When your body is operating normally, your immune system should defend against foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses to keep you healthy. But for approximately 50 million Americans who develop an autoimmune disease, the immune system turns against the body–believing that normal, healthy cells are foreign and then attacks them.

Autoimmune diseases can affect a variety of different organs and body systems and trigger a variety of symptoms. Some of the most common include:

  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • lupus
  • celiac disease
  • scleroderma
  • irritable bowel disease
  • Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (a form of underactive thyroid)
  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Graves’ disease
  • Addison’s disease and more

What causes an autoimmune disease?

Doctors ¬†aren’t completely sure what triggers an autoimmune disease, but your risk may be higher if you have a first-degree relative (mother, father, brother or sister) with one. Other possible factors are chemical exposure, environmental triggers, drugs, and exposure to some bacteria or viruses.

How are autoimmune diseases diagnosed and treated?

To diagnose an autoimmune disease, your doctor will look at specific blood work to examine the level of inflammation in your body and other messages sent out by the cells if they are being attacked.

There is no medical cure for an autoimmune disease, but there are steps you can take to live a more healthy life and minimize your symptoms.

  • Eat a healthy diet low in inflammatory foods like gluten, dairy, and processed chemicals
  • Avoid triggers (like stress or specific foods or activities)
  • Get plenty of rest
  • Take supplements or vitamins as directed by your doctor
  • Exercise regularly
  • Take any immune suppressing or anti-inflammatory medications as prescribed

Some people also find other therapies like acupuncture, chiropractic care, or hypnosis helpful.

March is autoimmune disease awareness month. It’s important to take good care of your body if you have an autoimmune disease and to monitor your health if those related to you do–just to make sure you catch any problems early. Talk with your doctor about your risk and adopt a healthy lifestyle now to help control symptoms and live your best life.