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What Is An Autoimmune Condition?

Updated: Jul 3

Many common skin conditions are autoimmune in nature. Although many people with chronic skin conditions have heard this word, doctors don’t always explain what it means. I’ve had many patients and health coaching clients ask me what autoimmunity actually is.

If you have an autoimmune condition, here’s what’s really happening inside your body. Knowing this information is the first step towards understanding how to optimize your skin health – and even your health overall.

What is autoimmunity?

Autoimmunity occurs when your body’s immune system mistakenly attacks your own tissues. 

A healthy immune system is able to distinguish between “self” and “other”. Immune system cells become sensitized to particular proteins that are present on foreign cells. When they detect a protein that they’re sensitized to, they attack the cells that contain that protein. 

This is how the immune system is able to defend you from invaders, like bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. Because the proteins on those foreign cells  are different from your own proteins, your immune system can usually find them and destroy them before they can cause too much damage.

However, the cells of the immune system should develop tolerance to the proteins that are on your own cells, meaning that they won’t react to these proteins. This is what allows the cells of the immune system to attack any invaders, while leaving your own healthy cells alone. Your immune cells learn that certain proteins are your own, and are nothing to be concerned about.

In a person with autoimmunity, this process hasn’t quite worked the way it should. The cells of the immune system become sensitized to one of your own proteins. They then treat this protein as though it belongs to an invader – they see it as a threat, and they try to get rid of it. This causes your immune system to attack and destroy your own cells.

Depending on the specific protein that the immune cells have become sensitized to, they may attack a specific type of cell, or it may be more general.

What skin conditions involve autoimmunity?

Many common skin conditions involve autoimmunity, including:

  • Psoriasis

  • Vitiligo

  • Rosacea

  • Alopecia areata

There are also many less common skin conditions that involve autoimmunity as well, such as scleroderma and pemphigus. A complete list of all autoimmune skin conditions would be too long for this blog post.

In people with vitiligo, the immune system is sensitized to proteins that are present on melanocytes, which are the pigment-producing cells of the skin. The immune cells specifically attack the melanocytes, leaving the other skin cells untouched. This is what causes patches of skin to turn pale in people who have vitiligo

In people with alopecia areata, the immune cells are sensitized to proteins present on hair follicles. This causes them to specifically attack hair follicles, without attacking the surrounding skin. Patchy hair loss is the result.

In some cases, the immune cells are sensitized to a protein that’s more generally present on skin cells. For example, this is believed to be what happens in people with psoriasis. As the skin cells are damaged by the immune system’s attack, they react in unusual ways, causing some areas of the skin to become thickened and scaly. Although this is currently a leading theory of how psoriasis develops, this condition is not very well understood, and researchers are still learning more about it.

Skin conditions certainly aren’t the only type of conditions that can be caused by autoimmunity. Virtually any type of tissue in the body can potentially come under attack from a mistakenly sensitized immune system. A huge number of health conditions, from type 2 diabetes to rheumatoid arthritis to multiple sclerosis, are caused by a similar process.

The Challenges of Managing an Autoimmune Skin Condition

No one really knows exactly why some people develop autoimmune conditions while others don’t. Although we know of some risk factors that make it more likely to happen to some people, the truth is that it can potentially happen to anyone. 

I found this so frustrating when I first developed alopecia areata. No one could tell me why this had happened to me. It took a very long time to learn to accept my new reality, and to feel comfortable and confident in my own skin. I had to stop searching for answers to the question of “Why me?” and wondering if I’d done something to deserve this. Instead, I needed to change my mindset and learn to show up authentically, with nothing hidden.

Mind Gut Skin (MGS) Academy includes my roadmap to how I got there. Shifting your mindset is simple in theory, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It takes dedication and commitment. It’s a huge part of my mission to show other women how I managed it, and to support them as they go through this process. I also love watching women support each other through the MGS Academy communities.

It also turns out that there’s a connection between your gut microbiome and your immune system. I’ll talk about this more in the next blog post – I don’t want this one to become as long as a book chapter! This connection is a huge part of why gut health is another major focus of MGS Academy. Check out the next post to learn more!

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