The Effects of Diet on Autoimmune Disease
The human body is a beautifully complex thing. It constantly directs every system in your body to maintain optimal health. Whether in response to stress, inflammation, or foreign invaders a series of checks and balances keeps your body operating smoothly. One significant piece of health maintenance is your immune system. When it is working correctly you can fight off infections, recover from illness more quickly, and have limited or no allergic responses to your food and environment. However, when your immune system is not working properly, the potential for autoimmune diseases is a real threat.
A Healthy Immune System
Your body is an evolutionary genius when it comes to immunity. You have two major defense systems: innate and adaptive immunity. Your innate immunity was passed down from your parents and ancestors, with some minor tweaks each generation. Innate immunity senses and repairs damaged tissue, eliminates aging cells and detects harmful cells such as viruses. Your adaptive immunity is more sophisticated and adapts based on your diet and environment. Adaptive immunity recognizes and categorizes nonself dangerous cells and coordinates a targeted attack with minimal damage to other tissues and cells. These two immune systems work together to distinguish what is harmful, mount specific attacks on those dangerous and damaging cells, and remember these destructive characters for next time.
A healthy immune system needs to distinguish between four basic categories: nonself harmful intruders such as viruses, self-created but harmful molecules like uric acid, safe but nonself cells like healthy commensal bacteria living in your gut, and safe “self” cells such as all healthy human cells in your body. Your immune system is constantly learning and relearning which cells are a threat to health and which cells are safe. To help with the learning process, your cells have receptors on the outside telling your immune system, “Hello, I am me, I am safe!” These “self” receptors allow the immune system’s checks and balances to operate smoothly. What happens if your body gets mixed messages?
When Immunity Goes Awry
Unfortunately, despite the ingenuity of the human body, your immune system can still get confused and mistakenly tag “self” cells as harmful. When this occurs your immune system will attack healthy cells. This is the very definition of autoimmunity. In this case your immune system is in overdrive and produces antibodies that target specific cells in the body. Which cells your immune system mistakenly attacks will dictate which autoimmune disease presents.
According to The American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, there are close to 100 different autoimmune diseases. Additionally, over 23 million people in the U.S. suffer from at least one autoimmune condition with potentially tens of millions more suffering without a proper diagnosis. Below are the top 10 most common autoimmune diseases according to The Autoimmune Registry:
- Rheumatoid arthritis attacks the lining of joints causing inflammation, joint pain and swelling.
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis attacks healthy thyroid tissue leading to hypothyroidism.
- Celiac disease attacks the lining of the small intestine anytime gluten is ingested.
- Graves’ disease stimulates your thyroid to produce excess thyroid hormone, leading to hyperthyroidism.
- Type 1 diabetes mellitus attacks insulin producing cells in the pancreas, reducing the body’s ability to properly produce insulin.
- Vitiligo attacks pigment-producing skin cells resulting in white patches on the skin.
- Rheumatic fever starts with the strep throat virus then the body mistakenly attacks healthy tissue as well.
- Pernicious anemia / atrophic gastritis may arise from over activity of the immune system focused on attacking the stomach lining.
- Alopecia areata attacks healthy hair follicles leading to hair loss.
- Immune thrombocytopenic purpura attacks blood platelets leading to excessive bleeding and bruising.
Other common autoimmune diseases include Systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus) which attacks joints, lungs, blood cells, nerves, and kidneys; Inflammatory bowel disease which attacks the lining of the small intestine (Crohn’s) or large intestine (ulcerative colitis); Multiple sclerosis (MS) which attacks the protective myelin sheaths of nerve cells; Guillain-Barre syndrome which attacks nerves controlling muscles in the legs, arms and upper body; Psoriasis which stimulates overproduction of skin cells; Myasthenia gravis which attacks nerves and prevents them from properly stimulating muscles; and Vasculitis which attacks and damages blood vessels.
Autoimmunity is essentially a hyper-reactive immune system that gets suspicious very easily. Any small change is threatening. Imagine walking into your house with a new hairdo but your family doesn’t recognize you and calls 911 thinking you’re an intruder. That is what happens with autoimmunity. Any slight change has your immune system calling in reinforcements. Because of this, conventional treatments for autoimmune diseases focus on suppressing the immune system. Medications are meant to weaken the immune system so it no longer attacks healthy cells. These drugs can feel like a life saver for many, but they do come with side effects. More importantly, they do not address why the immune system is in overdrive to begin with.
