Medical Conditions

Autoimmune diseases: Causes, symptoms, treatment

Written by

Anna Roell
18 July, 2023

Medically checked article All HOMED-IQ content is reviewed by medical specialists

Autoimmune diseases are diseases in which the body’s own immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells and tissue. These diseases are problematic as they can lead to inflammation, tissue damage and a variety of symptoms. One example is ulcerative colitis, in which the immune system attacks the mucous membrane of the large intestine and leads to inflammation. This article deals with various autoimmune diseases, their causes and treatment options.

A Gut Inflammation Test from Homed-IQ can be helpful in recognising autoimmune diseases such as ulcerative colitis, as it reveals an inflammatory marker in the intestine that is often elevated in such diseases. The test can be carried out easily from home and provides a quick and convenient insight into the state of your intestinal health.

Table of contents

What are autoimmune diseases?

Autoimmune diseases are a group of diseases that result from a malfunction of the immune system. When it is working normally, the immune system recognizes foreign invaders (such as parasites, bacteria, cells, viruses, or fungi) and works to destroy them and protect the body. During an autoimmune response, the immune system mistakenly identifies our own cells, tissues, or organs as foreign bodies and attacks them (American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, 2021). ​​ There are around 100 autoimmune diseases that cause a variety of symptoms, including pain, fatigue, skin rashes, nausea, headaches, and more. Some autoimmune diseases target only one organ, while others affect the whole body. Why the immune system starts to behave this way is still not fully understood, but it’s believed to involve a combination of genetic and environmental factors (Cleveland Clinic, 2021).

How common are autoimmune diseases?

The prevalence of autoimmune diseases is approximately 3% to 8% worldwide, with 78% to 85% of those affected being women (Ershadinia et al., 2020). Many autoimmune diseases tend to occur in women during times of stress, such as pregnancy or during a major hormonal transition (American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, 2021). The reason why this occurs is not yet understood.

Which diseases fall under autoimmune diseases?

The most common autoimmune diseases include:

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA): This autoimmune condition attacks and causes inflammation in the joints and the surrounding tissues. RA commonly affects the joints in the hands, wrists, and knees. Tissue damage resulting from inflammation can cause long-lasting or chronic pain, balance problems, and deformity (CDC, 2020).

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (Lupus): Lupus is an autoimmune disease that can affect multiple parts of the body. Lupus can cause inflammation, joint pain, fever, skin rashes, and organ damage (Cleveland Clinic, 2021). Individuals with lupus usually experience periods of illness (flares) followed by periods of feeling better (remission).

Multiple Sclerosis (MS): MS is a disease that affects the central nervous system, including the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. During MS, the immune system attacks the protective sheath (myelin) that coats the nerve fibers, causing communication problems between the brain and the rest of the body. Symptoms of multiple sclerosis can vary widely and depend on the location and severity of the damage (Mayo Clinic, 2020).

Type 1 diabetes: Type 1 diabetes occurs when the body attacks cells in the pancreas, preventing them from producing insulin. Insulin allows sugar (glucose) to enter the body’s cells and be used as energy. Without insulin, sugar cannot enter the cells and accumulates in the bloodstream, resulting in high blood sugar (CDC, 2022). People with type 1 diabetes must inject insulin regularly (or wear an insulin pump) to keep their blood sugar under control.

Celiac Disease: Celiac disease is a condition in which the body has an immune reaction to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. This damages the intestines (especially the small intestine) so that the body cannot properly absorb nutrients (malabsorption). Celiac disease can cause a range of symptoms, including diarrhea, abdominal pain, and bloating (NHS, 2023). People with celiac disease should avoid gluten for life to prevent long-term damage to the intestines.

Psoriasis: Psoriasis is an autoimmune skin condition that causes a rash of itchy, scaly patches. It most commonly occurs on the knees, elbows, trunk, and scalp (Mayo Clinic, 2022). Psoriasis usually goes through cycles of symptoms getting worse (flare-ups) followed by periods where symptoms improve (remission).

Hashimoto’s thyroiditis: This is an autoimmune disease that leads to inflammation of the thyroid gland (thyroiditis). The thyroid gland produces hormones ( e.g. TSH, T3, T4) that help regulate many functions in the body. In Hashimoto’s disease, the hormone-producing cells of the thyroid die, causing a decrease in hormone production (hypothyroidism) (Mayo Clinic, 2022).

Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis: Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory bowel disease that mainly affects the small intestine and can cause abdominal pain, severe diarrhoea, fatigue, weight loss and malnutrition (Mayo Clinic, 2022). Ulcerative colitis is also a chronic inflammatory bowel disease. causes inflammation and ulcers in the colon (large intestine) only. (NIDDK, 2023).

Source: Klein, 2020

How do autoimmune diseases develop?

The exact causes of autoimmune diseases are not fully understood, but researchers have explored several factors that may contribute to their development:

  • Genetics: Some people have certain genes that make them more susceptible to autoimmune diseases. Autoimmune diseases are often considered to be multifactorial, meaning they could be caused by a combination of environmental factors and different genes.
  • Environmental factors: Even if this connection is difficult to verify scientifically, certain environmental factors are associated with autoimmune diseases. These include:
    • Bacterial and viral infections
    • Exposure to pollutants and chemicals
    • Diet (e.g., gluten or a deficiency in vitamin D)
  • Influence of hormones: research shows that hormones, especially female sex hormones such as estrogen, can influence the immune response. This may explain why autoimmune diseases are more common in women than in men (Ngo, Steyn, & McCombe, 2014).

