Autoimmune diseases are on the rise. What are the causes and what are the effects?

Every day our body is confronted with countless pathogens. These include viruses, bacteria, moulds, parasites and harmful substances. To protect the body, our immune system attacks these pathogens. This is how the immune system keeps us healthy.

In the case of an autoimmune disease, however, the immune system gets out of balance and attacks the own body. 

Autoimmune diseases – How do they develop?

What is the immune system?

When we talk about the immune system, we mean primarily the white blood cells (leukocytes). One type of leukocytes is mainly involved in the development of an autoimmune disease: lymphocytes.  There are two types of lymphocytes, which act differently. On the one hand, there are the T-killer cells, which attack everything they do not know. On the other hand, there are the B-cells that produce antibodies against everything that seems foreign to them. The correct interaction of these two cells fends off pathogens.

How does the immune system work? 

When our body is attacked by a pathogen, the immune system is activated. When the danger is over, the immune system is shut down again. The T-helper cells and T-cells are responsible for this. Both cells intervene in the immune system in a regulating way. They ensure that the immune system does not overreact and injure their own body.  

What causes autoimmune diseases? 

However, if the interaction between T-killer cells and B-cells is out of balance, an autoimmune disease develops.  

In concrete terms, the following happens: 

  • The balance between T-killer cells and B-cells goes out of balance
  • T-helper cells and T-cells no longer regulate properly. The immune system is no longer reliably activated or deactivated 
  • The immune system can no longer distinguish between pathogens and the body’s own structure 

The immune system attacks its own body.   

Trigger of autoimmune diseases 

Autoimmune diseases are complex. Science is doing intensive research, but there are still no clear causes. 

Possible triggers are considered:

Genetic predisposition 

In some autoimmune diseases a genetic disposition seems to be present. Especially in diseases such as rheumatism, multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease, physicians observe a familial clustering. 


Some pathogens strongly resemble the body’s own structures. As a result, the immune system confuses components of these pathogens with the body’s own structures. The immune system attacks its own body. 


A similar mechanism as with infections can also occur with vaccinations. Studies show that vaccinations can trigger autoimmune reactions. This is contradicted by studies that refute this.  


If the hormonal balance in the body goes out of balance, this can also cause an autoimmune reaction. It affects women more often than men. Scientists do not yet know the exact causes.  


An unhealthy lifestyle can also contribute to the immune system overreacting. Stress and an unhealthy diet play a particularly important role here.  


The human immune defence system is mainly formed in the intestine. A stressed or inflamed intestine (for example, Leaky Gut Syndrome) can trigger an autoimmune disease. 

Vitamin deficiency 

If there is a severe vitamin deficiency, the immune system may be thrown off track. Vitamin D plays a special role here. 

What types of autoimmune diseases are there? 

If the immune system overreacts, this can affect different organs.  

An overview of the organs that are frequently affected: 


The skin is often the target when the immune system overreacts. Deep damage to the skin or connective tissue is the result. Autoimmune skin diseases include psoriasis, scleroderma, lupus erythematosus, dermatomyositis and sarcoidosis. 

Thyroid gland 

Reactions of the immune system regularly affect the thyroid gland. If the immune system is directed against the thyroid gland, it becomes inflamed. This leads to an underfunction (Hashimoto’s thyroiditis) or overreaction (Graves’ disease) of the thyroid gland.  


The intestine is confronted daily with pathogens and toxins. It is therefore a sensitive target for autoimmune diseases. Possible reactions are Crohn’s disease, celiac disease and ulcerative colitis. 


The kidney and adrenal gland are also affected when the immune system goes haywire. A typical example is Addison’s disease, a subfunction of the adrenal gland.  


If the immune system attacks the liver, it becomes chronically inflamed. Autoimmune hepatitis develops. 


The body’s own immune defence can also be directed against the eye. In this case there are mainly two reactions. The first is that the vascular skin of the eye (uveitis) becomes inflamed. The second reaction is a drying out of the eye (Sjögren’s syndrome). This causes the cornea and conjunctiva of the eye to become inflamed. 

What are systemic autoimmune diseases? 

