Autoimmune Disease on the Rise in the United States

An April 2020 study published in Arthritis and Rheumatology suggests that autoimmune disease is on the rise in the United States.

In the study, researchers found that the prevalence of the most common biomarkers of autoimmune disease, called antinuclear antibodies (ANAs), is significantly increasing in the U.S. overall as well as among certain populations. These affected populations include:

  • Men
  • Non-Hispanic whites
  • Adolescents
  • Adults 50 year and older

The researchers examined over 14,000 patients ages 12 and up over the course of three time periods spanning 30 years. In this time frame, they discovered that the overall frequency of ANAs in their test subjects went from 11% affected individuals to almost 16% affected. The worst affected population was the adolescent group, who experienced a nearly three-fold increase in ANA rates over the course of the study period.

While the exact cause of autoimmune disease remains unknown, many scientists believe that a combination of genetic and environmental factors is responsible. However, the researchers in the study state that because people have not changed much genetically over the past 30 years, it is more likely that lifestyle or environmental factors are responsible for the ANA increases.

Christine Parks, PhD, is one of the researchers involved in the study who focuses on the environmental causes of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and other autoimmune diseases. “These new findings…will help us design studies to better understand why some people develop autoimmune diseases,” she said. She also added that there are over 100 chronic, debilitating autoimmune conditions that could stand to benefit from further research.

Donna Jackson Nakazawa, a Maryland-based science journalist and author of the book The Autoimmune Epidemic, believes that our ever-increasing exposure to chemicals, heavy metals, and viruses, coupled with stress, dietary and other lifestyle factors, is primarily to blame for the increase in autoimmune disease. She also points out that there may be a connection between autoimmune disease and allergies, which are also skyrocketing.

Nakazawa herself suffers from Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a paralyzing autoimmune disease similar to multiple sclerosis (MS). In her latest book, The Last Best Cure, she states that experts predict that the number of Americans who suffer from chronic conditions will rise an astonishing 37% by 2030.

While this may not sound like positive news, one good thing is that with an increase in autoimmune disease, more scientists, medical professionals and pharmaceutical companies will be encouraged to undertake research to find treatments and, ultimately, a cure for autoimmunity. I personally am hopeful that we will see enormous strides in biotechnology in my lifetime.

Are you surprised by the increase in autoimmune disease in the U.S.? Let us know in the comments below!

Why Autoimmune Patients with COVID-19 Should Beware of the Cytokine Storm

As the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for the COVID-19 disease continues to infect people and claim lives across the globe, scientists and medical professionals are learning more about its impact on patients.

One interesting phenomenon that’s been observed is that some coronavirus patients experience relatively mild to moderate symptoms, while others experience severe, life-threatening problems that can land them in the ER. According to Sharp Health News, the virus itself may not be entirely to blame for this, but rather, an overreaction by the body’s immune system.

When a foreign agent, such as a virus, invades your body, your immune cells secrete cytokines, which are molecules that initiate an immune response. However, in some cases, immune cells continue to secrete cytokines, even after a sufficient immune response has been mounted. This is called a ‘cytokine storm’ and the overproduction of these molecules can cause a harmful inflammatory response in the body.

Certain people are more susceptible to cytokine storms than others; for example, there is evidence that those with genetic mutations in their immune cells are more vulnerable. According to creakyjoints.org, those with autoimmune conditions often have abnormally high levels of these cytokines, which is why autoimmune patients often take immune-suppressing medications. However, a cytokine storm isn’t the same as an autoimmune disease flare, though they can be related.

As detailed by creakyjoints.org, some autoimmune patients end up with cytokine storms unrelated to COVID-19. Dr. Randy Cron, a pediatric rheumatologist and author of the book Cytokine Storm Syndrome commented, “About 10% of patients with juvenile idiopathic arthritis will experience [a cytokine storm]; in some cases, multiple times.”

With regards to COVID-19, which is respiratory in nature, a cytokine storm can gravely impact a patient. Acute lung injury (ALI) is a common consequence of a cytokine storm occurring in the lungs, and if a lung infection is severe, the inflammation will spread to the rest of the body via one’s blood circulation and cause sepsis. In some cases, the immune response to an infection can even be deadly.

