Managing the Unmanageable: Coping With an Autoimmune Disorder

There are over one hundred known autoimmune disorders. Individual symptoms and their severity vary widely. A diagnosis of an autoimmune disorder comes with the need for frequent medical monitoring. In addition to medications, regular exercise and diet modification can help a person diagnosed with an autoimmune-mediated illness to lead a symptom-free life.

Key takeaways:
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    Autoimmune disorder symptoms vary widely depending on the type of disorder and severity.
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    Medications, exercise, and other lifestyle modifications can all play a part in lessening symptom severity.
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    Support is an important treatment aspect for anyone coping with a chronic illness.

In a healthy person, the immune system is the body’s gatekeeper, protecting the host from harmful viruses and bacteria. However, when the immune system starts to see healthy tissue as an unhealthy invader, an autoimmune disease develops. Autoimmune diseases are being diagnosed with increasing frequency, and the symptoms can be challenging to manage.

Symptoms vary widely depending on the area of the body affected. In addition, many autoimmune disorders have periods of flare and remission, making them unpredictable, and the severity of the condition can vary from person to person. To date, more than one hundred autoimmune disorders have been identified.

Depending on the specific autoimmune diagnosis, a person can expect to be prescribed medications and require frequent lab work. There is still no cure for autoimmune-mediated diseases. However, a combination of treatments, lifestyle changes, and support can help make living with an autoimmune disorder more manageable.

Common symptoms

While specific symptoms of autoimmune disorders vary depending on the exact diagnosis, many autoimmune disorders have common symptoms. In particular, inflammation and achy joints are common features of many autoimmune disorders, as are fatigue and brain fog.

For example, skin rashes are typical in systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), while rheumatoid arthritis (RA) patients are more prone to weight loss. Weight gain, on the other hand, is common in Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (HT). For patients suffering from multiple sclerosis (MS), symptoms most often include weakness, numbness in one part of the body, and visual disturbances. Ulcerative colitis (UC) and Crohn’s disease (CD) involve the gut, and their symptoms can include diarrhea, gas, and bloating.

In the early stages of an autoimmune disease, symptoms may be vague; therefore, final, precise diagnoses can be difficult. Early intervention and a positive relationship with a medical provider are key factors in delaying the progression of symptoms.

Medications for autoimmune disorder management

Treating autoimmune disorders focuses on symptom management, and a healthcare provider may prescribe one or more medications to control them. For example, medicines prescribed to treat RA include Interferon, which helps to prevent relapses. Ofatumumab, a drug used to treat MS, is an infusion administered in the hospital every six months. However, drugs like methotrexate and leflunomide, commonly prescribed for RA, require frequent blood tests. For example, Levothyroxine, a common thyroid hormone replacement used to treat HT, also requires frequent lab monitoring.

On the other hand, medications like glucocorticoids come with unpleasant side effects, including weight gain, mood swings, and muscle weakness. However, because glucocorticoids are immunosuppressant drugs, they are given for the short term while the main drug therapy takes effect. In some cases, the treatment may be harder to deal with than the disease itself. Fortunately, some patients found that making small lifestyle modifications may reduce or eliminate the need for medication.

Exercise: an important tool

Physical activity is an especially important component in autoimmune disease management. Low-impact exercises like yoga, swimming, and walking are important for combating fatigue and muscle aches. Because a regular exercise routine can help mitigate symptoms of many autoimmune disorders, a medical provider may refer a patient to occupational or physical therapy. “We actually prescribe exercise. It’s not optional; it’s part of the treatment,” says Dr. Andrew Mammen, a National Institutes of Health (NIH) muscle specialist (National Institutes of Health, 2022).

You are what you eat: the autoimmune protocol diet

A healthy diet is another important aspect of autoimmune disease management. The Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) diet is effective in identifying triggers for symptoms of several different autoimmune disorders found in the standard American diet (SAD). An AIP diet is not necessarily a lifelong change. Often, eliminating certain foods for the short term helps people identify which foods may make them sick. Identifying environmental triggers may allow a patient to reduce or discontinue specific medications.

Several studies have shown the SAD to AIP in the SIX programs to be effective in helping individuals reduce or eliminate symptoms. For example, in one study, participants reduced their autoimmune disease symptoms by 70%.

An important aspect of the SAD to AIP in the SIX programs is - support. Study participants had the support of a dietitian, a health coach, and other program participants through a Facebook page. People with chronic conditions like autoimmune disorders can benefit from support.

A little help from my friends: CDC’s self-management education programs

There are many complex elements when living with a chronic illness. Support is an important treatment element for a person diagnosed with any chronic condition The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) offers Self-Management Education (SME) programs throughout the United States. These interactive workshops, originally developed at Stanford University, are part of the CDC’s Learn More Feel Better campaign. The programs go by different names depending on location but consist of six weekly two- and half-hour in-person workshop sessions. The CDC also offers a self-study toolkit which is self-paced. More information is available at Chronic Disease Self-Management Program: Tool Kit for Active Living.

Many types of autoimmune disorders affect different people in various ways. Though individual symptoms can be vague and unpredictable, there are tools for managing them. In addition to medication, diet and exercise are important tools for combating debilitating symptoms. It is important to get support when dealing with any chronic illness.

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