If the immune system is out of balance, it typically attacks individual organs. In severe cases, the immune system attacks several organs simultaneously. In this case doctors refer to it as systemic autoimmune diseases. The symptoms in this case are much more unspecific than in organ-specific autoimmune reactions. For this reason, rheumatologists often look after the affected patients.  

Which diseases are autoimmune diseases?

Autoimmune diseases are complex and occur in different forms. Currently, about 80 diseases fall into this category. Below you will find a list of autoimmune diseases.

The most frequent disease patterns are: 

Graves’ Disease 

Graves’ disease (Morbus Basedow) is a disease of the thyroid gland. An overactive thyroid gland causes a variety of complaints. Typically it affects the eye region. The tissue around the eye swells, making the eyeballs very prominent.  

Ulcerative colitis 

In ulcerative colitis the colon becomes chronically inflamed. This leads to bloody and slimy diarrhoea and severe abdominal pain. The entire body is weak and consequential symptoms may occur. Typical is that the skin changes, joints swell and the eyes become inflamed.  

Diabetes type 1 

In this clinical picture, antibody cells destroy the pancreas. As a result, not enough insulin is produced. The body is at risk of hyperglycaemia. In order to counteract this, those affected regularly inject insulin.  

Hashimoto’s thyroiditis 

Hashimoto thyroiditis is the most common thyroid disease. The thyroid gland becomes inflamed and no longer produces sufficient thyroid hormones. Constant tiredness, weight gain, depression and increased blood lipid levels are the result.  

Lupus erythematosus 

Lupus erythematosus is an autoimmune disease that damages skin and organs. Typical symptoms are red spots on the skin of the face, fatigue, joint and muscle pain. 

Bechterew’s disease 

Bechterew’s disease is an inflammatory rheumatic disease. It causes severe back pain and persistent fatigue.  As a consequence, the joints become stiff. 

Crohn’s disease 

Crohn’s disease is a chronic inflammatory disease of the bowel. Severe abdominal pain, frequent and severe diarrhoea are typical symptoms. As a result the whole body is weak. The skin changes and in many cases the joints hurt.  

Multiple sclerosis

This condition of the central nervous system is chronic and occurs in relapses. As a result, paralysis, impaired vision and the loss of sensitivity of parts of the body occur.


Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease of the skin. The skin cells divide many times faster than in normal skin. This leads to very itchy, inflamed skin areas. Scaly areas that give the disease its name are typical. 

Rheumatoid arthritis

In rheumatoid arthritis, joints become chronically inflamed. Severe pain in fingers, toes and other joints is the result. This autoimmune disease typically progresses in phases. 


This inflammatory skin disease mainly affects the face. The skin reddens, develops blisters and swells. 


Sarcoidosis is a chronic disease of the connective tissue. The symptoms vary depending on the person affected. Characteristically, complaints of the lungs occur. A feeling of pressure in the upper body, breathing difficulties and lack of energy are typical clinical pictures. 


In this condition, the connective tissue is particularly affected. It hardens increasingly. This leads to pain and a loss of facial expression. The tissue is less well supplied with blood and swallowing is difficult. 


Vitiligo is an inflammatory skin disease. As a result, the skin is not properly pigmented. This causes typical white skin spots. Vitiligo does not cause any physical complaints. 

Celiac disease

This condition of the gastrointestinal tract means that the body can no longer properly utilize gluten. Gluten intolerance is the result. If it remains undetected, severe symptoms of the digestive tract occur. The lack of energy and depression are also indications of this autoimmune disease.

Maybe you’re wondering why neurodermatitis (also called atopic eczema) isn’t on the list? This disease is an allergic skin disease. The reason for this is very simple: In this type of disease, immune cells do not or only rarely attack the healthy cells of the body – as described in the introduction, this is the basic prerequisite for an autoimmune disease.

How do you diagnose autoimmune diseases?

Autoimmune diseases are among the most common diseases in Germany. There are about eight million people affected. Experts assume that the number of people suffering from autoimmune diseases will continue to increase. One reason is also that the diagnoses are becoming more precise. 

If an autoimmune disease is suspected, doctors use different methods.

Autoimmune diseases – possibilities of diagnosis

  • Blood tests,
  • Taking tissue samples,
  • Examination of the digestive tract (for example colonoscopy),
  • Stool tests,
  • Joint puncture,
  • Neurological examinations,
  • Functional test of organs (for example lungs).

