While autoimmune diseases are common these days, they’re also commonly misunderstood. Their symptoms can sometimes masquerade as other conditions, making them harder to diagnose. And while treating autoimmunity with immune-suppressing drugs is sometimes helpful and necessary, often these treatments merely address the symptoms, not the root cause of autoimmunity. Because the truth is, autoimmunity can be managed and even reversed (yes!) by using nutrition and other lifestyle changes.
So… what is autoimmunity and what causes it?
Ok, let’s back this train up for a second. In a nutshell, autoimmunity is what happens when your immune system gets confused and begins to attack itself—it cannot tell the difference between unfamiliar, harmful germs and parasites, and your own, perfectly healthy tissues.
This is what’s going on in the body with autoimmune conditions like Celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, type 1 diabetes, fibromyalgia, Hashimoto’s, Graves’ disease, lupus, psoriasis, and rheumatoid arthritis. (Find a more exhaustive catalog of autoimmune diseases here.)
Right, ok. But why does the body start to attack itself in the first place? Well, autoimmunity is tied to an assortment of factors (unfortunately, she’s complex and there’s not a quick, easy solve). While genetics do play a role—some people are predisposed—whether or not you develop an autoimmune condition isn’t all up to your genetics.
That’s because genes can be turned on and off. And in the case of autoimmunity, the group of genes that causes disorders can only be “turned on” by specific environmental and lifestyle factors. The five primary suspects are:
- Gut health
- Toxic exposure
- Certain infections (Epstein Barre, Herpes Simplex 1 and 2, and E. Coli)
- Chronic stress
However, by addressing and healing these factors, it’s possible to turn the genes that trigger autoimmunity off again—which means it’s up to you. YOU have the final say. Isn’t that an empowering, thought?
Healing your autoimmunity with nutrition
Real talk: managing and reversing autoimmunity can be a bit of a process. But it’s so, so worth it. A great place to start is with nutrition and healing the gut.
After all, 70-80% of your immune system lives in your gut. That’s why it’s SO essential to focus on healing the digestive system to reverse autoimmunity symptoms. Particularly when it comes to a leaky gut.
Having a leaky gut means that the “tight junctions” that usually hold the cells of your intestines nice and close have loosened, letting food, toxins, and bacteria leak into your bloodstream. This, in turn, triggers your immune system to go on the attack, as it tries to rid your body of these foreign invaders. The result is chronic inflammation and, down the line, autoimmunity…because eventually, your body will start to attack its own tissues.
So how can we repair a leaky gut… and calm the fires of chronic inflammation? First off, it’s essential to eliminate toxic and inflammatory foods from your diet. Here are some guidelines to get you started:
Eat these: immune-supporting foods
- High-quality protein, including wild-caught salmon, pasture-raised chicken, and grass-fed beef
- Fruit—get your vitamins and antioxidants, plus gut-supporting fiber
- Veggies—fill up half your plate with nutrient-dense, fiber-rich veggies at every meal. Aim for a rainbow of colors!
- Healthy fats like avocado, olive oil, and coconut oil
Consider eliminating these: toxic and inflammatory foods for people with autoimmunity
- Artificial sweeteners
- Additives, preservatives, and dyes
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Processed foods
- Trans or hydrogenated fats
- Gluten (it has a similar structure to some of your body’s tissues, so when your immune system attacks gluten, it can mistakenly attack your own tissues as well)
- Nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, eggplants)
- Nuts and seeds
For these foods, you can try a 30-day elimination period, then reintroduce them to your diet systematically to see how your body responds. You may discover you have a sensitivity or intolerance you didn’t know about!
Addressing toxic load and stress
While I’d encourage you to start with the nutrition and gut health tips above, I also want to touch briefly on the role of toxic load and stress in autoimmunity. Both contribute to inflammation in the body, which can disrupt immune function over time.
So first, let’s talk about reducing toxic load by limiting your daily exposure to chemicals. Two ways to make a big impact here are choosing organic foods as much as possible (especially for the Dirty Dozen), and opting for more natural cleaning and personal products. The Environmental Working Group has created a very thorough database and app to make being a savvy consumer a little (read: a lot) easier.
And when it comes to stress, the key words are mindset and management. Not all stress is bad… but chronic stress leads to chronic inflammation and, you guessed it, autoimmunity. Prioritize your self-care and schedule time for it. Make it part of your routine. And, periodically, check in with yourself about your stress-levels…are you making time to do the things that bring you joy? That bring you peace?
Bottom line: it’s all about strengthening & supporting your immune system
Autoimmunity is not predetermined. YOU have the power to support and heal your immune system. Isn’t that incredible? With a functional approach, it’s not about suppressing the immune system to manage symptoms, but building the immune system back up—so it’s stronger than ever.
If you’re struggling with an autoimmune condition (or think you might be) don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions. Or leave your comments below!
The Autoimmune Solution by Amy Myers, MD
The Autoimmune Fix by Tom O’Bryan, DC, CCN, DACBM
The Paleo Approach: Reverse Autoimmune Disease and Heal Your Body by Sara Ballantyne, PhD