Autoimmune diseases diagnoses are often given with no recommended treatments. But food can play a role in helping the body heal. What might an autoimmune disease diet look like? And what foods should you eat and avoid to feel better and even reverse illness? Get answers and hope in this article.
If you or someone you know has an autoimmune disease, you know these illnesses can be overwhelming, frustrating, and debilitating.
When you have an autoimmune disease, basically, your body is attacking itself.
These conditions are notoriously difficult to diagnose. And they can manifest through a wide variety of symptoms. So getting to the root cause isn’t easy and can take a long time.
Autoimmune diseases are on the rise in a significant way.
Worldwide, up to 700 million people are estimated to be suffering from autoimmune disorders right now. And in the U.S., autoimmune diseases are the third most common category of illness, after cancer and heart disease.
About 78% of autoimmune disease cases take place in women.
But as the science is showing, food can play a role in helping sufferers of autoimmune disease feel better and heal their bodies.
What’s An Autoimmune Disease?
When you have an autoimmune disease, your immune system misidentifies healthy tissues and organs as being foreign. This causes the body to produce antibodies that attack your body’s own tissues.
Your symptoms might come on quickly or gradually. You may feel overwhelming fatigue, crippling pain, and debilitating weakness. Or you may feel dizzy and have brain fog.
You may feel miserable like you’re on a roller coaster of good days and bad days with no end in sight. These diseases can be frustrating and isolating, but each experience is unique.
All autoimmune diseases share one common theme: an out-of-sync immune system that has turned inward, attacking parts of the body as if they were foreign invaders.
In fact, autoimmune diseases can show up in at least 80 different ways in all areas of the body.
But all autoimmune diseases share one common theme: an out-of-sync immune system that has turned inward, attacking parts of the body as if they were foreign invaders.
Your immune system is crucially important, serving the purpose of protecting your body from infections and bacteria. But when its functions are out of balance, your immune system can become dangerous.
Autoimmune Diseases List
More than 100 autoimmune conditions exist. Some of the most common ones include:
- Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), chronic inflammation of the joints that leads to pain, swelling, and stiffness.
- Lupus (SLE), a systemic issue that affects the skin, joints, kidneys, brain, and other organs and can manifest in fatigue, joint pain, fever, and a rash.
- Multiple sclerosis (MS), a disease of the central nervous system that can cause problems with vision, balance, memory, muscle control, and other basic bodily functions.
- Celiac sprue disease, a reaction to gluten in which the small intestine becomes inflamed, causing damage and leading to the malabsorption of some nutrients.
- Pernicious anemia, a condition where the body can’t absorb enough vitamin B-12 in order to make the necessary number of red blood cells.
- Vitiligo, a condition in which the skin loses its melanocytes (pigment cells), leading to discolored patches on different parts of the body.
- Scleroderma, a disease in which the connective tissues become tight and stiff.
- Psoriasis, an issue where skin cells build up to become red, itchy scales.
- Inflammatory Bowel Diseases, a group of disorders that cause inflammation of the digestion tract. These include Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative colitis.
- Hashimoto’s disease, a condition in which the thyroid gland is attacked and gradually destroyed, often manifesting in fatigue and weight gain.
- Addison’s disease, when the adrenal glands don’t produce enough hormones. Symptoms include fatigue, nausea, and weight loss.
- Graves’ disease, in which the thyroid overproduces hormones. It can manifest in anxiety, tremors, and puffy eyes.
- Sjögren’s syndrome, a condition which causes dryness of the eyes and mouth and can often accompany other autoimmune diseases.
- Type 1 diabetes, a condition where the pancreas does not create enough insulin. Patients have to monitor their blood sugar levels for life.
What Causes Autoimmune Diseases?
There’s no definitive answer as to what causes autoimmune disease. But many scientists suspect the following three things play a role:
- And environmental factors including diet, toxins, and the balance of intestinal bacteria
In recent history, Westernized countries have seen significantly higher rates of these diseases — suggesting that autoimmune diseases are not just a product of genetics or bad luck. Instead, the choices we make may strongly influence our chances of getting an autoimmune disease.
Lifestyle changes, particularly food choices, can play a key role in managing or even reversing many of these autoimmune diseases.
