What is an Autoimmune Disease?

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There is a significant lack of understanding regarding the identification and treatment of autoimmune disease in both the general public and medical community. Because of this, patients suffering from an autoimmune disease often do not seek the aid they need and if they do, they may not receive effective treatment. To resolve this issue, it is important to be familiar with the function of the immune system and the basic characteristics of autoimmune disease.

How Does the Immune System Work?

The immune system is one of the primary defenders against dangerous foreign substances such as germs, bacteria, allergens, and viruses. When functioning correctly, the immune system identifies harmful agents and releases fighter cells to eliminate them. If the immune system does not recognize the attackers a response will not be triggered, thereby allowing the foreign substances to enter the body and cause potentially serious damage.

Understanding Autoimmune Disorders

Autoimmune disorders involve the misidentification of healthy cells such as tissue, as a threat to the body. When the immune system incorrectly targets these elements, it releases proteins called autoantibodies to attack and eliminate the perceived threat. If left unchecked, this can result in long-lasting or irreparable damage and disruption of important systems.

The assault of autoantibodies on healthy cells and tissues also prompts significant inflammation. This contributes to the development of other conditions and worsening of symptoms. Symptoms of autoimmune disease typically start slow and non-specific. However, as the condition progresses, symptom intensity can become severe and debilitating. In some cases, a patient with an autoimmune condition may not notice symptoms for years and only recognize them after the condition has become well established and difficult to treat.

Symptoms of Autoimmune Disease

There are over 100 known autoimmune disorders, each of which affects the body in unique ways. Even though some symptoms can be indicative of specific autoimmune disorder, there are far more symptoms shared between conditions. Because of this, it can be exceptionally difficult to identify specific disorders. Diagnosis is made increasingly difficult since it is common for multiple autoimmune conditions to be present at the same time. The overlapping or conflicting symptoms caused by such situations can make diagnosis exceptionally challenging.

Some of the most common symptoms of autoimmune disorder include:

  • Changes in mood
  • Chronic low-grade fever
  • Depression
  • Difficulty remembering or thinking clearly
  • Dryness in the eyes or mouth
  • Hair loss
  • Increased occurrence of infection and difficulty recovering from an infection
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Long-lasting fatigue and extreme fatigue
  • Numbness in the hands or feet
  • Pain in muscles and joints
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sudden or unexpected changes in weight
  • Unexplainable rashes
  • Weakness

Am I At Risk for Autoimmune Disease?

Despite relatively little being known about autoimmune disorders, a large percentage of the population is affected by them. According to the American Autoimmune Related Disease Association (AARDA) an estimated 50 million Americans have some form of autoimmune disease.

There are some markers such as gender, race, and genetics that may inform an individual’s risk for developing an autoimmune disease in the future. Additionally, there is a clear association between patients with a preexisting autoimmune condition and a greater risk of future autoimmune dysfunction.

Common Cases of Autoimmune Disease

Autoimmune dysfunction may be more prevalent than people think. There are several common conditions that many may not know are related to autoimmune dysfunction. Type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, and rheumatoid arthritis are just a few of the exceptionally common autoimmune disorders.

Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis

Hashimoto’s disease causes antibodies to react against proteins in the thyroid gland and go into attack, gradually killing thyroid cells. In the early stages of Hashimoto’s disease, patients may experience few to no symptoms. But as thyroid cells are damaged during each autoimmune attack, those cells release their stored thyroid hormones. This causes the patient’s thyroid hormone levels to be temporarily high, resulting in symptoms of hyperthyroidism such as panic attacks, anxiety, a fast heartbeat, sweating, shaking hands, diarrhea, and quick weight loss. This is also known as Hashitoxicosis.

With each attack, more and more thyroid cells are killed, until the thyroid becomes unable to produce enough thyroid hormones, and the patient begins to experience symptoms of hypothyroidism, such as fatigue, weight gain, hair loss, constipation, brain fog, memory loss, and more. Once a significant number of thyroid cells are destroyed, the patient becomes hypothyroid.

Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes the immune system to aggressively attack the intestine when gluten is present. Gluten is a protein most commonly found in wheat, rye, and barley. In addition to grains, gluten may be present in certain products such as vitamins, supplements, medications, and lip balms. For this reason, those with celiac disease must be particularly vigilant regarding what foods they eat and the products they use.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis causes the immune system to attack various joints resulting in pain, swelling, stiffness, and loss of function. The effects of rheumatoid arthritis are most often seen in the wrists and fingers, but the damage may be caused to any joint in the body. This autoimmune condition typically affects older individuals but can develop in an individual as early as 30. In some cases, rheumatoid arthritis may affect unexpected areas such as the eyes, mouth, and lungs.

Even though these and many other common conditions fall in the category of autoimmune dysfunction, treatment for these disorders rarely looks the same. The unique qualities of autoimmune dysfunction and individual patient factors make patient-specific treatment a necessity. No matter what autoimmune condition or conditions are present, treatment must be optimized for individual patients.

Autoimmune Dysfunction Awareness

Studies suggest that autoimmune disorders are increasingly common in the United States and elsewhere. Sadly, many are not aware of the potential threat of autoimmune dysfunction or the significant impact it has on individual wellness. Having a strong understanding of the basic characteristics of autoimmune disease may provide great assistance on the path to improved wellness. You can help protect the health of yourself and others from significant long-lasting dysfunction by raising awareness of autoimmune disease and its powerful impact on the body.

At Holtorf Medical Group, our physicians are trained to provide you with cutting-edge testing and innovative treatments to find the answers you deserve and a treatment plan that is personalized to your specific condition. If you’ve been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, but aren’t receiving the care and treatment you need, give us a call at 877-508-1177 to see how we can help you!


1. Scott M.Hayter, Matthew C.Cook. “Updated assessment of the prevalence, spectrum and case definition of autoimmune disease.” Autoimmunity Reviews. Volume 11, Issue 10, August 2012, Pages 754-765.

2. Andrew W. Campbell. “Autoimmunity and the gut.” Autoimmune Dis. 2014;2014:152428.

3. Christopher T. Ritchlin, M.D., M.P.H., Robert A. Colbert, M.D., Ph.D., and Dafna D. Gladman, M.D. “Psoriatic Arthritis.” N Engl J Med 2017; 376:957-970.

4. Lebwohl B, Ludvigsson JF, Green PH. “Celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity.” BMJ. 2015;351:h4347.

About Holtorf Medical Group

The Holtorf Medical Group specializes in optimizing quality of life and being medical detectives to uncover the underlying cause of symptoms, rather than just prescribing medications to cover-up the symptoms. We are experts in natural, prescription bioidentical hormone replacement and optimization, complex endocrine dysfunction, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and Lyme disease.

We’ve dedicated our practice to providing you the best in evidenced-based, integrative medicine that’s not only safe and effective, but provides measurable results.