The immune system is one of the most important elements in the state of our health. It constantly interacts with our internal environment (autonomic nervous system, digestive system, endocrine system, etc.), protects us from the external environment (viruses, bacteria, fungi, etc) and provides an inherent knowledge to understand the difference between friend and foe. The function of the immune system is to distinguish “self” from “non-self”.
The definition of autoimmune illness is a condition of your body mistaking healthy cells for harmful ones – and attacking them. In other words, your immune system mistakes “self” for “non-self”, attacking and breaking down your tissues. In autoimmunity, the immune system overreacts leaving behind increased inflammation and oxidative damage in its wake.
There are approximately 80 known autoimmune conditions and they can affect virtually any part of the body. Typically, the condition will flare up and then go into remission which means symptoms subside until the next flare up.
For an autoimmune condition to manifest, it needs the following conditions
An environmental trigger (stress, chemicals, virus, bacteria or parasite, heavy metal, pesticide, etc.)
In some cases, leaky gut
The relationship between leaky gut and autoimmune diseases has been established with Celiac disease, some types of Arthritis, MS, IBD, Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Autism, Psoriasis, and Parkinson’s. Over the past 50+ years, there has been a dramatic and continuous increase in the prevalence of autoimmune diseases linked to a change in the gut microbiota. Autoimmune disorders are increasingly being associated with reduced gut microbial diversity – most often as a consequence of repeated exposure to antibiotics. Nutrition and lifestyle factors, especially stress, play a role in a disrupted gut microbiome as well.
You are generally more likely to be diagnosed with an autoimmune disease if you are female, have a family history of autoimmunity, work or have worked around solvents or other chemicals, and/or are of African, Native American or Latin descent. While genetics seems to be a key factor in the development of autoimmunity, having a family history does not sentence you to a diagnosis. Environmental triggers and certainly gut health are important pieces of the puzzle – as are nutrition, lifestyle and stress management.
Preventing and Healing Autoimmunity with Nutrition
If you have a genetic predisposition to autoimmune diseases, there is much you can do to lower your risk of developing an autoimmune condition. First and foremost, gut health is of utmost importance, since increased intestinal permeability is associated with a greater risk of autoimmune disease.
Whether you’ve been diagnosed or are taking preventative measures, the following nutritional guidelines are important to maintaining gut integrity:
Eat a plethora of vegetables – eat a rainbow of colors each day! As much as possible, buy organic to avoid produce treated with pesticides as these chemicals can be a trigger for autoimmunity (as well as damage the gut and disrupt the endocrine system)
If you eat meat and eggs, choose organic pasture raised/grass-fed – conventional animal products are contaminated with antibiotics (which directly disrupt the gut microbiome), hormones and GMO-feed.
Enjoy fruit in moderation – 2-3 servings per day. Berries, in particular, are loaded with antioxidants that can help reduce the oxidative damage caused by autoimmunity.
Enjoy nuts and seeds which contain antioxidants to protect your tissues from oxidative damage and inflammation.
Be sure to consume plenty of fiber to keep your digestion moving and avoid putrefaction of foods (which can contribute to leaky gut) – fresh ground flax seeds and chia seeds are an excellent way to boost your daily fiber intake. People with autoimmune diseases often have difficulties with gut motility (i.e. their bowels do not move regularly) – leading to constipation and IBS-like symptoms. Sufficient fiber and water are essential to keep things moving.
Drink plenty of water – water helps to keep digestion moving and allows for proper removal of waste products. Aim to drink half your body weight in ounces each day (so if you weigh 150lbs, you should drink 75oz of water – just under 10 cups – per day)
Avoid processed and packaged foods – they contain additives, artificial ingredients, sugar and other harmful additives that damage your gut lining, cause stress to your body, immune and endocrine systems.
Avoid cow’s dairy – it is inflammatory and can contribute to a leaky gut as well as aggravate symptoms of autoimmunity.
Avoid wheat and gluten – both are inflammatory and can contribute to a leaky gut as well as aggravate symptoms of autoimmunity. If you eat grains, choose whole, unprocessed gluten-free grains such as rice, quinoa, and buckwheat in moderation.
Try an elimination diet to discover any specific dietary triggers – and remove those from your diet. Common triggers are milk, gluten, eggs, oranges, and pork – but absolutely any food can be a trigger food.
Fasting or juicing can be very effective at reducing inflammation – please do so under the proper care and guidance of a holistic practitioner.
Try an anti-inflammatory diet – this often helps to reduce reliance on prescription medications in autoimmunity. (and prescription medications often only add to, cause or exacerbate the issue.)
Whether you are taking steps to prevent autoimmunity, or are trying to heal naturally, the following supplements can enhance your health journey:
Probiotics – help modulate the immune system and reduce inflammation. Try 25-50 billion CFU each day.
Selenium, Magnesium, and Zinc – deficiencies of each of these nutrients have been associated with autoimmune diseases. Try 100-150mcg of Selenium, 400mg of Magnesium and 50-80mg of Zinc for both prevention and healing.
Vitamin D – helps to modulate immune function and inflammation. The incidence of autoimmune conditions rises as you move away from the equator; less sunlight = autoimmunity. Try 2,000-5,000 IU per day.
L-Glutamine – probably the most well-known nutrients for healing a leaky gut. Try 3-5g per day. Start slow & build up. Powder form is best.
Omega-3 fish oils – have anti-inflammatory properties and can help reduce pain associated with inflammation. Try 2,000mg of a combined EPA & DHA each day.
Stress has a very strong influence over the immune system. Stress, especially chronic stress, results in suppression of the immune system’s normal activity – placing extra demands on the endocrine system as well as depleting the body of much-needed nutrients. This leads to impaired ability to heal and reduced defense against infection.
Supporting your stress response is one of the most crucial lifestyle modifications to prevent autoimmunity. Relaxing activities such as meditation, yoga, deep breathing, tai chi, getting out in nature and listening to relaxing music immediately put you into a rest-and-relaxed state, easing your stress response. Acupuncture, massage therapy, and hypnotherapy can also be helpful to elicit calm and relax your stress response.
Astragalus – both an immunomodulator and deep immune tonic, astragalus is helpful for chronic immune system problems. Can be made as a decoction – 1 tsp in 1 cup of water, bring to a boil, leave to simmer, covered, for 20 minutes. Enjoy 3x/day. Or in tincture form – up to 5mL 3x/day.
Gotu Kola – as an immunomodulator, it supports normal immune system function by tamping-down an overactive immune system in autoimmunity. It is also an adaptogenic herb, supporting the stress response. Try up to 5mL of tincture, up to 3 times per day.
Immune balancing mushrooms – reishi, maitake, shiitake – can help prevent secondary infections while you are in a susceptible state. You can make a tonic or tea or eat these mushrooms directly – try a mushroom soup!
Turmeric – the best known systemic anti-inflammatory. Use as a powder in smoothies, soups, stews or sprinkled on roasted veggies. Or in capsule form, as directed.
Meadowsweet – both an anti-inflammatory as well as one of the best digestive remedies available. It is helpful in protecting and soothing the mucous membranes of the digestive tract – important in healing leaky gut. Try 1-4mL of tincture 3 times per day.