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About Autoimmune Disease:

4 Myths About Autoimmune Disease

Margaux Thieme-Burdette September 30, 2021

Myth #1: There is a cure for autoimmune disease

Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s own healthy cells, tissues, and organs. While the causes are not fully known, these diseases are likely triggered by complex environmental and genetic factors.

While there is no true consensus on exactly what the word “cure” means, it is generally understood that when a disease is cured, it does not exist anymore. This means that there is no risk of it coming back, no more symptoms, and no need for treatment. As far as autoimmune disease goes, there is no particular remedy – conventional or otherwise – that can fully and permanently stop a disease from taking place, or cure it. This may be the case for other related chronic illnesses as well.

“Some individuals are able to heal over time
and move toward a new state of health”

It is possible, however, to manage conditions and improve quality of life by controlling the immune response, calming inflammation, and addressing other underlying issues. Through a combination of medical interventions, supplements, dietary and lifestyle changes, and other therapies, some individuals are even able to heal over time and move toward a new state of health.

Healing may mean permanently adopting certain lifestyle changes and continuing therapies that improve immune system function, repair damage, and eliminate symptoms. This state of stable health (which may still involve symptom flare-ups from time to time) is known by many as remission – when symptoms are reduced almost or entirely to zero.

Be aware that all of these terms (cure, heal, treat, remission) remain a source of debate within medical and patient communities. It may be helpful to decide for yourself what these words mean in your life. And keep in mind that although there is no known cure, it is possible to live a full and vibrant life with autoimmune disease.

Myth #2: One treatment should work for everyone

Treatment for autoimmune disease is typically focused on managing or minimizing symptoms and disease activity on an ongoing basis. There is no one-size-fits-all treatment! This goes for related or undiagnosed chronic illnesses, as well. Each approach depends on your unique circumstances – your symptoms, overall state of health, and environment, as well as what works best for your way of life.

Common medical treatments for autoimmune disease are:

  • immunosuppressant drugs
  • non-steroidal anti-inflammatories
  • other conventional medications
  • surgery
  • physical therapy

Holistic forms of medicine take a slow healing and whole body approach to chronic conditions, sometimes in conjunction with pharmaceutical interventions and supplements. Holistic approaches often focus on:

  • improving sleep quality
  • spending time in nature
  • practicing mindfulness
  • exercising daily
  • addressing mental health
  • eating a whole-food, nutrient-rich diet
  • other therapies and practices

The right approach for one person will not necessarily be right for someone else. A treatment protocol is meant to be personalized and comprehensive, and may often involve different types of practitioners and care.

While searching for answers and treatments, you may need to adjust the expectations you have about your health. Both you and your healthcare providers will likely hit roadblocks, but know that there are countless options and perspectives out there. Give yourself a break when you need one, but don’t give up!

Myth #3: If my family member has an autoimmune disease, I will get that same disease

There is evidence that having autoimmune disease in the family puts a person at higher risk for developing a condition, though not necessarily the same one. With certain diseases in particular, such as lupus and multiple sclerosis, the risk of developing the same disease as a family member may be elevated.

Nevertheless, if someone is at higher risk it does not mean they’re destined to get sick. The way a particular gene is expressed can be altered via the epigenome, a layer of chemical tags that sits on top of our DNA. When environmental components – such as toxic chemicals, diet, or infections – interact with the epigenome, they may activate or deactivate parts of the genome through complex chemical reactions, thus triggering disease.

As environment and lifestyle play a role in the epigenetic equation, you may want to talk with your healthcare provider or a genetic counselor about preventative steps you can take. Due to epigenetics as well as various reasons researchers are still working to untangle, not everyone who is predisposed will develop autoimmune disease.

Myth #4: Autoimmune disease is caused by stress

While chronic stress can play a role in triggering autoimmune and other conditions, stress is not the singular cause. Given that doctors are dismissing symptoms and misdiagnosing diseases, when they pronounce “it’s just stress” it wrongly puts the blame on the patient. Many mysterious and often invisible sets of symptoms (i.e. autoimmune and related conditions) are blamed on psychological distress alone, which results in delayed diagnoses and deep frustration with the medical system. 