Although we still do not have any definitive causes to all autoimmunity, roughly 70-95% of your risk for an autoimmune disease may be related to diet, toxin exposure and activity level. This means you have the power to greatly reduce your risk of immune dysfunction by understanding your food and environment.
Gut Health, Diet and Immunity
Gut health and nutrition both influence how healthy your immune system is. Roughly 70% of your immune system is in your gut and your microbiota plays a key role in adaptive immunity. If you have taken several courses of antibiotics, eat a high sugar and/or refined carbohydrate diet or lack adequate fiber in your diet, your digestive tract and microbiota have taken a beating. Gut health can be compromised by chronic and systemic inflammation which in turn sends your immune system in a downward spiral. Inflammation damages your intestinal lining leading to leaky gut and a heightened immune response. Inflammation may also destroy Peyer’s patches, immune tissue in your intestinal lining, compromising your immune system. Additionally, all that inflammatory damage can create an inhospitable environment for the good gut bacteria and invite pathogenic species to thrive. Uncontrolled inflammation becomes a triple threat to your immune system.
Inflammation comes from many sources, including food. A diet high in sugar, refined flours, processed foods, fried foods, artificial flavors, refined oils and trans fats while low in fiber, antioxidants and omega 3 fatty acids will set the stage for uncontrolled inflammation and increased risk for a heightened and confused immune system. One antioxidant in particular that will make or break your immune system is vitamin C. This vitamin helps regulate gene expression, supports cellular functions of both innate and adaptive immunity, promotes a healthy intestinal lining, and protects against oxidative stress and inflammation. The human body cannot make vitamin C on its own, you can only get it from food, so it’s important to consume vitamin C rich foods. Additionally, a diet low in vitamin C is probably full of inflammatory foods. This creates a compounding effect of high inflammation and little nutritive support for your immune system. However, this is only one small piece of a very large and complicated puzzle. Your level of previous and current toxin exposure, the health of your liver and detoxification pathways, how much or how little you move, the balance of your gut microbiota, the health of your gut, and every food choice you make will either support or impede the function of your immune system. If your food and environment are working against your immune system, no wonder it can get confused!
Strengthen Your Immune System
It’s time to turn the tides and support your body. Here are eight steps you can take to strengthen your immune system while getting it out of overdrive.
- Know your current food allergens and sensitivities. You can do that with an elimination diet as well as ordering a food allergy panel to see what your body is currently reacting to. Once you know your sensitivities, remove those foods for at least 6 weeks.
- Eliminate inflammatory foods such as sugars, refined flours, processed foods, artificial flavors, refined oils, trans fats and fried foods. Choose minimally processed foods when possible with few ingredients and no preservatives.
- Load your plate with organic vegetables and fruits to increase your fiber, vitamin C and other antioxidants. Vitamin C rich foods include dark leafy greens, citrus fruits, winter squash, red peppers, berries, broccoli and cauliflower.
- Consume foods high in omega-3 fatty acids such as wild caught fish, walnuts, chia seeds and flax seeds.
- Incorporate fermented foods such as kefir, kimchi, traditional pickling, yogurt, and tempeh to rebalance your microbiota.
- Support your liver by reducing as many toxins in your environment as you can and doing a safe liver cleanse like my 21-Day Holistic Detox.
- Find fun, purposeful movement. Whether walking, going to a spin class, dancing or lifting weights all movement in moderation will help stimulate your immune system in a positive way.
- Manage your stress. Chronic stress, including psychological, can lead to inflammation, leaky gut and immune compromise.
Knowing your immune triggers, cleaning up your food and environment, and managing stress will set you on the course to a better, stronger, more resilient immune system.
Stephanie Walsh, MNT, CEPC, CPT is a Master Nutrition Therapist, Board Certified in Holistic Nutrition®, Certified Eating Psychology Coach and Personal Trainer. Her work with clients focuses on the individual as a whole, considering your diet is just one small piece of the puzzle. Her holistic approach considers your stressors, sleep quality, digestive complaints, food choices, activity level, readiness for change, social support and much more in order to help you optimize your health and wellbeing for the long term. Contact Stephanie at 207-730-2208 or email her: