An autoimmune disease is an inflammatory disease where the immune system attacks the body’s own cells and self-destructs. An autoimmune condition can be silent and developing for years before any symptoms appear on the surface.
There are more than 80 types of autoimmune diseases. Having one autoimmune disease increases the risk for developing another, so people with an autoimmune disease should be regularly screened. Women are more likely to have an autoimmune disease as 75% of people who suffer are females. Autoimmune diseases also run in families.
Common autoimmune diseases include:
- Type 1 diabetes
- Crohn’s disease
- Ulcerative colitis
- Celiac disease
- Hashimoto’s (autoimmune thyroditis, or autoimmune thyroid disease)
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Pernicious anemia
- Addison’s disease
- Graves’ disease
- Sjögren’s syndrome
An autoimmune disease is a disease of the immune system, not a disease of the organ that gets attacked. This is an important distinction. It’s makes sense, but sadly, conventional medicine doesn’t look at it this way. If you have type 1 diabetes or Hashimoto’s, you see an endocrinologist. If you have Crohn’s or celiac disease, you see a gastroenterologist. If you have rheumatoid arthritis, you see a rheumatologist. And this is a problem because these doctors are addressing the symptoms of the organs attacked separately. They are prescribing steroids to suppress the immune system and medications to replace hormones. But they are not looking at why the immune system went haywire to begin with.
On the other hand, functional medicine recognizes that supporting a proper function of the immune system and eliminating the triggers the lead to its activation are the foundation for healing.
As a functional nutritionist, I help my clients address the root cause of the problem through healing foods and nutritional protocols that restore health and normal function. There are no cures for autoimmune diseases, but diet and lifestyle can reduce inflammation, lower antibody levels, eliminate symptoms, cut back on medication, and put the condition into remission.
Causes of Autoimmune Diseases
The first step to healing is to identify the reasons the immune system went haywire. There’s a genetic component to autoimmune diseases as they tend to run in families, but these genes need to get turned on, or triggered, for an autoimmune disease to surface.
These are the triggers that have been linked to autoimmune diseases:
1. Intestinal permeability (Leaky Gut)
A healthy gut is a prerequisite for a healthy immune system. Your gut is lined with a single layer of cells that protect your body from the outside world. A healthy gut only allows completely digested food particles to pass through. Being the largest surface area of the body that interacts with outside components, 80% of the immune is in the gut, ready to fire and attack when foreign particles invade.
If you have leaky gut, the tight junctions that hold the intestinal cells together become loose, allowing undigested food particles, chemicals, toxins, pathogens waste, and other foreign substances to enter the body. Everything activates the immune system, including foods that are healthy (read more about food sensitivities). This constant activation of the immune system can trigger an autoimmune disease, and healing the gut is the first step to putting an autoimmune condition into remission.
One of the ways to identify leaky gut is the presence of zonulin, a protein secreted by intestinal cells that tells the tight junctions to open up. High zonulin level has been found to precede autoimmune disease appearance, and this is seen in type 1 diabetes, Crohn’s disease, and celiac disease. The Gut Health Assessment stool test I use in my office measures zonulin level and helps screen for leaky gut and track progress.
Since intestinal permeability occurs before the disease appears and contributes to it, people with a first-degree family member with an autoimmune disease can reduce their risk of developing an autoimmune disease by following a diet and lifestyle that optimize gut health.
Gluten can trigger an autoimmune disease in people who are susceptible because it stimulates zonulin production, causing tight junctions to open up and making the gut leaky.
Gluten also signals to your immune cells to attack your own tissues. Gluten’s structure resembles the structure of some tissues of the body, especially the thyroid. When you eat gluten, your immune cells confuse between gluten and your cells, attack your cells and worsen an auto-immune condition.
3. Bacteria and Viral Infections
Bacterial and viral infections can often trigger autoimmune diseases through increasing intestinal permeability and chronic stress. Some of these infections are gut-related like gastroenteritis, candida (yeast), SIBO, or H Pylori. Viral infections like HSV (causes mouth sores or herpes) and EBV (causes mono) have been linked to autoimmune diseases. These viruses never leave the body and continually cause stress and inflammation.
Treating an autoimmune disease by prescribing medications that suppress the immune system worsens the situation, especially if an infection is present and the root cause of the problem.
Stress can be emotional, mental or physical. It can be work, family, or relationships. It can be an injury, sleep deprivation, inflammatory diet, an infection, or leaky gut. Stress elevates cortisol level, which tells your immune cells to start up a fight.
With acute stress, the stimulus eventually goes away, bringing cortisol level and immune activity back to normal. With chronic stress, however, the immune response never gets to calm down, inflammation persists, and the immune system eventually goes haywire. Chronic stresses that never get resolved or managed, like unhealthy relationships, money, long work hours, sleep deprivation, long commutes, inflammatory foods, diagnosed infections, eventually trigger an autoimmune disease.
Managing emotional and mental stress is an important piece of the puzzle for preventing and eliminating the symptoms of autoimmune diseases. Addressing the root cause of the problem, the main source of the stress, is another important piece that can be done through healing the gut or cleaning up the diet.
