Diet and Autoimmune Disease

I’m afraid the old adage is true, you are what you eat. Eat a healthy, well balanced diet full of nutrients to fuel your body and your body will be healthy. Eat the standard American diet (SAD) loaded with processed junk and empty calories and your body will be junk! Healthy bodies require healthy fuel to be that way. This goes double for anyone suffering from an autoimmune disease like rheumatoid arthritis (RA). We all know why every body needs healthy food, but why do autoimmune bodies need them even more?

The answer, in a nutshell, is that autoimmune reactions burn a lot of resources. During an active flare, autoimmune reactions burn through nutrients and minerals we are consuming or have stored to fuel the immune response. This means higher demands for things like zinc, selenium, and Vitamins A, C, D, E, B6 and folic acid, all critical for immune response modulation. Modulation is the turning on and off of the various immune responses in your body. This means poor nutrition both fails to feed our body what it needs to heal and fails to give us the nutrients needed to stop unwanted immune activity (such as excess inflammation.) For in-depth information on nutrient roles in immune function read this article.

So, now we know what nutrients our bodies burn up during active autoimmune disease phases, what about what it destroys? Remember, unlike immune response, which attacks invaders and repairs tissues, autoimmune response attacks our own tissues. This causes damage, often in ways that invading microbes do not. The result? Needing even more nutrients to repair the damage being done. The nutrients needed will vary a bit depending on what kind of autoimmune disease you have. For RA, which destroys bones, soft tissues, and muscles with flames (inflammation), this means increased calcium, magnesium, protein, fatty acid and potassium to fuel the rebuilding.

As if it isn’t enough to consider the nutrients we need just because we are alive, plus those our body needs to continue to destroy itself, plus those needed to repair the havoc that causes, science suggests that autoimmune sufferers may need even more nutrients in their diet due to poor absorption. Deemed ” leaky gut” by the holistic community, Malabsorption syndrome to the medical community, many autoimmune sufferers also suffer from poor nutrient absorption due to damage and/or inflammation in the intestines which inhibits proper nutrient absorption. The result? Only a fraction of the nutrients you eat ever make it into your bloodstream to be distributed to the parts of the body that need them.

The result of all this immune action and nutrient depletion? The driving force behind nearly all autoimmune diseases, Inflammation. Two of the processes our busy immune system is responsible for involve inflammation. The immune system is responsible for both creating and putting out those fires. So, if the system is out of whack, because it doesn’t have the nutrients needed to deactivate inflammation, disease activity will be higher. This makes two things very important when it comes to diet: Getting nutrients for good inflammatory regulation and NOT MAKING MORE FIRES!

How do you avoid building more fires? Avoiding known inflammatory foods like sugar, refined processed foods, and alcohol can help reduce inflammation. Those foods universally increase inflammation, in other words, everyone’s body turns that into inflammation. The next step for creating a healthier body through diet, is to look for foods that cause you inflammation personally. The possibilities are endless, common offenders include meat, dairy, nuts, tomatoes, and grains.

Uncommon offenders include practically every other food you can consume. If your body is allergic to or sensitive to a food, it will create inflammation in response.

All of this combined makes diet and nutrition a really big part of successful management of any autoimmune condition. It also makes figuring out what “healthy diet” means for you really complicated. As a result, there are dozens of diets and protocols out there claiming to be the best diet for healthy living. Many of them are wonderful at nourishing bodies and keeping inflammation in check.

Figuring out which diet is right for you is a process of elimination. One essential tool for figuring that out is a food and symptom journal. This can be a simple daily list or of course there are apps for that. Log everything you eat, along with your symptoms. Look for patterns of pain, swelling, nausea, heartburn and other signals that your body is not reacting well to what you are putting in. You may want to start with an elimination diet to see what foods seem to make you feel worse, then go from there. Below are a few of the diets that seem to be most helpful to those suffering from autoimmune disease. Follow the links to learn more.

  • Autoimmune Protocol (AIP)– Also known as the Paleo Autoimmune Protocol, this is probably the best-known autoimmune diet, AIP focuses on removing all the common “reactive foods” to reduce immune response to food triggers. After a period of elimination, foods are added back into the diet as allowed. Emphasis is placed on healing the gut and nourishing the body.
  • Vegetarian/Vegan Diets- Many autoimmune sufferers have great results, consuming plant based diets. These nutrient dense diets can be a great help for symptom management.
  • Paleo Diet– A whole food diet that places emphasis on eating vegetables, meat, healthy fats, fruits, and other things our hunter/gatherer ancestors ate. Many autoimmune sufferers see a reduction in symptoms while following a Paleo diet.
  • The Whole30 Diet– This twist on the Paleo diet is designed to reset your eating habits. A 30 day elimination diet, this is another good option for sorting out food related symptoms.
  • GAPS Diet– Placing the focus on gut health and healing the gut to eliminate symptoms throughout the body, this elimination diet was developed to naturally treat gut driven inflammation.
  • Wahl’s Protocol– This paleo style diet developed by Doctor and MS patient Dr. Terry Wahl’s focusses on eliminating inflamatory and damaging foods. Focus is placed on discovering food intolerances and nourishing the body with whole, nutrient dense foods.
  • The Mediterranean Diet– This diet incorporates traditional Mediterranean foods like fish, olive oil, spices, whole grains, and vegetables for a nutrient rich diet. Avoiding processed foods, limiting meats and dairy, all make this an excellent diet for those with inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Anti-inflamatory Diet– This dietary approach removes known inflammatory foods such as processed grains and meats and places emphasis on eating anti-inflammatory foods like healthy fats, fruits, and vegetables.
  • FODMAP– Developed for IBS sufferers, many autoimmune sufferers have also found this dietary regime helpful. Placing focus on eliminating foods that contain five different sugars, this diet is intended to improve gut health.

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