There are myriad factors – environmental, immunological, hormonal, genetic – that trigger, perpetuate, and exacerbate disease. There are also many faces of stress (including physical and psychological), as well as the stressors that induce it. These stressors may be perceived as positive or negative, and may induce positive or negative responses.

For instance, a “negative” stressor in one person’s life will provide improved coping skills and personal growth in the long-term, but for another person it will have the opposite effect. A traumatic life event or a serious viral infection can trigger a new health condition or an autoimmune flare-up.

Examples of “negative” stressors:

  • managing a chronic illness
  • abusive relationship
  • environmental toxins
  • processed foods
  • infections
  • injuries

Events perceived as more positive can also be considered stressors. They might provide much needed energy and stimulation, or they might bring about less desired effects.

Examples of “positive” stressors:

  • pregnancy and childbirth
  • work and school deadlines
  • social interactions
  • planning an event
  • preparing for a competition

As there are many kinds of stressors and personal responses to them, the impact of these events is not always clear.  The question of whether stress can be labeled as “good” or “bad” is a complex one.

Yet what is becoming clearer is the distinction between daily or short-term stress and chronic stress. Our sympathetic nervous system – one key player in the stress response – will activate the “fight or flight” mode during periods of stress to increase energy and alertness. When it does not switch off or is not interrupted by periods of “rest and digest,” however, this completely normal and healthy reaction can evolve into chronic stress.

“If you encounter disbelief and blame from your
doctor, do not hesitate to seek out someone new”

With a dysfunctional stress response, typical life stressors can affect you in different ways than someone who has a healthy stress response. In a chronic state, studies have shown that stress has damaging effects on many areas of the body – including the immune system.

Lifestyle interventions and reducing factors contributing to chronic stress can help manage health conditions and prevent flare-ups. Talk to your healthcare providers about what role chronic stress may be playing and how to address it.

While it is empowering to know that you do have some control, it is important to remember that it is not your fault you’re sick. When doctors point the finger directly at stress, they are palpably disregarding the various other factors involved. They are also undermining the fact that being chronically ill in and of itself causes stress, as well as conditions like anxiety and depression.

If you encounter disbelief and blame from your doctor, do not hesitate to seek out someone new. There are compassionate healthcare professionals out there.

Also read: The Chronic Search for Relief in the Medical System

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Sources

  1. Article Sources and Footnotes
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    4. Ho, S., Johnson, A., Tarapore, P., Janakiram, V., Zhang, X., Leung, Y. (December 2012). Environmental Epigenetics and Its Implication on Disease Risk and Health Outcomes. Institute for Laboratory Animal Research Journal, 53(3-4), 289–305. doi: 10.1093/ilar.53.3-4.289

    5. Learn.Genetics. Epigenetics. University of Utah. https://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/epigenetics/

    6. MedlinePlus. (August 18, 2020). Multiple Sclerosis. U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/genetics/condition/multiple-sclerosis/#inheritance

    7. MedlinePlus. (August 18, 2020). Systemic lupus erythematosus. U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/genetics/condition/systemic-lupus-erythematosus/#inheritance

    8. “Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.” (January 27, 2021). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/me-cfs/symptoms-diagnosis/symptoms.html

    9. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Autoimmune Diseases. (March 23, 2021). National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/conditions/autoimmune/index.cfm

    10. National Research Council Committee on Recognition and Alleviation of Distress in Laboratory Animals. (2008). “Stress and Distress: Definitions.” Recognition and Alleviation of Distress in Laboratory Animals. National Academies Press. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK4027/

    11. Trescott, M. (July 29, 2019). Why the Words ‘Remission’ and ‘Cure’ Do a Disservice to the Autoimmune Community. Autoimmune Wellness. https://autoimmunewellness.com/why-the-words-remission-and-cure-do-a-disservice-to-the-autoimmune-community/

    12. Stojanovich, L., Marisavljevich, D. (November 29, 2007). Stress as a trigger of autoimmune disease. Autoimmunity Reviews, 7(3), 209-13. doi: 10.1016/j.autrev.2007.11.007

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    14. Zielinski, M. R., Systrom, D. M., Rose, N. R. (August 6, 2019). Fatigue, Sleep, and Autoimmune and Related Disorders. Frontiers in Immunology. doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2019.01827

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