Your body’s immune system protects you from disease and infection. But if you have an autoimmune disease, your immune system attacks healthy cells in your body by mistake. Autoimmune diseases can affect many parts of the body. No one is sure what causes autoimmune diseases; they do tend to run in families – there are more than 80 types.
Naturally, lifestyle and environmental issues do play a role, nutrition can help control autoimmune disease flare-ups for some people so let’s take a look at some of the common conditions, what they are, and how your diet can help.
Here’s a rundown on the common autoimmune diseases and potential changes that diet has been shown to help with. Again, this is a general guideline, everyone is unique so we have to honor that this article is just a basic and brief outline of each disease and what could support it nutritionally.
1 || Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)
This autoimmune disease affects the joints, creating inflammation that leads to thickening of the lining of the joints. People who have it often experience swelling and pain in and around the joints. If left untreated it can end up damaging cartilage or even the bones themselves.
Nutritionally, you need to focus on anti-inflammatory foods since this disease causes inflammation in the body. Omega-3 fatty acids help to reduce inflammation in people with rheumatoid arthritis. Fish like salmon, trout, and tuna, chia seeds and flax seeds are rich in that type of fat. Turmeric is also known as a powerful anti-inflammatory, so it’s good to add it to your diet.
Add selenium-rich foods such as nuts and seeds, and vitamin D; which help your body absorb calcium to protect your bones – you can get it from sunshine and eggs.
2 || Lupus
Lupus also comes with inflammation in the body and means your immune system attacks your body. However, lupus can not only affect your joints, but really anywhere in your body, including your cells, tissues, and organs too.
People with lupus have a greater risk of other health conditions as well, including heart disease, osteoporosis, and kidney disease. Women are at greater risk of this disease.
As with all of these autoimmune diseases, following a well-balanced healthy diet is important. That means depending on fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and moderate amounts of fish, poultry, and meat; basically leaning more towards a plant-based lifestyle.
Again, you’ll want to eat anti-inflammatory foods with lupus to help control symptoms. Limit alcohol consumption and easy on the salt.
3 || Psoriasis
Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease that primarily affects the skin. It can lead to red patches on the skin that can look like very dry spots. Some people experience itchiness or burning in these areas; mainly it would occur on the elbows, knees, or scalp.
people with psoriasis might benefit from following a gluten-free meal plan, recent research suggests there’s a link between celiac disease (which I will tap into further in the article) and psoriasis. Also, it is also recommended to limit nightshades (like tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes), and increasing all other vegetables, in addition to vitamin D, and fish oil for its anti-inflammatory properties.
4 || Hashimoto’s Disease
This condition is rather common; I have worked with many clients that suffer from Hashimoto’s. It is basically an attack on the thyroid from your immune system which makes it underactive. We all know the importance of the thyroid; it controls how your body uses energy, so it can then affect many areas of the body, slowing down everyday basic functions.
How diet can help: People with Hashimoto’s should avoid iodine (found in seaweed), as it may cause it to produce either too much or too little hormone. Also avoiding gluten and dairy may help. Maintaining a sufficient level of vitamin D is crucial.
5 || Type 1 Diabetes
Diabetes is a disease that affects blood sugar levels and insulin. Basically type 1 diabetics don’t make insulin at all; they rely on insulin therapy; in the form of insulin shots so that their bodies can utilize glucose for energy.
How diet can help: Following a low-carbohydrate diet will help people with diabetes lose weight, which is a main concern for diabetics. The main strategy to managing diabetes (whether it was type 1 or 2 ) is controlling simple carbohydrates such as white bread and desserts; it’s best to choose complex carbohydrates (like beans, whole grains, and vegetables) and cut back on sugar as much as possible like desserts or sweet juices and yogurts.
6 || Celiac Disease
While a gluten-free diet is often seen as trendy these days, those with celiac disease need to stay clear of it, not for vanity; but for healthy and normal function of the intestines. People with legit celiac disease have an intense reaction to gluten; the immune system cannot digest it or handle the protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. It can then cause inflammation and damage to the small intestine with time, and malabsorption of nutrients which can lead to many other complications.
The best thing (and currently the only treatment) celiac sufferers can do for themselves is cut gluten out of their diets completely, even products that may come in contact with gluten, say a meal cooked on the same stove. They need to be very careful and read labels, if there were traces of gluten even it could flare and be painful for certain cases.
I have also come across an article recently that talks about the impact of stress on our immune system and especially patients with autoimmune diseases. Chronic stress ages both the immune system and the whole body faster than they normally would. It diminishes heart health, and makes people more likely to become overweight and even obese. As people age, their bodies becomes less capable to respond well to stress, as certain regions of the brain are no longer able to react to stress signals in a timely way, and thus the stress hormone cortisol takes a longer time to be suppressed. Long term exposure to cortisol will also enhance inflammation.
Zein Nimri is an AFPA certified sports nutritionist, NESTA kids nutritionist, long distance runner, cyclist and traveller with big dreams. Follow her on Instagram @Zeinutritionist she is currently an Eating Disorder Recovery Coach.