Have you been feeling unwell lately, but when you check with your doctor, he can’t seem to find an obvious problem? Are you a woman suffering from untreated fatigue, pain, or skin and digestive problems? If so, you may have found yourself under the elusive umbrella of an autoimmune disease.
Autoimmune diseases occur when your immune system can’t tell the difference between your own cells and an outside invader and attack you instead of an intruding virus or bacteria. There are more than 100 types of autoimmune diseases documented, some of the more common ones being rheumatoid arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, Hashimoto’s disease, Sjogren’s, Grave’s disease, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, celiac disease, psoriasis, and fibromyalgia. Nearly 80% of patients diagnosed with one of these disorders are women.
Concrete reasons why women are more susceptible haven’t been determined, although we do know that genetics and hormones play a large role. Hormonal changes are the norm during puberty, pregnancy, and menopause, and these are the exact times women appear most vulnerable to developing a chronic autoimmune condition. The trickiest part about seeking a diagnosis is that these times also often align with increased life stress, such as that of a first-time postpartum mother or a young woman entering middle or high school. It’s common to blame stress for symptoms such as fatigue or pain and, therefore, many doctors simply don’t investigate further.
How do I seek a diagnosis?
Autoimmune conditions vary greatly in their presentation from person to person. However, there are some key markers to look for, depending on the disorder. These markers, found in blood work or biopsies, help many doctors diagnose autoimmune illnesses. Many patients start with their family doctor when seeking answers, then move on to a specialist. Don’t hesitate to advocate for yourself if something doesn’t seem right to you about your health. Seek second or even third opinions as necessary, and if your physician isn’t listening to you, find a doctor who will take your concerns seriously.
Although genetics and hormones play a large role, there are other risk factors to look for when it comes to autoimmune disorders. You may be at heightened risk if you:
- Already have an autoimmune condition (Some studies show that one autoimmune disease often brings friends to the party.)
- Are obese
- Take certain medications, such as those for blood pressure, statins and antibiotics
- Develop an infection that can cause an autoimmune disorder, such as the Epstein-Barr virus or Lyme disease
Being treated for an autoimmune condition is difficult, as there isn’t one specific therapy or medication that works for everyone. Work closely with your doctor to determine the right path of treatment for you. Alternative therapies have become popular, with many patients turning, in conjunction with medications, to massage, acupuncture, chiropractic care, mind-body therapies, nutrition, and other modalities for help. Joining a support group or leaning on others who understand what you’re going through is helpful when dealing with the emotional side of a chronic disease diagnosis, as well.
The important takeaway is that if something chronically feels “off,” it’s probably not your imagination. Feeling tired or having pain much of the time does not have to be your normal. Remember that you are not alone and seek help from a trusted physician in getting both a diagnosis and treatment plan for your autoimmune disorder.