February 7, 2001
Betrayed by Your Body: Women and Autoimmune Diseases
t seems just about
everywhere I turn this time of year, I run into someone with a
cold or the flu, and I'm thankful for my hard-working immune system
that fights off viruses, bacteria, and other bugs that could make
me sick. But sometimes our defense department wages battle against
us, a process called autoimmunity, which for millions of women
results in diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, or multiple
By Debra Wood, R.N.
The destructive process is somewhat akin to the Army believing
the guys in the sailor suits to be foes, rather than friends,
and declaring war on the Navy. But instead of torpedoing ships,
the immune system attacks the joints, skin, kidneys, lungs, liver,
heart, or other organs. Each of the 80 or so autoimmune diseases
is different. They include multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes
mellitus, psoriasis, and rheumatic fever.
Overall, women are more likely than men to suffer from an autoimmune
condition. Ninety percent of lupus sufferers are women, as are
1.5 million of the 2.1 million Americans with rheumatoid arthritis.
Many women suffering from autoimmune conditions don't realize
their disease has immune-system origins. Collectively, autoimmune
diseases rank as one of the 10 leading causes of death in women
younger than 65.
What makes our immune systems turn traitor and why most of the
conditions occur more frequently in women remain mysteries that
researchers struggle to unravel. Hormones undoubtedly contribute
in some way. Researchers at Harvard have uncovered a genetic malfunction
that may help explain women's tendency for developing the disorders.
The destructive process is somewhat akin to the Army
believing the guys in the sailor suits to be foes, rather
than friends, and declaring war on the Navy. But instead
of torpedoing ships, the immune system attacks the joints,
skin, kidneys, lungs, liver, heart, or other organs.
Autoimmune conditions occur more frequently in some families.
But unlike cystic fibrosis and other diseases caused by a single
mutation, several genes seem to take part in creating a proclivity
for autoimmunity. And this predisposition may not be for a specific
illness; it's quite common members to suffer from different --
and sometimes multiple -- autoimmune diseases.
Dr. Noel R. Rose, a pioneer in autoimmune research at Johns Hopkins
University, estimates that genetic predisposition accounts for
about 30 percent of the risk, with the rest attributable to something
we acquire in the environment. It may be an infection, a dietary
ingredient, sunshine, a medication, stress, perhaps even fetal
cells left in the mother or maternal cells remaining in the adult
child. As we learn more about environmental triggers, it may be
possible for women with the genetic tendency to avoid exposure.
Symptoms of autoimmune diseases often creep up gradually. With
many of the disorders you feel tired or achy, complaints that
could have a number of origins. If autoimmune diseases run in
your family, stay attuned to your body and its messages, and keep
the doctor apprised of new symptoms. Putting a name on the condition
can prove difficult, but an early, accurate diagnosis allows for
more aggressive treatment, which can reduce the risk of long-term
"I'm more optimistic than I've ever been [about treatment],"
says Dr. Rose, citing newer drugs that control and regulate defects
in immune response without suppressing it. "Enormous advances
have come along in managing patients."
While solutions to the autoimmune puzzle may be down the road,
women with the diseases are benefiting from new treatments, while
managing the conditions and maintaining control of their lives.
Send feedback on this article.
Debra Wood is a registered nurse and health writer living in Orlando,
Florida. Debra calls on more than two decades of nursing experience
to effectively communicate medical topics to lay and professional