Healing AutoImmune Diseases through Plant-Based Diets

Article at a Glance

  • What are AutoImmune Diseases?
  • What are the Causes?
  • How can a Plant Based Diet Help AutoImmune Diseases?
  • How Does Your Gut Factor In?
  • What Does the Science Say about AutoImmune Diseases?
  • What are Other Factors?

Your body’s immune system protects you from disease and infection. When you have an autoimmune disease, your immune system is compromised so your body begins to attack itself, including healthy cells in your body by mistake. There are several types of autoimmune diseases (100 to be exact), each relating to different parts of your body that is affected by the disease.

These conditions are notoriously difficult to diagnose. And they can manifest through a wide variety of symptoms. So getting to the root cause isn’t easy and can take a long time. Generally physicians will not test for autoimmune diseases unless you go to an endocrinologist (and even then you might not get an accurate diagnosis).

Worldwide, up to 700 million people are estimated to be suffering from autoimmune disorders right now. And in the U.S., autoimmune diseases are the third most common category of illness, after cancer and heart disease.

About 78% of autoimmune disease cases take place in women.

But as the science is showing, food can play a role in helping sufferers of autoimmune disease feel better and heal their bodies. You may have already heard of increasingly popular diets like the Auto Immune Protocol Diet, the Wahls Protocol or the Plant Based Paradox, all of the diets emphasize a plant based diet.

Autoimmune Diseases List

More than 80 autoimmune conditions exist. Some of the most common ones include:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), chronic inflammation of the joints that leads to pain, swelling, and stiffness.
  • Lupus (SLE), a systemic issue that affects the skin, joints, kidneys, brain, and other organs and can manifest in fatigue, joint pain, fever, and a rash.
  • Celiac sprue disease, a reaction to gluten in which the small intestine becomes inflamed, causing damage and leading to the malabsorption of some nutrients.
  • Pernicious anemia, a condition where the body can’t absorb enough vitamin B-12 in order to make the necessary number of red blood cells.
  • Vitiligo, a condition in which the skin loses its melanocytes (pigment cells), leading to discolored patches on different parts of the body.
  • Scleroderma, a disease in which the connective tissues become tight and stiff.
  • Psoriasis, an issue where skin cells build up to become red, itchy scales.
  • Inflammatory Bowel Diseases, a group of disorders that cause inflammation of the digestion tract. These include Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative colitis.
  • Hashimoto’s disease, a condition in which the thyroid gland is attacked and gradually destroyed, often manifesting in fatigue and weight gain.
  • Addison’s disease, when the adrenal glands don’t produce enough hormones. Symptoms include fatigue, nausea, and weight loss.
  • Graves’ disease, in which the thyroid overproduces hormones. It can manifest in anxiety, tremors, and puffy eyes.
  • Sjögren’s syndrome, a condition which causes dryness of the eyes and mouth and can often accompany other autoimmune diseases.
  • Type 1 diabetes, a condition where the pancreas does not create enough insulin. Patients have to monitor their blood sugar levels for life.

What Causes Autoimmune Diseases?

There’s no definitive answer as to what causes autoimmune disease. But many scientists suspect the following three things play a role:

  • Genetics
  • Infections
  • And environmental factors including diet, toxins, and the balance of intestinal bacteria

Lifestyle changes, particularly food choices, can play a key role in managing or even reversing many of these autoimmune diseases.

No established cures for autoimmune diseases exist.

But numerous studies have demonstrated that lifestyle changes, particularly food choices, can play a key role in managing or even reversing many of these autoimmune diseases.

How Excessive Inflammation Is Linked to Autoimmune Diseases

Fundamentally, autoimmune disease is an inflammation issue.

According to the Journal of Immunology Research, “increasing evidences show that the abnormal inflammatory response is closely associated with many chronic diseases, especially in autoimmune diseases …”

Doctors typically turn to medication for dealing with the symptoms of inflammatory conditions, which often fails to address the root causes — including allergens, infections, environmental toxins, an inflammatory diet, and stress.