That’s why it’s important to ‘calm the storm’ and prevent a cytokine storm before it even happens. One type of treatment being explored for COVID-19 is hydroxychloroquine, which is an antiviral and immunosuppressant drug used to treat malaria and autoimmune diseases like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and Sjogren’s. Although the medication is still undergoing clinical trials, many are hopeful that this drug will serve as a treatment to halt the progression of COVID-19.

Besides pharmaceutical therapies, Sharp Health News cites curcumin, a compound found in turmeric, as beneficial for its anti-inflammatory properties. A 2015 study states that in lab experiments, researchers found that curcumin blocked the release of the cytokines that are responsible for inflammation.

All in all, it’s important for autoimmune patients to guard against the coronavirus by adhering to strict hygiene guidelines, such as hand washing thoroughly with soap and water, avoiding close contact with others, and disinfecting surfaces routinely. Remember, prevention is the best form of treatment, and can help those with autoimmune disease to avoid a damaging cytokine storm.

How Chronic Illness Can Kill Your Self-Esteem

Chronic Illness and Self-Esteem

I recently read a post on Reddit on the r/autoimmunity subreddit titled ‘Losing Everything‘. In the post, the author describes being diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune condition affecting one’s moisture-producing glands. The author has also been living with other autoimmune diseases, including Graves’ disease, Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and Granulomatosis with Polyangiitis (GPA), for quite some time.

She goes on to say that since being diagnosed with these conditions, she feels like she is losing everything that makes her ‘herself’. For example, she is an artist, but she has lost the use of her dominant hand as a result of her conditions, leading her to quit her art. She also had a unique style, with beautiful thick hair and piercings. However, most of her hair has now fallen out and she had to remove her piercings due to constant infections.

The author’s post made me think of my own struggle with chronic illness and how having Sjogren’s Syndrome, Hidradenitis Suppurativa (HS) and Benign Fasciculation Syndrome (BFS) has impacted my sense of self.

Although I have both good days and bad days, I often resent my body and these diseases for what they have ‘taken away’ from my life. I often think to myself, what would I have accomplished by now had it not been for this disease? Would I be further along in my career? My education? Would I have more social connections and deeper friendships? It’s hard to quantify, but I feel like my life would have been very different had I not developed autoimmune issues. In other words, I don’t feel like I can be my true ambitious self because of my chronic illnesses.

I could also relate to the author’s mention of her outward appearance, like her hair and piercings. I notice that I often think ‘why bother?’ when it comes to things like fashion and beauty, which were important to me before my diagnosis. I think this is because I’ve adopted the mindset that I am ‘diseased’, so why bother to look nice? This is definitely a negative mindset that I’m continuing to work on, but, I think it’s important to acknowledge how chronic illness can impact your sense of self- whether it’s your own self-image, or even your outward appearance.

I also recently read a powerful testimony on The Mighty by Megan Klenke titled, ‘How Chronic Illness Can Drastically Affect Your Self-Esteem’. In her post, she describes the shame that many individuals with chronic conditions and disabilities face, such as having to ask for help to do tasks that they once did independently, using a wheelchair, or dealing with embarrassing side effects of medications. Furthermore, Megan also points out that simple things like missing family functions or get-togethers with friends as a result of illness can make one feel left out and like an ‘awful’ family member or friend.

A YouTuber I follow named Samantha Wayne also created a video detailing her struggle with the impact of lupus on her self-image. She ended up being hospitalized and had to take time off to rest. During this time, she says she felt useless and like she wasn’t doing enough. Also, she had to step back from her job because being on her feet all day was taking a toll on her health. The medications she was taking, such as prednisone, also impacted her outward appearance.

Samantha did say that leaning on her support system has helped her to get through negative feelings about her self-worth. She also says that realizing that everyone is worthy, regardless of their health status, has also helped. Furthermore, she says that while her disease caused her to lose certain hobbies, like competitive basketball, she was able to adopt new hobbies and learn new skills such as video blogging on her YouTube channel, which she started in order to raise awareness about lupus. Finally, she says that practicing gratitude for the things she can do and what she has is another way that has helped to overcome her low self-esteem.

Has having a chronic illness impacted your self-confidence, and if so, how have you handled it? Let us know in the comments below!

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