Although an estimated 1 in 10 Americans lives with endometriosis — a condition where cells similar to endometrial cells grow outside a person's uterus — researchers still have lots to learn about this painful obstetric issue. And despite how common endometriosis is, doctors remain stumped on what causes it and how to prevent it.
Perhaps the most puzzling thing about this condition is its connection with autoimmune diseases. Although it isn't recognized as one itself, studies show that people with endometriosis are more likely to have an autoimmune disease or develop one in the future.
“Patients with endometriosis are statistically more likely to have allergies and autoimmune diseases compared to women without endometriosis,” says Dr. Andrew Cook, an endometriosis specialist and women's health expert at Vital Health Institute. Research tells us that patients with endometriosis have a higher risk of developing lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome and other autoimmune diseases.
So why is this? It's unclear exactly, says Cook. But doctors are now starting to look at endometriosis as an immune system disease in and of itself. “Patients with endometriosis certainly seem to have some type of immune dysfunction,” says Cook. “It has many similarities with other autoimmune diseases, such as elevated levels of cytokines and other cellular abnormalities.” Endometriosis also shares similar genes, proteins and regulators with other immune diseases.
However, other medical experts think the link between endometriosis and autoimmune disease is nothing more than chance. A small percent of the population, for instance, is affected by both eczema and type 2 diabetes — with no proven correlation between the two. Others think selection bias could be to blame. In other words, people who seek medical help for endometriosis or enroll in clinical trials could be more likely to find other underlying diseases during the course of their treatment.
Regardless, endometriosis and autoimmune disease are, for some reason, linked. To be on the safe side — since endometriosis is not only linked to autoimmune disease but other chronic conditions like cancer — anyone with endometriosis should undergo regular cancer screenings and follow up with their doctor about additional health issues.
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