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Autoimmune Disease Development: The 3 Stages

Written by Portland Clinic of Natural Health on August 28, 2023

Autoimmune diseases are conditions in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the body's own tissues. This process often progresses gradually over several years.

Autoimmune disease development can be categorized into three main stages, and understanding these stages can help in the early detection and management of these conditions. (1)

Stage 1: Silent Autoimmunity

In the first stage of autoimmune disease, the immune system produces antibodies against some of its own tissues, but there are no noticeable symptoms. This is often called 'silent' autoimmunity because the individual is unaware that their immune system has started to misbehave.

Routine blood tests can detect these antibodies, sometimes years or even decades before the onset of symptoms. This stage is crucial for prevention, as lifestyle changes and interventions can help halt the progression of the disease.

Stage 2: Autoimmune Reactivity

In the second stage, antibodies and symptoms are present, and the function of the affected tissue or organ starts to decline.

However, the impairment is not significant enough to be classified as a full-blown autoimmune disease. The symptoms can be nonspecific and vary widely, depending on the tissue or organ being attacked.

For example, joint pain and stiffness might indicate the early stages of rheumatoid arthritis, while fatigue and weight gain could signal the onset of thyroid disease.

Stage 3: Autoimmune Disease

In the third and final stage, antibodies are present, symptoms are noticeable, and the function of the affected organ or tissue is significantly impacted. This stage is typically when a formal diagnosis of autoimmune disease is made.

It can take anywhere from one to 19 years for this stage to develop from the first appearance of antibodies.

At this point, the disease has progressed to a level where it significantly affects daily life and requires medical management.

The Three Stages of Autoimmune Disease Development

Understanding the three stages of autoimmune disease development can help in the early detection and management of these conditions.

If you have a family history of autoimmune disease or are experiencing unexplained symptoms, it may be worth seeking out the care of a naturopathic doctor or integrative medicine provider to receive a holistic workup for prevention.

Early intervention can help slow the progression of the autoimmune disease and improve quality of life. Consulting with a healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis and personalized treatment plan is important.


  1. Rosenblum MD, Remedios KA, Abbas AK. Mechanisms of human autoimmunity. J Clin Invest. 2015 Jun;125(6):2228-33. doi: 10.1172/JCI78088. Epub 2015 Jun 1. PMID: 25893595; PMCID: PMC4518692.

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