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Autoimmune Disease

By Brea Onokpise, MPH, CHES

Autoimmune Disease

An energetic and successful advertising executive, Tracey seemed to be riding a career high when she found herself unable to focus on the smallest details at her job. Mentally, she felt sluggish often had stomachaches even though she was eating healthily and exercising regularly.

Recently, she’d been sleeping 8 hours a night, yet still needed a power nap after work to make it through the evening. At 32, she knew this wasn’t how she was supposed to feel.

Tracey decided to see her nurse practitioner. Tests revealed she had Celiac disease and her body couldn’t tolerate gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. She then met with a registered dietician who put her on a strict gluten-free diet. Within weeks, she felt like herself again. But the experience opened her eyes to autoimmune diseases (AD) that affect as many as 1 in 5 Americans—mostly women during their childbearing years.

Understanding autoimmune disease

With autoimmune disease, your immune cells that should protect you from foreign germs and infections mistakenly attack your normal cells. This slowly damages your organs and impacts your everyday life. Most ongoing and unexplained symptoms are similar to those of other conditions and prescribed medicines usually only bring temporary relief.

There are more than 80 different ADs; the most commonly recognized are Celiac disease, multiple sclerosis, type I diabetes, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Grave’s disease and Sjögren’s syndrome.

Living with an AD

After years of experiencing symptoms such as fatigue, itchy skin, joint pain, diarrhea, weight loss, sensitivity to heat or cold, shortness of breath or trouble swallowing, you may feel relieved when you are finally diagnosed. But you may also feel frustrated about having an autoimmune disease because your primary healthcare team lacks awareness on the issue.

To get the best care, you may need to seek out specialists like rheumatologists, dermatologists, and gastroenterologists, who are often more familiar in identifying AD.

AD and pregnancy

Autoimmune diseases can impact a pregnancy; symptoms may get better, worse, or remain the same. If your symptoms do improve, you’ll notice it most in the second or third trimester. However, the signs of AD usually return postpartum within 3 months of your baby’s birth. If you have an AD and are thinking of having a baby, talk to your healthcare provider to discuss the best ways to have a safe pregnancy. This could include eating healthier, more balanced meals, getting physical exercise, trying alternative treatments, sleeping well, and decreasing your stress level.

Sort Your Symptoms

To help your healthcare team sort out your symptoms, the Office on Women’s Health suggests you:

  • Write down your complete family history.
  • Record any symptoms you have—even if they seem unrelated.
  • See a specialist about your most major symptom.
  • Get another healthcare provider’s opinion if you think you aren’t being taken seriously.

Brea Onokpise, MPH, CHES, is a research coordinator at AWHONN in Washington, DC.

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