Lupus. Psoriasis. Crohn’s Disease. The list is long of diseases that fall into the category of “Auto-Immune”. The names often strike fear into the heart of anxious patients. More often they are a source of confusion.
How many times have you heard that someone was diagnosed with “colitis” or “rheumatoid arthritis” and then later they were told that they did not have that, but something else? Well here’s a picture of “auto-immunity” that may clear up – or at least explain the source of – all the confusion.
The “immune system” consists of the proteins (antibodies / immunoglobulins), structures (e.g. lymph nodes), and cells (leukocytes or “white blood cells”) in the body that: 1) identify the “bad guys” in the body – invading bacteria, viruses, harmful substances, or abnormal cells (cancer), or dead and aging cells, 2) mark these invaders or cells as “abnormal”, and 3) destroy and dispose of these unwanted items.
“Auto” or “self” immunity is a normal process that is at work all the time as the body recognizes abnormal, dying, or aging cells that are in need of “retirement”. Auto-immune disease occurs when this process goes awry.
Consider the cells, tissues and organs of the body much like a vacant lot that is populated with beautiful trees and shrubs. Over time, if the lot is untended, saplings, scrub brush, and weeds spring up that would soon overwhelm the aesthetics of the property. So, the conscientious owner comes along with the “day-glow” spray can and marks the unwanted growth for destruction. Then the guy with the bush-hog and chain saw comes along behind and clears out the marked and unwanted items.
This is auto-immunity functioning normally. Certain immune cells mark the bad stuff. Others come along and kill it. Still others come along and carry it away.
Auto-immune “disease” occurs when the guy with the day-glow spray can starts marking the good stuff for destruction. The names that are given to these diseases depend upon the types of normal tissues that are destroyed and the types of immune cells and proteins (antibodies) that are identified.