No established cures for autoimmune diseases exist.
But numerous studies have demonstrated that lifestyle changes, particularly food choices, can play a key role in managing or even reversing many of these autoimmune diseases.
How Excessive Inflammation Is Linked to Autoimmune Diseases
Fundamentally, autoimmune disease is an inflammation issue.
According to the Journal of Immunology Research, “increasing evidences show that the abnormal inflammatory response is closely associated with many chronic diseases, especially in autoimmune diseases …”
Doctors typically turn to medication for dealing with the symptoms of inflammatory conditions, which often fails to address the root causes — including allergens, infections, environmental toxins, an inflammatory diet, and stress.
But food can be a powerful tool for fighting excessive inflammation.
What Does The Science Say About An Autoimmune Disease Diet? Healthy, Plant-Based Eating Can Help
Every autoimmune disease is different. Yet science is pointing to the power of plants to help alleviate symptoms and heal the body.
A 2014 research review published in the journal Current Allergy and Asthma Reports found that the symptoms of many autoimmune diseases — including fatigue in MS, pain and diarrhea in IBD, or the need of insulin in type one diabetes — may be “considerably affected” by food choices.
A whole food, plant-based diet, in particular, can make a world of difference.
A 2001 study published in the journal Rheumatology found that a vegan diet (also free from gluten) could significantly improve the signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
One potential driver of RA is low levels of potassium. Multiple studies — including this one in the Annals of the Rheumatic Disease — have noted that patients with RA tend to have lower levels of potassium in their blood.
Another study published in 2008 in the Journal of Pain found that increasing potassium intake could decrease pain levels in RA patients. Further research has suggested that may apply to other autoimmune conditions as well.
Where does potassium come from? The leading sources are plant foods, such as avocado, acorn squash, spinach, sweet potato, pomegranate, and bananas.
Another study published in 2008 in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics concluded that a vegetable-rich plant-based diet increased the levels of many specific nutrients that contribute to a healthy and balanced immune response — including fiber, total vitamin A activity, beta-carotene, vitamins K and C, folate, magnesium, and potassium — all of which contribute to a healthy and balanced immune response.
Give Your Gut Some Love
Gut health is a crucial component when it comes to healing, and preventing, the development of autoimmune diseases.
A 2017 study published in the Frontiers of Immunology found that “leaky gut” — when the intestinal epithelial lining loses integrity and allows the passage of bacteria and toxins into the blood — can “trigger the initiation and development of autoimmune disease.”
Gut health is a crucial component when it comes to healing, and preventing, the development of autoimmune diseases
Another report published in 2012 in the journal Nature found that when the digestive system encounters saturated fat, it breaks down the healthy bacteria in the gut.
This causes inflammation, an increased immune response, and tissue damage.
Saturated fat is primarily found in butter, cheese, red meat, and other animal-based foods.
So what’s the best way to take care of your gut? Healthy probiotics (beneficial bacteria) can be helpful. Good sources may include fermented foods, such as kimchi and sauerkraut, unsweetened yogurts, coconut kefir, and probiotic supplements.
But it’s equally important to feed the “good guys” abundant healthy prebiotic foods that help them to increase.
The number one food that probiotics love is fiber. The particular kinds of fiber that are most beneficial are found in chicory root, Jerusalem artichoke, dandelion greens, garlic, leek, onion, asparagus, jicama, apple, flaxseed, and burdock root.
Eat Your Veggies
Certain foods are anti-inflammatories, supporting your body in maintaining an appropriate immune response. Here are some foods you may want to eat more of:
These calcium-rich nutritional powerhouses include kale, mustard greens, collard greens, cabbage, and broccoli.
They’re packed with good-for-you vitamins and minerals and can easily be added to smoothies, salads, or stir-fries.
Fungi have demonstrated some tremendous anti-inflammatory potential.
One 2005 study published in Mediators of Inflammation found that mushrooms can promote anticancer activity, the suppression of autoimmune diseases, and aid in allergy relief.
These flavorful veggies have long been touted for their beneficial effects.