But food can be a powerful tool for fighting excessive inflammation.

What Does The Science Say About An Autoimmune Disease Diet? Healthy, Plant-Based Eating Can Help

Every autoimmune disease is different. Yet science is pointing to the power of plants to help alleviate symptoms and heal the body.

A 2014 research review published in the journal Current Allergy and Asthma Reports found that the symptoms of many autoimmune diseases — including fatigue in MS, pain and diarrhea in IBD, or the need of insulin in type one diabetes — may be “considerably affected” by food choices.

A whole food, plant-based diet, in particular, can make a world of difference.

A 2001 study published in the journal Rheumatology found that a vegan diet (also free from gluten) could significantly improve the signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

One potential driver of RA is low levels of potassium. Multiple studies — including this one in the Annals of the Rheumatic Disease — have noted that patients with RA tend to have lower levels of potassium in their blood.

Another study published in 2008 in the Journal of Pain found that increasing potassium intake could decrease pain levels in RA patients. Further research has suggested that may apply to other autoimmune conditions as well.

Where does potassium come from? The leading sources are plant foods, such as avocado, acorn squash, spinach, sweet potato, pomegranate, and bananas.

Another study published in 2008 in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics concluded that a vegetable-rich plant-based diet increased the levels of many specific nutrients that contribute to a healthy and balanced immune response — including fiber, total vitamin A activity, beta-carotene, vitamins K and C, folate, magnesium, and potassium — all of which contribute to a healthy and balanced immune response.

Gut-Healthy-Foods

Give Your Gut Some Love

Gut health is a crucial component when it comes to healing, and preventing,  the development of autoimmune diseases.

A 2017 study published in the  Frontiers of Immunology found that “leaky gut” — when the intestinal epithelial lining loses integrity and allows the passage of bacteria and toxins into the blood — can “trigger the initiation and development of autoimmune disease.”

Gut health is a crucial component when it comes to healing, and preventing, the development of autoimmune diseases

Another report published in 2012 in the journal Nature found that when the digestive system encounters saturated fat, it breaks down the healthy bacteria in the gut.

This causes inflammation, an increased immune response, and tissue damage.

Saturated fat is primarily found in butter, cheese, red meat, and other animal-based foods.

So what’s the best way to take care of your gut? Healthy probiotics (beneficial bacteria) can be helpful. Good sources may include fermented foods, such as kimchi and sauerkraut, unsweetened yogurts, coconut kefir, and probiotic supplements.

But it’s equally important to feed the “good guys” abundant healthy prebiotic foods that help them to increase. The number one food that probiotics love is fiber, such as that found in Real Food Bars.

Eat Your Veggies

Certain foods are anti-inflammatories, supporting your body in maintaining an appropriate immune response. Here are some foods you may want to eat more of:

Leafy greens

These calcium-rich nutritional powerhouses include kale, mustard greens, collard greens, cabbage, and broccoli.

They’re packed with good-for-you vitamins and minerals and can easily be added to smoothies, salads, or stir-fries.

Mushrooms

Fungi have demonstrated some tremendous anti-inflammatory potential.

One 2005 study published in Mediators of Inflammation found that mushrooms can promote anticancer activity, the suppression of autoimmune diseases, and aid in allergy relief.

Onions

These flavorful veggies have long been touted for their beneficial effects.

They contain quercetin, an antioxidant which has been shown to inhibit inflammation-causing leukotrienes, prostaglandins and histamines in both osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

Squash

The squash family, which includes a colorful array of options, like butternut, zucchini, and pumpkin, are winners when it comes to anti-inflammatory efforts.

They contain fatty acids (like omega 3s), and antioxidants, including zeaxanthin, lutein, and beta-carotene.

Turnips and Rutabaga

These root vegetables are packed with positive ingredients, including an array of antioxidants, such as glucosinolates and carotenoids.