Source: John Hopkins, 2023

Interested in how hormones may be affecting your health? Check your estrogen levels, as well as other important female hormones, from home with Homed-IQ’s Hormone Test for Women. Alles, was Sie dazu tun müssen, ist ein kleiner Stich in den Finger und ein paar Tropfen Blut entnehmen, die dann in einem zertifizierten Labor analysiert werden. After taking a blood sample from a simple finger prick, ship your test to our certified partner laboratory for analysis. You will receive the results of your test in your customer account in a few days. Homed-IQ also has other hormone tests for home use.

What are symptoms of autoimmune diseases?

The symptoms of autoimmune diseases vary depending on the organs or tissues affected and can be non-specific or specific. Nonspecific symptoms of autoimmune diseases can be similar to several different diseases and can be confused for other health conditions. Common nonspecific symptoms of autoimmune diseases include:

  • Fatigue
  • Joint pain and swelling
  • Skin problems
  • Digestive problems
  • Fever
  • Weight loss
  • Dizziness
  • Difficulty breathing

Specific symptoms of autoimmune diseases may be clearly associated with the part of the body that is affected. For example, specific symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include swelling, pain, and stiffness in several joints (Mayo Clinic, 2021). Symptoms of ulcerative colitis include pain in the abdomen, weight loss, bloating, diarrhea, or blood in the stool. Autoimmune diseases are also often characterized by alternating periods of disease activity (flare-ups) and periods of symptom improvement (remission) (MedlinePlus, 2021). Because certain symptoms can also occur due to other medical conditions, a thorough medical examination is necessary to correctly identify an autoimmune disease.

How are autoimmune diseases diagnosed?

Diagnosing autoimmune diseases can be challenging because many of the symptoms can overlap with other conditions, and there is often no single diagnostic test. For this reason, doctors use a variety of methods to diagnose autoimmune diseases and rule out other causes, including:

  • History and physical exam: The first step in making a diagnosis is usually a thorough medical history and physical exam. The doctor will ask questions about symptoms, family history, and possible triggers. During a physical exam, the doctor will look for skin rashes, joint swelling, or organ enlargement, for example.
  • Blood tests: Certain autoimmune diseases can be identified by looking for antibodies in the blood through blood tests that the immune system produces against its own cells. In addition, other laboratory tests may be performed to assess the function of certain organs.

Depending on the suspected diagnosis, medical imaging such as X-ray, ultrasound, or computed tomography (CT), may also be used to assess the degree of organ involvement or damage.

Source: Cleveland Clinic, 2021

Would you like to check in on your own health from home?

Whether you are looking to improve your overall health or get to the root of your symptoms, Homed-IQ can help you take control of your health. Using Homed-IQ’s Thyroid Test, users can check the level of thyroid hormones from home, providing information about thyroid function and potential indicators of Hashimoto’s disease. Homed-IQ’s Vitamin Deficiency Test can provide information about the cause of unspecific symptoms that may be due to a deficiency of certain vitamins. You can use the Blood Sugar Test to measure whether you have diabetes or pre-diabetes.

What influence do diet and lifestyle have on autoimmune diseases?

There is increasing evidence that diet and lifestyle can have an impact on autoimmune diseases. Some research suggests that diets rich in saturated fat, processed foods, and sugar may promote inflammation in the body, which in turn may increase the risk for autoimmune disease (Harvard Health Publishing, 2020). Long-term stress, which is associated with elevated blood cortisol levels, also impacts the immune system and can contribute to the development and exacerbation of autoimmune diseases (Dhabhar, 2014).

How are autoimmune diseases treated?

While there is currently no cure for autoimmune diseases, many treatments can help relieve symptoms and improve quality of life. As many autoimmune diseases consist of periods of flares and remission, treatment is unique to the individual and may change over time. Your healthcare provider will advise you on what treatments are available for your specific disease and how to best manage your symptoms in daily life. Treatments for autoimmune diseases depends on the specific disease, but may include the following:

  • Medications: different types of medications can be used to relieve symptoms, reduce inflammation, and suppress the autoimmune response (Cleveland Clinic, 2021).
  • Physical therapy: For certain autoimmune diseases, especially those that affect the joints, physical therapy can help relieve pain, improve flexibility, and increase overall well-being (Cleveland Clinic, 2021).
  • Lifestyle changes: lifestyle changes also help relieve symptoms, reduce inflammation, as well as improve quality of life. This can include a healthy diet that limits pro-inflammatory foods, regular exercise, and adequate sleep. Although managing an autoimmune disease can be challenging, a comprehensive understanding of the disease and appropriate treatment can help improve quality of life (Stojanovich & Marisavljevich, 2007).


Autoimmune diseases are a group of diseases in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s own cells. Causes are varied and may include genetic predisposition, environmental factors, hormones, and lifestyle factors. Recognizing symptoms and early diagnosis can help those living with autoimmune disease manage disease progression and have a good quality of life.


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About the author

Anna Roell

Anna is a trained nurse and health economist specializing in epidemiology, combining her medical and scientific interests. Her goal is to improve others' understanding of medical information and to communicate it in an understandable way. Anna is originally from Germany and now lives in Amsterdam. What she appreciates most about Amsterdam is the open-minded, active attitude of the people, the markets, and the beautiful nature in the areas surrounding Amsterdam.