Autoimmune diseases are often chronic conditions that can evolve, so minimizing damage and progression is typically the mainstay of treatment.
The immune system has several components that normally work harmoniously to keep you healthy. Given the immune system's complexity with its various moving parts, errors can occasionally happen and lead to drastic downstream effects.
Autoimmune diseases are a broad group of conditions in which the immune system mistakenly attacks your own body, causing inflammation and damage. There are dozens of autoimmune diseases, each of which can affect different areas of the body, making them potentially difficult to treat.
Treatments for Autoimmune Diseases
It is well known that an individual’s health is affected by various factors, such as genetics, environmental influences, and psychology; therefore, the most effective treatments address each of these components.
When comparing autoimmune diseases, it is important to understand that symptoms can drastically differ between conditions. Lupus may affect several different body areas, whereas Hashimoto thyroiditis only affects the thyroid gland.
Furthermore, the timeline is also variable among various autoimmune diseases. For example, type 1 diabetes has permanent, long-term effects, whereas other autoimmune conditions can present in flares.
Nonetheless, there are common symptoms among autoimmune disorders. Some of the different strategies used to treat autoimmune diseases are listed below.
1. Immunosuppressive and Anti-Inflammatory Medications
The general treatment for autoimmune diseases involves medications that suppress the activity of the immune system or limit the damage it can cause. Immunosuppressants can exert their effects by simply destroying immune cells or hiding the body from its sight, preventing the damage before it happens.
This is not without a trade-off, as a weakened immune system leads to an increased risk of infection from foreign pathogens; however, various techniques have been developed to help improve the immune system.
Antibodies, also known as immunoglobulins (Ig), are circulating proteins in the bloodstream that are trained to recognize and neutralize potential threats. An immunosuppressed patient may not be able to produce their own immunoglobulins. Intravenous immunoglobulins, or IVIg treatment, can be used to supply antibodies to someone in need to bolster their defenses.
Minimizing inflammation and pain is another approach to treating autoimmune diseases. Glucocorticoids, also known as steroids, are a type of medicine that has the dual effect of suppressing the immune system and reducing inflammation.
Another commonly used class of medications is the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen. Tylenol can be used for additional relief, although this medication is better suited for treating pain rather than inflammation.
2. Health Maintenance
Autoimmune diseases are often chronic conditions that can evolve, so minimizing damage and progression is typically the mainstay of treatment. It is essential to have regular evaluations by a health care provider to track disease progression and make necessary adjustments to the treatment plan. Clinicians can help teach how to prevent flares and provide the most helpful resources for each condition.
3. Sleep and Rejuvenation
Sleep is the period in which most of the body’s repair and regeneration occurs. Because autoimmune diseases can cause chronic inflammation and damage in the body, quality sleep is vital to help counteract these effects. Although it may be difficult, several lifestyle changes can promote restful sleep.
Turning off the electronics a few hours before bedtime can help make it easier to fall asleep. A consistent sleep schedule, even over the weekends, can also make it easier to fall asleep and wake up.
Furthermore, try to avoid napping and choose a dark, quiet environment at night to minimize disturbances. Blackout curtains and earplugs can help improve sleep quality in this aspect. Lastly, substances such as nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine can reduce sleep quality and quantity. They should be avoided for a full night’s rest.
4. Staying Active to Preserve Function
Some common symptoms of autoimmune diseases include fatigue and joint pain or stiffness.
This may lead to a harmful cycle causing people to avoid exercise, leading to muscle breakdown and loss of joint stability and motion, further hindering the ability to stay active.
However, regular exercise can help maintain mobility, improve flexibility, decrease fatigue, and may help reduce inflammation. Exercise should generally be avoided during flares of autoimmune disorders, and any exercise should be tailored toward the individual's functional ability while considering the limitations of each specific autoimmune disorder.
Overall, there is a relatively low risk to exercise in individuals with autoimmune disease and significant potential benefits.
5. Lowering Stress
Stress is any stimulus that causes physical, emotional, or psychological strain. This may negatively affect the body and exacerbate medical conditions. Therefore, minimizing stress can help prevent flares or reduce the severity of symptoms.
Practicing relaxation techniques and regular exercise are evidence-based methods for reducing stress. Support groups that connect people with similar experiences can also be effective at reducing stress and serve as a method to learn other tips on how to manage symptoms.
6. Diet and Nutrition
What we eat can affect our physiology, immune system, and mood. Anti-inflammatory diets can be another way to help reduce inflammation and discomfort.
Generally, these diets emphasize obtaining calories from non-animal products, such as olive oil, grains, and leafy greens. This does not mean that meat is off the menu, but it should generally be consumed in small amounts and consist of fish or poultry over red meat.
Just as some foods can help reduce inflammation, other foods may cause or worsen inflammation. Common culprits include fried foods, processed meats and grains, and sugar. Of course, some autoimmune conditions involve a strict diet, as certain foods may trigger symptoms. For example, those with Celiac disease and type 1 diabetes must be extra careful of what they eat.
Help Patients Take Control of Their Health
Living with an autoimmune disease is no easy task, but there is no need to lose hope. A fulfilling life is still possible through various strategies. Although medicine is one of the main therapies for autoimmune diseases, patients can make a difference in quality of life with a few changes to their daily routine.