Nearly 24 million Americans have an autoimmune disorder. This includes diseases like type 1 diabetes, Graves Disease, Hashimoto’s Disease, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis…and yes, our very own celiac disease.
March is Autoimmune Disease Awareness Month. The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) describes autoimmune diseases this way: “In an autoimmune reaction, antibodies and immune cells target the body’s own healthy tissues by mistake, signaling the body to attack them.” Basically the body attacks itself.
Each single autoimmune disease is, for the most part, rare. But when you put them all in one category, it actually amounts to 5-8% of the American population having an AI disease.
Autoimmune is in the Genes
When family members have an autoimmune disease, other family members are at higher risk. During an interview earlier this month with Noel Rose, MD, PhD, Director of Johns Hopkins Center for Autoimmune Disease Research, I asked him if we should be freaking out because of the genetic component?
“Risk in general is low…so definitely don’t freak out, but be aware,” Rose says. The risk for family members is 2-4 times higher generally. “If you have a family history, autoimmune is a potential problem. Your physician should be aware of your family history.”
Why Autoimmune Diseases are increasing
Dr, Rose also says over the last 20 years, autoimmune diseases are on the increase.
“It’s too steady to be a genetic change,” Rose says. “We think it is probably something in our lifestyle, this could be exposure to substances in the diet, environment or the absence of something …like infection during early childhood.” He believes HOW we live may very well be the culprit.
How to prevent an Autoimmune Disease
So can you really prevent an autoimmune disease 100%? Probably not. But there are things you can do to reduce your chances of getting an autoimmune disease. Rose recommends you keep a healthy lifestyle and that may either keep an autoimmune disease at bay or make you better able to handle the disease should it happen to you.
Healthy lifestyle tips:
- Keep weight down
- Exercise regularly
- Well-balanced diet
- Don’t smoke
If you have celiac disease in your family history you may wonder, as I have, would going on a gluten free diet keep other autoimmune disorders away?
Rose says don’t go gluten free if you don’t need to. “We don’t treat for a disease that doesn’t exist,” Rose says. “You certainly know from your family what the symptoms are. If you show signs and see your physician and get tested.” If you are positive for celiac, only then should you go gluten free.
If you think you may have an autoimmune disease, Rose says know the signs. “The most obvious one is fatigue. More than just tired. Fatigued to the point of not being able to do daily work.” But pay attention to other major changes in your body, they could also be signs.
*note: I am not a physician. If you have questions about autoimmune disease for you or someone in your family, please consult your medical provider