They contain quercetin, an antioxidant which has been shown to inhibit inflammation-causing leukotrienes, prostaglandins and histamines in both osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
They contain fatty acids (like omega 3s), and antioxidants, including zeaxanthin, lutein, and beta-carotene.
Turnips and Rutabaga
These root vegetables are packed with positive ingredients, including an array of antioxidants, such as glucosinolates and carotenoids.
They also offer vitamin C, potassium, magnesium, zinc, iron, and more.
Add Some Spice to Your Life
Certain spices are particularly beneficial when it comes to minimizing inflammation and boosting your body’s healthy immune response.
Super-flavorful options include ginger, cayenne pepper, cloves, garlic, cinnamon, and turmeric.
Turmeric, in particular, is a powerful anti-inflammatory.
A 2007 study published in Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology noted that curcumin (the primary active ingredient in turmeric) has been shown to help with multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and inflammatory bowel disease.
According to the Journal of Alternative Medicine Review: “Curcumin supplementation can result in up to a 60% reduction in pain and a 73% reduction in joint stiffness.”
(Editor’s Note: PuraTHRIVE created Curcumin Gold, an anti-inflammatory supplement that combines curcumin with ginger and DHA. It incorporates a potent bioavailability enhancer that’s been found to increase absorption rates by 185x. They contribute a share of proceeds to support the work of Food Revolution Network, enabling us to plant organic fruit and nut trees in low-income neighborhoods. To find out more about this powerful anti-inflammatory supplement, click here.)
3 Foods You May Want to Avoid If You Have An Autoimmune Disease
Many people battling autoimmune disorders may want to consider reducing or eliminating the following foods/ingredients:
The key ingredient in many starchy comfort foods, gluten can be particularly challenging for those with autoimmune diseases.
For anyone with celiac disease, steering clear of gluten is essential. But many people struggling with autoimmune disease may be gluten sensitive.
Many people struggling with autoimmune disease may be gluten sensitive.
If you are experiencing a difficult-to-solve health challenge, you may want to give up gluten for three to six months to see if you notice any dramatic health improvements. Gluten is found in wheat, spelt, rye, and barley.
For some people, gluten may contribute to leaky gut-related challenges. And according to 2014 research published in Best Practice & Research: Clinical Gastroenterology, it may exacerbate conditions like multiple sclerosis, asthma, and RA by increasing inflammation.
A Standard American Diet tends to be high in sugar. And those with autoimmune conditions are particularly susceptible to the negative effects of this sweet substance.
A 2015 study published in Frontiers of Immunology found that sugar intake increased the likelihood of developing type one diabetes in children at genetic risk.
Additionally, according to 1973 research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, sugars in all forms (glucose, fructose, and sucrose) can impair immune system function, hurting the ability of white blood cells to do battle against threats.
It’s best to minimize sugar consumption and to try to keep sugar at around five percent of your dietary makeup.
Many animal-based proteins, like those found in meat, milk, and eggs, can cause an inflammatory response in the body, exacerbating autoimmune conditions.
A 2010 study reported in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that patients who adhered to a vegan diet for three and a half months experienced a great deal of improvement in pain, swollen/tender joints, and morning stiffness than the control group patients who followed a standard American diet.
A 2015 study published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine determined that patients who ate a vegan diet for three weeks significantly reduced their C-reactive protein, a significant factor in acute inflammation.
Twenty years ago, scientists published research in the American Journal of Cardiology showing that a single meal high in animal fats could cause an immediate spike in inflammation that peaked at around four hours.
Essentially, these animal fats paralyzed the arteries, cutting their flow volume almost in half.
For those who eat animal products at every meal, just as the inflammation from one meal is winding down — the spike could be starting again.
Other studies have found that exposure to animal products can trigger autoimmune attacks and flare-ups in people with conditions like arthritis, so a plant-based diet may be of real benefit.
Empower Yourself to Heal Through Food
Autoimmune diseases can be notoriously frustrating. But food can be a powerful tool in fighting back against illness and helping your body heal.
By sticking to a healthy diet based around whole plant foods and by avoiding some of the key triggers, you can make a world of difference to support your own well-being. And you can boost and balance your immune system so it can be your reliable friend and protector for years and decades to come.
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