What is an autoimmune disease?

Posted on 11 March 2014

Dr Andre Nortje, a physician at Mediclinic Milnerton, explains what an autoimmune disease is.

An autoimmune disease is a disorder where the body’s natural defences mistake substances inside the body as threats and then goes about attacking normal tissues. ‘There are various ways this can arise,’ says Dr Andre Nortje. ‘In general what happens is that your immune system incorrectly identifies your own tissue as foreign. Antibodies (proteins produce by a special type of white cells called the B-lymphocytes) are generated against your own cells which then cause inflammation and ultimately damages these cells. Then, depending on which cells are damaged, your organs will not function adequately.’ Examples of autoimmune diseases include psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis and celiac disease.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which people cannot eat gluten because a protein in the gluten triggers an immune response in the small intestine. Their body’s immune system creates antibodies that attack and damage villi, (small fingerlike projections lining the small intestine), so that nutrients cannot be absorbed into the body.

Arguably the most publicised celiac case is that of tennis star Novak Djokovic. In 2011 Djokovic won 10 men’s singles titles, including the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the US Open. Experts put his year of years down to timing, the correct training, new gear and the fact that his rivals had a bad one. He believes it was thanks to a banishing gluten (found in common flours) from his diet. He lost weight, had more stamina and – what Djokovic maintains as the biggest factor in his winning streak – was mentally sharper on court.

It’s important to note that Djokovic has never claimed to suffer from celiac disease, but rather being gluten intolerant – there is a distinct difference – but his case brought the disease to prominence anyway.

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Published in Nutrition

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