Toxins can trigger an autoimmune disease. A healthy clean diet that is packed with nutrients known to help the body detox is key. Two toxins that have been linked to autoimmune conditions: mold and mercury. Exposure to mold can be through working or living in places where there’s mold overgrowth. Mercury is found in amalgams, certain types of fish, and the environment.
Typical Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations
If you have an autoimmune disease, your doctor may have given an advice similar to this when you asked about what to eat. Popular conventional health websites list these as the diet and lifestyle recommendations for autoimmune diseases:
- Eat a balanced and healthy diet
- Exercise regularly
- Get plenty of rest
- Take vitamin supplements
- Decrease stress
- Avoid any known triggers of flare-ups
However, these tips are useless.
They don’t address the immune system or the root cause of the problem. They don’t give you practical solutions to eliminate your pain and frustrations. Telling someone with Hashimoto’s, who is already tired and can barely function despite sleeping for hours, to exercise only adds to her guilt and anxiety. Telling someone with Crohn’s disease, who can’t tolerate vegetables and fibers, to eat a healthy diet is not mute. In fact, telling them to eat a bland low fiber diet full of bread and cracker is a crime of itself because it only temporarily quiets the symptoms and completely ignores the gluten connection to autoimmunity. Telling someone to avoid any known triggers of flare-ups is useless because they can’t figure out what foods make them sick. If they did, they wouldn’t be seeking help.
That’s why most people seeking conventional medical treatments to autoimmune diseases end up in medications. There’s room for medications of course, but they shouldn’t be the FIRST and ONLY route for therapy. Medications are not harmless. They only treat the symptom, not the root cause. Steroids, which are often used to treat autoimmune attacks, lead to weight gain, osteoporosis, and weakened immune system that’s susceptible to infections.
Medications only address the affected organ, not the immune system, leaving you with hyperactive and gone-rogue immune system that may attack the next organ the very next day.
Diet and Functional Nutrition Approach to Autoimmune Diseases
You can’t cure an autoimmune condition, but you can put it into remission (make it silent or inactive). And if you are at a high risk of developing an autoimmune disease, you can and SHOULD take measures to prevent a painful or life-disrupting autoimmune disease from surfacing.
In my practice, I start with a complete assessment that includes medical history, disease progression, current eating habits, previous diet modifications, medications, supplements, stress, travel and sickness history, toxicity exposure, and other relevant information. If labs are available, I will assess from a functional nutrition perspective. If more tests are needed, I will help you obtain them, including food sensitivities, gut stool assessment, micronutrient deficiencies, and thyroid function.
The first foods to eliminate are gluten, dairy, grains, and legumes. Gluten triggers zonulin release and mimics the structure of body tissues. Dairy and other grain have a similar structure to gluten and can activate the immune system. Grains and legumes contain lectins, fibers that can irritate the gut. Processed and cured foods, alcohol, added sugars, and foods that contain artificial ingredients and sweeteners that cause inflammation must be removed.
If needed, I may recommend further food eliminations like nuts, seeds, coffee, chocolate, and seed-based spices like cumin and mustard. I may also recommend food sensitivity eliminations.
Food sensitivities are common in people with autoimmune diseases. They are subtle immune reactions that are dose-dependent and may be delayed for up to 72 hours after eating the food. Your immune system can even react to healthy foods like salmon or blueberries. It’s extremely challenging to pinpoint a trigger food through a food journal or diary. Read more about the food sensitivities blood test and program I use in my practice.
A healthy gut is the foundation and a prerequisite for a healthy immune system. My approach includes protocols and supplements that support proper food digestion, eliminate and heal food sensitivities, restore gut flora, nourish and heal the gut lining, and eradicate gut infections like candida (yeast) or SIBO with natural herbal protocols. Read more about gut healing here.
Healing cannot happen without nutrient-rich, anti-inflammatory, wholesome real foods. I provide my clients with recipes and tools to translate the confusing protocols into actionable goals in their own kitchens. We address nutrient deficiencies based on symptoms and testing, and I provide a detailed and customized supplement and functional food plan that ensure adequate vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and antioxidants.
With stress contributing to autoimmune diseases, I consider therapies that support the adrenals. I also help my clients manage stress by helping them simplify and re-frame their challenges to reduce their response to the stresses in their lives.
Functional nutrition is the base and foundation for restoring health, eliminating painful symptoms, and thriving. The healing process can take a minimum of 3-6 months, and sometimes longer. The longer you’ve had the problem, the longer it will take to resolve it. But if you’re committed, you can transform your body and your life. I’ve seen my patients go through these transformations and they are grateful for taking the nutrition approach. Many of them wish someone–especially the doctors they trusted–told them how to feed their bodies many years ago!
If you’re tired of medications or suffered their side effects, give nutrition and food a chance. If your doctor is in a rush to pull the prescription pad and never addressed food, lifestyle, or the root cause of the problem, know that there are other options.
Is Functional Nutrition approach right for you?
To help you answer this question, schedule a Strategy Consultation so we can map out your path to calming your immune system and restoring your health so you eliminate your symptoms and thrive.