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Women and Autoimmune Diseases

Autoimmune diseases are conditions in which the immune system attacks the body's own tissues, mistaking them for foreign invaders, like bacteria or viruses. Autoimmune diseases effect more women than men.

The symptoms associated with some autoimmune diseases can be mild and may be able to be managed with diet, lifestyle choices and complimentary medicines. However, the symptoms of other autoimmune diseases can be very debilitating and disabling, and may require medication and support from a health team.

Who is at risk of developing an autoimmune disease?

Genetics, environmental factors and gender all play a part in the development of autoimmune diseases. It is estimated that 80% of all autoimmune cases are women. The reason for this is unknown. However, scientists believe it may be due to:

  • Women having a more robust immune system. The immune system of women is more responsive to infections, which is generally a good thing. However, this physiological benefit backfires in the case of autoimmune diseases.

  • Sex hormones. For females, autoimmune disease often develops shortly after puberty, during childbearing years, or during menopause. Some studies suggest that changes in estrogen and prolactin, stimulate the growth of autoantibodies.

What are some of the most common autoimmune diseases?

There are over 80 known types of autoimmune diseases. Some of the most common autoimmune diseases are:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis: a chronic inflammatory disorder that affects the joints, causing pain, stiffness, and swelling. Rheumatoid Arthritis affects approximately 1 in 50 Australians and is more common in women, than it is in men.

  • Multiple sclerosis: a disease in which the immune system attacks the protective covering of nerve fibers, causing communication problems between the brain and the rest of the body. On average, 10 Australians are diagnosed with MS every week, and there are approximately 25,600 Australians living with the disease. Three quarters of all people with MS are women.

  • Type 1 diabetes: a chronic condition in which the immune system attacks and destroys the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, resulting in high blood sugar levels.

  • Lupus: an autoimmune disease that can affect many parts of the body, including the skin, joints, kidneys, and brain. It is estimated that there are 20,000 Australians living with Lupus. It is more common in women than it is in men.

  • Coeliac Disease: an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks the lining of the small intestine in response to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Approximately 1 in 70 Australians have coeliac disease, making it one of the most common autoimmune diseases. It is just as common in men as it is in women.

  • Psoriasis: a chronic skin condition in which the immune system triggers skin cells to grow too quickly, resulting in thick, scaly patches on the skin. Psoriasis effects approximately 2% of Australians.

  • Hashimoto's thyroiditis: an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks the thyroid gland, resulting in an underactive thyroid. In Australia, Hashimoto’s effects approximately 7.5% of women and 1.5% of men.

  • Graves' disease: an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks the thyroid gland, resulting in an overactive thyroid.

  • Sjogren's syndrome: an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks the glands that produce tears and saliva, resulting in dry eyes and mouth.

  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD): a group of chronic inflammatory disorders of the digestive tract, including Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.

Can a naturopath help with autoimmune diseases?

When it comes to treating autoimmune diseases, naturopaths will assess the person’s medications, diet and exercise, stress levels, sleep patterns and family history.

  • Dietary advice: Naturopaths may suggest dietary changes. Certain foods can trigger inflammation. Naturopaths can help patients identify and eliminate suspect foods. Naturopaths can also provide information on anti-inflammatory foods that may help reduce symptoms or autoimmune flare-ups.

  • Supplements: A naturopath can prescribe supplements and complimentary medicines that may reduce symptoms associated with some autoimmune disease. Some common supplements include omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, and probiotics. Some herbs commonly used for autoimmune diseases include turmeric, ginger, and boswellia. However, a naturopath will take into consideration the particular type of autoimmune disease (or diseases) a patient is suffering from, medications they are taking and lifestyle.

  • Lifestyle Modifications: Naturopaths will talk about lifestyle modifications to help manage stress. Stress can exacerbate autoimmune symptoms. Some common suggestions include low intensity exercises, yoga, meditation, and mindfulness.

  • Detoxification: Naturopaths may recommend various detoxification methods. A detoxification process can help eliminate toxins from the body, which in turn may reduce inflammation.

If you have recently been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, or have been living with an autoimmune disease, the Go Vita Ballarat naturopaths are available for private consultations. Naturopathic support can work in conjunction with your current health care team.

The information on this website is provided for education and research information only. It is not a substitute for professional health advice.


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