Normally, our immune systems fight the viruses and bacteria that can make us sick. In an autoimmune disorder, the immune system mistakes the body’s own cells as a threat and attacks. The risk factors of autoimmune conditions include gender, genetics, and environmental triggers.
Gender and Autoimmune Conditions
Women are diagnosed with autoimmune conditions roughly twice as often as men. The first signs of autoimmune conditions in women often occur during their peak reproductive years, from 15 to 44. Researchers think that women’s hormones, estrogen, and progesterone may affect the immune system, but it is not certain exactly how.
Genetics and Autoimmune Conditions
While it has long been known that autoimmune conditions run in families, researchers have not known exactly why. Normally, the body constantly scans our cells for signs of foreign RNA (a type of acid found in all living cells), which is the first sign of an infection. The body can tell the difference between our RNA and RNA from a virus because our own RNA has a special code on it. Scientists have found a mutation on the ADAR1 gene that can cause something to go wrong with this labeling system. This causes the immune system to think the body’s RNA is an invader and attack, leading to an autoimmune condition.
While this research is in its early stages, it provides new insight into the causes of autoimmune diseases and may lead to useful treatments in the future.
Environmental Triggers of Autoimmune Conditions
While people may inherit a susceptibility to autoimmune conditions, they often do not become ill unless exposed to a trigger. Viruses and other types of infections are common triggers. There are several ways in which viruses might cause the immune system to turn against itself. One theory is that viruses try to mimic human cells, causing the immune system to attack its own body by mistake. Other common autoimmune disease triggers include exposure to pollution and chemicals, as well as stress and lifestyle factors.
Many chemicals interact with the immune system, including:
- Asbestos, which can cause autoantibodies and lung abnormalities
- Solvents, found in thousands of products, which can increase the likelihood of systemic sclerosis
- Tobacco, which contributes to the development of rheumatoid arthritis
Studies also show that multiple chemical exposures may increase the odds of an autoimmune response. Fortunately, research into how chemicals affect our immune systems can lead to regulations that ban or limit human exposure to potentially dangerous substances.
Stressful events and lifestyle factors also affect autoimmune disease development. For example, children who grow up in households struggling with low socioeconomic conditions are more likely to develop autoimmune conditions. This may be because of the stress hormone cortisol primes the immune system for action. Without an infection to attack, the immune system attacks the body.
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