The Connection Between Diet and Autoimmune Diseases

There are 23 million US adults with autoimmune disease, many of whom wonder if there is something about their diet that can help control their conditions. Autoimmune disease is the second most common cause of chronic disease in adults. This means that about 5% of Americans have been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.

Inflammation and Autoimmune Disease

Autoimmune disease is all about inflammation. The body has an immune system that normally directs itself toward dangerous pathogens that affect the body. In autoimmune diseases, the immune system becomes confused and makes antibodies against the body’s own tissues. There are hundreds of autoimmune diseases that each have antibodies directed at different tissues of the body.

Chronic inflammation is present in many people who have autoimmune diseases and may play a role it its development. Doctors don’t know which comes first, the autoimmune disease or the inflammation. Doctors just don’t know. To complicate matters, you can have inflammation and not have autoimmune diseases and can have autoimmune diseases without a lot of inflammation.

Treatment Strategies

There is a lack of available research regarding the treatment of autoimmune diseases. Each is treated a little bit differently using drug therapy and lifestyle modification. The management of autoimmune diseases through nutrition usually places and emphasis on controlling inflammation and pain, which slows the disease progression and helps the immune system function better. There are certain foods and nutrients that seem to be beneficial in managing the diseases.

For example, there seems to be a relationship between vitamin D levels and the development of autoimmune diseases. Those who lack vitamin D have a greater than average risk of getting various autoimmune diseases, such as multiple sclerosis. Those who live in normal climates have a greater risk of getting type I diabetes and multiple sclerosis, both autoimmune diseases, than those who live near the equator.

Vitamin D can be found in fortified dairy products, fortified cereals and as a vitamin D supplement. The most natural way to get vitamin D is through sunshine, which can be hard to do in northern climates in the middle of the winter.

There are vitamin D receptors found in many cells of the body, including the islet cells inside the pancreas, cells inside the colon, and human lymphocytes. It may be that vitamin D keeps the immune system healthy by inhibiting the growth and division of T cells in the immune system, decreasing the amount of pro-inflammatory cytokines.

The Gut Flora and Autoimmunity

Another area of research is on balancing the gut flora in order to prevent inflammation. When the gut flora are out of balance, this creates a leaky gut that allows larger particles of food to enter the bloodstream. The body recognizes these as foreign antigens and the immune system is activated. Whenever the immune system is hyper-activated, autoimmune diseases can occur.

You can keep your gut flora healthy by eating foods that are high in probiotics.

This includes eating yogurt and other fermented foods such as:

  • Kefir
  • Dark chocolate
  • Sauerkraut
  • Miso soup
  • Pickles
  • Tempeh

Eating foods like these can replace bad bacteria in your gut with good bacteria, therefore reducing inflammation.

The Diet in Celiac Disease

People with celiac disease have an autoimmune condition that makes them intolerant to gluten. Gluten is found in many types of grains, including wheat grains, oat grains, barley, and rye. As long as the person with this gluten intolerance stays away from foods containing these grains, they don’t have inflammation and they aren’t sick.

Gluten-free diets also seem to play a positive role in other autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis. There is no proof that avoiding gluten helps all autoimmune diseases but it is known that many people with autoimmune diseases also have gluten sensitivity.

Eating to Reduce Inflammation

One way of reducing inflammation is to have a diet high in antioxidants. Antioxidants seem to limit the amount of inflammation in the diet. You can get antioxidants in your diet by eating foods containing them, which are primarily dark, rich-colored fruits and vegetables, such as blueberries, cranberries, beans, russet potatoes, and artichokes.

Many people with autoimmune diseases follow a paleo diet. This includes a diet rich in lean meats, fruits and vegetables that is also low in grains. A paleo diet has few foods in it that are inflammatory and may serve you well to reduce inflammation and the symptoms of autoimmune diseases if you already have one.