Uncertainty about how your body may respond in a given situation–whether, for example, you will experience a pain flare-up or reprieve if you venture out with friends–makes planning risky, even frightening. — Deborah Barrett Ph.D., LCSW
When people think of diseases, they usually imagine an unusual object, such as a foreign germ or an abnormal cancer cell, as being the perpetrator of the disease. People can sometimes find it hard to imagine diseases being caused by a component of the body itself.
However, this is precisely what happens in autoimmune diseases, where the immune system becomes overactive and starts to attack certain parts of the human body. There are many ways as to exactly how this occurs, and indeed there are more than 80 recognized autoimmune disorders.
One of the potential victims of autoimmune disease is the brain, so your mental health can be directly impacted by such diseases. Furthermore, as many autoimmune conditions are challenging to treat and have serious consequences, they can add to the mental stress already being experienced by these people. If your loved one or even you have an autoimmune disease, it would be wise to arm yourself with knowledge by knowing more about how autoimmune diseases work and how they can affect mental health.
The Normal Immune System
To understand autoimmune disorders, you must first understand how the immune system operates. Immune cells rely on antigens, which are molecules presented by cells to identify friend from foe.
Think of antigens as identification cards, as they help indicate the identity and origin of the cell or organism. Properly functioning cells that originate from the same human body are not targeted by the immune system, while foreign or defective cells are marked for destruction.
People who are sick do not need to feel positive all of the time. — Tamara McClintock Greenberg Psy.D.
There are two primary techniques in which the immune system eliminates targets. In the first method, immune cells may directly eliminate the target by coming in close proximity before secreting perforin. This protein can punch holes in the cell membrane of the target.
The resulting damage is usually enough to kill the target cell. In the second method, immune cells can release antibodies, which are proteins that bind to antigens expressed by the target cells. Upon attaching, they cause the target cells to clump together, mark them as targets, and work together with other substances to damage the cell.
How Autoimmune Disease Manifests
Our body is constantly under attack by various microorganisms, and we would all succumb to them within hours were it not for our powerful immune systems. However, the immune system can also wreak havoc if it accidentally targets the body’s own cells.
The immune system has developed ways to avoid this scenario, including testing each immune cell and eliminating those that mistakenly target self-antigens originating from the same body. Nevertheless, the immune system can still make mistakes, and autoimmune disease occurs once it mistakenly targets friendly cells even if they do not contain foreign antigens.
Every day patients walk out of our facility with a new lease on life. — Scott Dehorty MSW, LCSW-C
The Link Between Autoimmune Disease And Mental Health
Some autoimmune diseases affecting the brain can have similar symptoms with some mental health conditions. For instance, anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, which is brain inflammation as a result of antibodies, can generate hallucinations and delusions typical of schizophrenia, which is a mental illness characterized by loss of contact with reality. Due to the similarity of symptoms, a misdiagnosis is more likely to occur, complicating treatment.
Autoimmune disease can also take its toll on the brain. Aside from direct damage from the immune system, the immune response can also produce inflammation, causing additional damage to brain cells. A study finds that autoimmune diseases can increase the risk of developing a mood disorder by 45% and that those diseases may account for up to 12% of all mood disorders.
The close relationship between autoimmune disease and mental health is clear, so any treatment options targeting the former should also accommodate the latter. It is sometimes easy to overlook mental problems in favor of physical ones. However, seeing that mental health conditions can be just as grave as physical diseases, it becomes essential to consider both fully. Only then can you become truly healthy.