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Autoimmunity Unveiled: The Protective Mechanism That Can Cause Collateral Damage

Written by Portland Clinic of Natural Health on April 19, 2023

Autoimmunity is a complex and often misunderstood process that occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks and damages the body's own tissues. Although this may sound like a flaw in the system, it's actually a form of self-protection that has evolved over millions of years.

The immune system's primary role is to defend the body against invading pathogens, such as viruses and bacteria, that can cause serious illness or even death. To do this, it must be able to distinguish between "self" and "non-self" cells and substances in the body. The immune system achieves this through a complex system of checks and balances that involves various cells, proteins, and signaling molecules.

However, sometimes the immune system can become confused and mistakenly identify some of the body's own cells or tissues as foreign invaders. This triggers an immune response that can result in inflammation, tissue damage, and a range of autoimmune diseases.

It's important to note that autoimmunity is not always harmful. In fact, some degree of autoimmunity is essential for maintaining tissue homeostasis and preventing the growth of abnormal cells, such as cancer cells. For example, immune cells known as natural killer cells can target and eliminate cells that have become cancerous or infected with a virus.

So why does autoimmunity sometimes go awry and cause collateral damage to healthy tissues? One theory is that the immune system may become overwhelmed or dysregulated in some way, leading to a breakdown in tolerance to self-antigens. Self-antigens are proteins or other molecules that are normally present in the body and are recognized as "self" by the immune system.

Another theory is that environmental triggers, such as infections or certain drugs, can cause the immune system to react inappropriately and attack healthy tissues. For example, the Epstein-Barr virus has been linked to the development of multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system.

Regardless of the underlying causes, autoimmune diseases can have a significant impact on a person's quality of life. Some common autoimmune diseases include rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, type 1 diabetes, and multiple sclerosis. These diseases can cause a wide range of symptoms, including joint pain and stiffness, fatigue, skin rashes, and neurological problems.

In conclusion, autoimmunity is a complex process that is both essential for self-protection and potentially harmful if it goes awry. While much is still unknown about the underlying causes of autoimmune diseases, researchers are making progress in understanding the mechanisms that drive these conditions. This knowledge may ultimately lead to better treatments and a deeper understanding of how the immune system functions to protect the body.

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