lawrence is a medical journalist based in the Phoenix area.

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Reviewed on November 10, 2003

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