You’ve almost certainly heard the term “autoimmune” a lot recently. It may seem like a health buzzword that gets traction on social media — and in some ways, the term is being treated as such. But autoimmune issues represent a range of genuine health issues that affect many people in very serious ways.
If you feel like many people you’ve encountered recently are suffering from some sort of autoimmune condition, it’s not in your head. According to Stella Bard, MD, a board-certified rheumatologist, autoimmune conditions are on the rise among women. Here’s what you need to know about why cases are rising, which conditions are common, and what you should look out for if you’re concerned about autoimmune issues.
What are autoimmune diseases?
According to the Cleveland Clinic, “autoimmune disease happens when the body’s natural defense system can’t tell the difference between your own cells and foreign cells, causing the body to mistakenly attack normal cells.”
There are many autoimmune diseases (including some common conditions such as type 1 diabetes and lupus), and these cases of these conditions range in severity.
Several common conditions fall under the autoimmune umbrella.
When people talk about autoimmune conditions colloquially, sometimes they make it sound as though they all manifest the same way. While autoimmune conditions do share a root cause, there’s a wide range of these conditions.
As mentioned, type 1 diabetes and lupus are two common conditions that fall under the autoimmune umbrella. The list of autoimmune diseases also includes rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, multiple sclerosis, alopecia, and Hashimoto’s disease.
Are autoimmune diseases more common in women?
Unfortunately, the answer is yes. And you can blame chromosomes for that, according to Dr. Bard.
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The X chromosome has more genes on it, [which increases the potential for autoimmune issues], and women are more prone to these diseases because they have two X-chromosomes, while men only have one,” she explains.
Which autoimmune diseases commonly affect women?
According to Dr. Bard, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjogren's disease, and lupus are among the most common autoimmune issues in women.
How do you know if you have an autoimmune disease?
Autoimmune conditions can have wildly different presentations. Someone may experience something as localized as small bald spots in their hair (alopecia areata), or as widespread as multiple sclerosis, which can cause everything from gait to cognitive issues.
According to Dr. Bard, rheumatoid arthritis involves joint swelling, stiffness, and pain, and Sjogren's involves dry mucosa (eyes, mouth, vaginal, skin).
If you’re experiencing any of those symptoms, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have one of these conditions, but if you’re concerned, it may be worth a chat with a physician. Dr. Bard also points to fatigue and low vitamin D levels as potential red flags that may (or may not) indicate autoimmune conditions.
Recent developments suggest that autoimmune diseases may even manifest as psychiatric symptoms, causing issues such as schizophrenia. Symptoms of autoimmune conditions are all over the map, so to speak, but any physical concerns should be discussed with your primary care physician.
Why are autoimmune diseases on the rise among women?
Not surprisingly, lifestyle factors may be to blame.
“The Western diet lacks important anti-inflammatory components of the Mediterranean diet,” says Dr. Bard. “It lacks fiber, [which is] important in creating and maintaining a healthy microbiome. This collection of microorganisms in our gut can trigger autoimmune disease if it contains more bad strains than good strains. The good strains are responsible for maintaining colon health and avoiding autoimmune disease.”
What are some misconceptions about autoimmune diseases?
“People are not aware that more than 100 different autoimmune diseases exist,” says Dr. Bard, who adds that contrary to what some may think autoimmune conditions are chronic, but not fatal.
Are autoimmune diseases genetic?
There appears to be a genetic link. With that being said, having a relative with an autoimmune condition may increase your risk of all conditions, rather than just that particular disorder.
“Upon further questioning of patients with autoimmune conditions, there is usually a family member who also has an autoimmune condition that might be different from [the condition the patient is experiencing],” says Dr. Bard.
Are there any ways you can reduce your risk of developing an autoimmune disease?
Yes — just like lifestyle factors may be driving the increase in cases, they can also potentially reduce your risk of developing a condition. Cessation of smoking, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, and limiting consumption of refined carbs or processed foods may help.
Zara Hanawalt is a freelance journalist and mom of twins. She's written for outlets like Parents, Marie Claire, Elle, Cosmopolitan, and Motherly. In her (admittedly limited!) free time, she enjoys cooking, reading, trying new restaurants, and traveling with her family.