Depending on their presumptions, doctors use different methods for diagnosis. Those affected often go through several analytical procedures until a clear diagnosis is established. 

What are autoimmune skin diseases?

In an autoimmune disease of the skin, the immune system is directed against the skin or connective tissue. The best known disease in which the immune system attacks the body’s own tissue is psoriasis. The skin produces new skin scales too quickly. The skin reddens and becomes inflamed and itchy. 

Other conditions in this area are scleroderma (hardening of the skin and connective tissue) and lupus erythematosus (redness of the skin and joint pain).

Nutrition in autoimmune diseases

Autoimmune diseases are not yet curable. In addition to therapy with drugs, a healthy lifestyle can also significantly improve the symptoms. It is particularly effective to also reduce stress and eat a more balanced diet. 

Depending on the condition, different diets can help. A nutrient-rich diet with natural foods supports the immune system. 

Good results can be achieved with autoimmune diseases:

Gluten-free diet

The absence of gluten relieves the intestine and reduces inflammation foci. The gluten-free diet is a promising approach to autoimmune diseases. 

Paleo Diet

The Paleo Diet alleviates inflammation in the body and is effective against Leaky Gut Syndrome. A special diet is the Paleo Autoimmune Protocol (AIP).

Sugar-free diet

The sugar-free diet supports the intestine in its regeneration. In addition, the sugar-free diet removes the breeding ground for inflammation. 

These diets help to strengthen the intestines, have an anti-inflammatory effect and strengthen the immune system. 

Autoimmune diseases are manifold – much like the healing approaches

You can see that autoimmune diseases occur in different forms. They affect the skin, internal organs or joints. Whether it is psoriasis, Crohn’s disease or multiple sclerosis: many people affected suffer greatly from their symptoms. A precise diagnosis is important for a successful treatment. Drugs can help to build on this. Lifestyle also plays an important role. A reduction in stress and a coordinated diet support the drug treatment approaches significantly. 

FAQ on autoimmune diseases

What is an autoimmune disease?

In an autoimmune disease, the body fights itself and turns against itself. The organism destroys the body’s own cells and forms antibodies, as it erroneously assumes pathogens. Thus the body manipulates the immune system and an immune reaction occurs.

Why does an autoimmune disease occur?

If the body is attacked by a pathogen, the immune system reacts. T-helper cells and T-cells are responsible for this. In the case of an autoimmune disease, these also react to healthy cells, as a pathogen is assumed.

What are the triggers of an autoimmune disease?

Autoimmune diseases are extremely complex and can result from a combination of a number of factors. Possible triggers include a genetic predisposition, infections, vaccinations, hormones, lifestyle, intestinal conditions or vitamin deficiency.

Which diseases are considered autoimmune diseases?

Autoimmune diseases include hundreds of diseases – about five percent of people in western countries suffer from one form or another. The most common autoimmune diseases are psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis and autoimmune thyroid diseases such as Graves’ disease or Hashimoto’s disease.

What can I do against an autoimmune disease?

In addition to drug treatment, nutrition plays a major role in the treatment of autoimmune diseases. Furthermore, lifestyle including stress is an important factor in autoimmune diseases. The basis of a treatment is always an exact diagnosis.

Is psoriasis an autoimmune disease?

Scientific evidence suggests that psoriasis is an autoimmune disease. The immune system is directed against the body’s own cells. The result is that the skin renews itself too quickly, which leads to red skin and the eponymous scaling.

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Autoimmunerkrankungen in den Griff bekommen: Die besten ganzheitlichen TherapienNicole Schaenzler, Markus Breitenberger, GRÄFE UND UNZER Verlag, 2019

Autoimmunerkrankungen – Ein Leitfaden für Hausärzte

Herold, K. Conrad, U. Sack, Pabst Science Publishers, 2014

Die Autoimmun-Lösung: Ein gesundes Immunsystem beginnt im DarmAmy Myers  (Autor), Rotraud Oechsler, Irisiana Verlag, 2016

AutoimmunerkrankungenKlasen, naturmed Fachbuchvertrieb, 2011via: (status August 2019)

Der Weg zur DiagnoseErika Gromnica-Ihle, Springer Verlag 2018via: (status August 2019)