More and more people with autoimmune diseases

Eight years it took Tanja Renner to receive her diagnosis: psoriatic arthritis, one of more than 80 known autoimmune diseases. Arthritis affects the joints, which become inflamed. The progress of this chronic disease is staggered, alternating periods of strong inflammation of the joints with phases of milder discomfort.

Just over 30 percent of those affected also have psoriasis. Tanja Renner founded in 2016, along with six other people, the association "NiK e.V., the network of autoimmune patients". The organization is financed exclusively through donations and its objective is to help others affected, save them years until they find a diagnosis and provide support in the search for specialists.

NiK is considered as a kind of guide that shows possible paths to the sick. Tanja Renner took a long time to find the right doctor, receive the correct diagnosis and the corresponding treatment, with which, according to her, she has been able to recover some of the quality of life that she had lost. They are experiences that you want to share with other people.

Immune system

Between 5 and 8 percent of the population in Germany suffers from an autoimmune disease. Some of the best known are type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and Crohn's disease, a chronic inflammatory bowel disease. Autoimmune diseases can affect people in all age groups, including young people.

The mission of the immune system is to protect us against viruses, bacteria, parasites and other organisms, but sometimes it makes mistakes: it does not recognize the intruder as such and attacks its own organs and tissues, which can be damaged if serious inflammatory reactions occur .

There are two types of autoimmune diseases: those in which the system is directed against a specific organ, such as the intestine in Crohn's disease and the skin in psoriasis. and those in which the immune system is directed against the entire body, leading to systemic autoimmune disease.

More and more cases

One of the best known among the latter is multiple sclerosis, in which the myelin sheaths of the nerve fibers are attacked. The list of autoimmune diseases is long and scary, especially since more and more people suffer from them. For example, cases of multiple sclerosis have doubled in the past 40 years.

"We have seen a tremendous increase in autoimmune diseases and, for about 50 years, a marked decline in infectious diseases," pediatrician Michael Radke of the Rostock University Clinic tells DW. "The immune system is" disoriented "and is directed against its own body," he says.

A too sterile childhood?

During natural labor, the baby enters the world through the birth canal, coming into contact with numerous bacteria. The immune system thus learns to defend itself against them and to neutralize microorganisms.

"The immune system of a newborn, baby or child is forced to face the bacteria and viruses in the environment. If that fight is not present in their life, it is not strange that their immune system goes astray and unleashes inflammatory processes in the body itself, "explains Radke.

It also happens that many foods are preserved for a long time, all bacteria are dead when consumed. That, too, Radke believes, is why children's immune systems don't work well, and they don't do what they should: defend against pathogens.

Genetic reasons

Scientists do not yet fully understand why the immune system attacks the body itself, but there have been some advances in research in recent years. Genetic inheritance appears to play a role in autoimmune diseases. That is the case of multiple sclerosis, Crohn's disease and rheumatism.

Another important factor is diet: the intestinal flora influences the appearance of different autoimmune diseases. Environmental factors also play a considerable role: smoking, being exposed to chemicals, a lack of vitamin D as a consequence of poor exposure to sunlight and hormones. Women are often more affected by autoimmune diseases.

Stress causes inflammation

Experts caution that stress should not be neglected as a factor influencing the onset and development of autoimmune diseases. And the more stress, the more often episodes of the ailment appear.

Discomforts are usually treated with cortisone, which slows inflammation processes. Currently, many autoimmune diseases can be treated well, although they are still incurable. Multiple sclerosis, for example, is treated with interferons, which cause the immune system not to overreact.

Stem cell therapy as a last resort

In the United States, doctors rely on stem cell therapies to treat autoimmune diseases. It is a way of restarting the body, an attempt to destroy its immune memory, in order to interrupt the course of the disease.

Patients should undergo chemotherapy to minimize their defenses. Then, the immune system is rebuilt again with the help of stem cells. In Germany, such treatment is only allowed when there is no other possible solution, as it is a method that carries many risks, including death.

Source: Gudrun Heise for DW