What is Autoimmune Disease & How Nutrition Can Help
Let’s start off by thinking of the immune system as a home-security setup. When no one breaks into your home (your body) the alarm stays dormant. However, when someone breaks in (injury/infection), the alarm system is set off, and your immune system is alerted, sending its police force to protect you. When your body is in a healthy state, it differentiates between foreign elements (break-ins) and you. But when it comes to autoimmune diseases, your body’s home alarm system can’t tell the difference between the two and is repeatedly triggered, so your body believes it’s under constant attack, i.e. injury or illness.
When your immunity’s signaling system is faulty, it will accidentally attack its own tissues — unable to distinguish the body’s tissues from foreign cells. Another cause of autoimmune disorders is that your immunity is unable to regulate the immune response, meaning that your alarm keeps sounding off at every slight happening.
What is autoimmune disease?
Autoimmune disorders are wide and varied — among them are multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, type 1 diabetes, and psoriasis to name a few. Genetic determinants also play a role; however environmental factors (foods, pollution, stress, toxins, medication, etc.) tend to trigger the condition. Meaning, inflammatory bowel disease may run in your family but eating certain foods may provoke a flare-up. The sad truth is that in our post-industrial age the rise of mass production and processing has fostered an environment where metabolic, cardiovascular, and autoimmune diseases are escalating year-on-year.
Squeaky clean may not be a good thing
In developed societies, incredible strides have been made in cleaning and hygiene products to reduce the risk of infectious diseases. However, one theory, called the Hygiene Hypothesis claims that we’re almost too clean, meaning that excessive hygiene protocols and use of antibiotics has led to immunity being denied a chance to properly combat infection on its own. By limiting exposure to pathogens, which are potentially beneficial for the immune system, you are limiting your immune system’s ability to learn how to stave off infection. Now we’re not suggesting that you avoid proper hygiene or food safety, but it may be helpful to focus on adding a variety of healthy bacteria to your diet, such as yogurt, kombucha, and probiotics.
Inflammation and autoimmunity: Chicken or egg?
Inflammation and autoimmune diseases are like the chicken and the egg scenario, which one came first? The association isn’t clear, yet chronic inflammation may increase the chance of an autoimmune illness, especially if you’re are genetically predisposed. Inflammation’s biological processes slightly mirror those of the autoimmune process, so it ends up being a never-ending cycle.
Wild West(ern) diet
The Western diet tends to include a lot of processed fats (particularly trans-fat), excess protein, high-sugar, too much salt, as well as packaged and fast foods that exacerbate conditions such as obesity, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular disease. It all comes down to balance — deficiency or excess of macro or micronutrients can negatively affect our immune response.
Food sensitivities such as allergies, intolerances, and damage to your stomach lining may cause what’s termed as leaky gut syndrome. This can lead to a plethora of symptoms such as aches, pains, stomach upsets, as well as inflammation and autoimmune responses. Track your symptoms and what you eat, then eliminate common allergens like corn, wheat, dairy, sugar, beef, soy, and citrus for at least a week. Reach out to your doctor or dietitian to learn more and get support.
Stress (related to high life/work demands), smoking, alcohol consumption and lack of physical activity paired with a poor diet are all factors linked to autoimmune diseases. The steady rise of obesity in recent times is associated with inflammation and autoimmune disorders. This is in part because when we have excess white adipose tissue (body fat), it eventually develops into an “organ-like” entity, releasing chemicals that create even more inflammation in the body.
Autoimmune diseases list
We mentioned some of these above, but here is a list of common autoimmune diseases:
Multiple sclerosis (MS)
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
Type 1 diabetes
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
Systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus)
Each autoimmune disease listed above has it’s own unique set of symptoms. That said, there are some common symptoms one might experience in the early stages of these autoimmune diseases. These symptoms include:
Swelling, redness, inflammation
Numbness in the extremities
Rashes, skin irritations
Minimizing your risk and reducing autoimmune disease symptoms
What works for one person, may not work for another. Autoimmune diseases are exceptionally complex and are a fusion of genetics and environmental factors. This is why listening to your body, and its specific needs are vital when working with a medical professional. Studies addressing nutrition as an agent in autoimmune disease have not yet come to a concrete connection between specific foods and the risk of the disease. However, certain foods do help reduce inflammation.
Anti-inflammatory and antioxidant foods
Inflammation and autoimmune disease go hand in hand. During an immune response, there’s an increase in free radicals. Much of the damage caused in autoimmune disease is associated with free radical damage. Antioxidants play a healing role by protecting cells and reducing inflammation.
Sulfur components: Onions, garlic, leeks
Anthocyanins: Berries, grapes, eggplant
Beta-carotene: Carrots, pumpkin, cantaloupe
Healing with healthy fats
Clinical testing for patients with rheumatoid arthritis compared 12 weeks of eating a diet rich in polyunsaturated fats with fish oil supplements, compared to a diet high in saturated fat with a placebo supplement. The participants showed significantly less stiffness in the morning, decreased number of tender joints, and increased grip strength. Once the subjects went back to their original diets, the clinical improvements diminished.
Omega 3: Flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts and fatty fish such as salmon
Polyunsaturated fatty acids: Nuts, nut oil, seeds, fish
Ray of sunshine!
An interesting trend that many autoimmune diseases seem to have in common is that there is a higher density of those struck by them per capita the further away from the equator. The sun, other than lending us a nice tan, also helps us produce vitamin D. Studies have found a decreased risk in developing type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis with the more vitamin D and sunshine we get. This is because vitamin D aids the immune system to function correctly by decreasing proinflammatory cytokines and regulating T cells.
Sun: When you have it, get it. Aim for daily exposure of 15 minutes with forearms, hands or lower legs uncovered. Remember for longer exposure to use sunscreen and wear sunglasses to protect your eyes.
Vitamin D foods: Fatty fish, eggs, red meat, fortified foods.
The relation of gut bacteria and health has garnered a lot of attention of late. Probiotics have been shown to regulate immune factors, heal the gut, and manage inflammatory responses. There has been positive evidence to show an improvement in symptoms when probiotics have been introduced particularly concerning the gut, alleviating symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
Probiotics: Unsweetened yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha
Prebiotics: (food for the healthy bacteria): Garlic, leeks, Jerusalem artichokes, chicory root
To gluten or not to gluten?
There’s no evidence to suggest that gluten-free diets help with autoimmune diseases, but certain conditions may be linked to celiac disease. Just because something is gluten-free does not mean it’s healthy. So rather than aimlessly jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon, first try and limit processed and packaged foods and see how you feel.
Head here for a tasty, homemade bread recipe.
Autopilot your immunity
When it comes to eating to alleviate symptoms of an autoimmune disease, it’s essential to work together with your physician and dietitian to find the right plan for you. Also, focus on anti-inflammatory foods such as leafy green vegetables (cooked if you suffer from IBD), fatty fish, cold-pressed seed oil, and whole foods packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Aim to replace sugar, processed fats (trans fat), and fast food with a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, spices, herbs, lean protein, and unsaturated fats.