Are Autoimmune Diseases on the Rise?

The Complexity of the Immune System

The immune system is a complex organization within the body.  It consists of specialized cells that carry out immune process functions, and chemical messengers that facilitate the communication immune system cells have with each other, other cells, and tissues within the body. Autoimmune disease results when the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s own tissues. Examples include multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, and systemic lupus erythematosus. Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), including Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, has characteristics of both immune-mediated and autoimmune conditions. Immune-mediated conditions occur because a functioning immune system begins to work overtime.

Autoimmune disease appears to be on the rise and researchers at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are uncertain why. A study by the American Diabetes Association found that type 1 diabetes increased by 23% between 2001 and 2009. The incidence of celiac disease, a condition where the body’s immune system attacks the small intestine, is also on the rise according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center.

The research methodology used in the study of immune system function is quite extensive. It is as complex as the immune system itself. It covers all aspects of biomedical research, from molecular and cellular to animal models and clinical studies. Psychoneuroimmunology is another area of study examining the link between the brain and the immune system. We know that both interact through several pathways and mechanisms and can affect health and disease. Psychoneuroimmunology includes the study of the nervous system (the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system) and its functioning as it relates to the immune system.

Social Media and the Exchange of Information

With the rise in autoimmune disorders, it is no surprise that the public is taking to social media and the internet to find information or share personal experiences. We conducted a review of Facebook posts from January 5, 2018 through March 5, 2018 searching for postings dedicated to the issue of inflammation and autoimmune disorders.

Out of 101 Facebook published posts during this time frame, 13 posts described personal experiences with an autoimmune disease, 61 posts shared an article about one or more autoimmune disorders, and 29 posts shared both a personal experience and an article or information about one or more autoimmune disorders. While Facebook can be an important source of support from the community, there are an alarming number of posts proposing solutions or cures to inflammation or autoimmune disorders.

Sales of nutritional and herbal supplements have surged as a result of the rising number of self-directed consumers, proliferation of online and media content, and the significance of e-commerce. Self-help books, diet plans, herbal supplements, and a variety of written resources are widely available for free or at a cost and are targeted to consumers managing an inflammatory or autoimmune disease.

The concern with the proliferation of these resources and claims of cures, however, is the high level of misinformation about these products and the lack of studies validating the claims made by the distributors of these products. Additionally, the complexity of the immune system, autoimmune disorders, and immune-mediated disorders is typically unknown to the general public. Some marketing approaches to selling products call for consumers to learn the “true cause of autoimmune disease.”

We always recommend that individuals consult literature that has a clearly identified and reputable source. Any claim of a cure or selling of "unknown secrets" are questionable. More importantly, you should consult your medical provider before introducing any supplements or products to your treatment plan. And certainly consult with your doctor before stopping treatment.