When Defenders Become Traitors: Understanding Autoimmune Diseases In Mental Health 

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.


Source: commons.wikimedia.org


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.

Source: pixabay.com


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.


Source: commons.wikimedia.org


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.




Author: Marie Miguel

Professional Experience Marie Miguel has been a writing and research expert for nearly a decade; covering a variety of health-related topics. Currently, she is contributing to the expansion and growth of a free online mental health resource with BetterHelp.com/advice. With an interest and dedication to addressing stigmas associated with mental health, she continues to target subjects related to anxiety and depression specifically. As an editor, contributor, and writer for over 100 online publications Marie has covered topics related to depression, anxiety, stress, grief, various phobias, and difficult family circumstances. With regular content published on mental health authorities like TheMighty, Yahoo, GoodMenProject, ADAA, CCPA-ACCP, Silverts, AMHCA, etc... Marie has shown both her passion and dedication to discussing & educating topics related to mental health and wellness. With an understanding that there is never too much information and helpful research about mental health in all of its forms, she continues to look for new and creative ways to both start discussions & engage with others about these important topics. Before becoming an online researcher and writer, she worked as an Administrative Executive with different industries namely telecom, security workforce providers, trading companies, exclusive hotel and concierge services. After ten years of working in different industries, she decided to enter the world of freelancing in able to give more time to her precious daughter. Given this opportunity, it helped her discover and realize that she is both capable and passionate about expressing her opinions in creative and influential ways via writing. Education Marie Miguel is a loyalty awardee of St. Paul College where she spent her primary and secondary education. She holds a degree of Bachelor of Science in Business Administration major in Computer Applications from De La Salle University - College of St. Benilde where she was also on the Dean's List for consecutive semesters during her college years. "My Philosophy on Mental Health & Wellness" It takes passion for being an expert researcher and writer of mental health related topics. Having lived through traumatic experiences in the past, it has become easier to express my opinions and findings I've discovered while researching a variety of situations and subjects. I aim to inspire every person that reads mental health & wellness related articles to provide hope in every struggle; just as my experiences have taught me. Additionally, I strive to contribute to the continual progression of mental health awareness by providing helpful information and significant resources to understand further the importance of keeping a healthy mind and well-being.