They also offer vitamin C, potassium, magnesium, zinc, iron, and more.

Add Some Spice to Your Life

Certain spices are particularly beneficial when it comes to minimizing inflammation and boosting your body’s healthy immune response.

Super-flavorful options include ginger, cayenne pepper, cloves, garlic, cinnamon, and turmeric.

Turmeric, in particular, is a powerful anti-inflammatory.

A 2007 study published in Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology noted that curcumin (the primary active ingredient in turmeric) has been shown to help with multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and inflammatory bowel disease.

According to the Journal of Alternative Medicine Review: “Curcumin supplementation can result in up to a 60% reduction in pain and a 73% reduction in joint stiffness.”

3 Foods You May Want to Avoid If You Have An Autoimmune Disease

Many people battling autoimmune disorders may want to consider reducing or eliminating the following foods/ingredients:

Gluten

The key ingredient in many starchy comfort foods, gluten can be particularly challenging for those with autoimmune diseases.

For anyone with celiac disease, steering clear of gluten is essential. But many people struggling with autoimmune disease may be gluten sensitive.

Many people struggling with autoimmune disease may be gluten sensitive. According to the Paleo Mom, Sarah Ballantyne, gluten is arguably the first inflammatory food you should cut out.

If you are experiencing a difficult-to-solve health challenge, you may want to give up gluten for three to six months to see if you notice any dramatic health improvements. Gluten is found in wheat, spelt, rye, and barley.

For some people, gluten may contribute to leaky gut-related challenges. And according to 2014 research published in Best Practice & Research: Clinical Gastroenterology, it may exacerbate conditions like multiple sclerosis, asthma, and RA by increasing inflammation.

Sugar

A Standard American Diet tends to be high in sugar. And those with autoimmune conditions are particularly susceptible to the negative effects of this sweet substance.

A 2015 study published in Frontiers of Immunology found that sugar intake increased the likelihood of developing type one diabetes in children at genetic risk.

Additionally, according to 1973 research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutritionsugars in all forms (glucose, fructose, and sucrose) can impair immune system function, hurting the ability of white blood cells to do battle against threats.

According to the American Heart Association, the maximum amount of added sugar you should eat in a day is 150 calories per day for men or 100 calories per day for women. This looks like 37.5 grams or 9 teaspoons for men or 25 grams or 6 teaspoons for women. If you translate this across three meals per day, that comes out to 8 – 12g of added sugar per meal. There is so much that can be said about sugar between added sugar, sugar alcohols, natural sugars found in fruits and everything in between. Read more about natural alternatives to sugar here.

Animal products

Many animal-based proteins, like those found in meat, milk, and eggs, can cause an inflammatory response in the body, exacerbating autoimmune conditions.

Twenty years ago, scientists published research in the American Journal of Cardiology showing that a single meal high in animal fats could cause an immediate spike in inflammation that peaked at around four hours.

For those who eat animal products at every meal, just as the inflammation from one meal is winding down — the spike could be starting again.

Other studies have found that exposure to animal products can trigger autoimmune attacks and flare-ups in people with conditions like arthritis, so a plant-based diet may be of real benefit.

Other Factors

While food is an important factor in healing an autoimmune disease, other factors to consider are lifestyle changes such as sleep, stress reduction and addressing vitamin defiencies through supplements.

  • Sleep. Sometimes life gets in the way and we all lose out in sleep here and there, but it is absolutely crucial to get 7 to 9 hours of sleep for adults. What you eat before sleep can impact your metabolism too.
  • Stress reduction. A tough one for most of us, but stress can have as much of an impact as diet on gut health and hormone levels. Symptoms can creep back and flare ups can be caused by stress.

Supplements. Determining your genetic makeup, watching your diet and getting regular blood work done can make a world of difference. Supplementation, under the guidance of a medical professional can be beneficial. Supplements are regulated differently with the FDA and they are not required to bear nutrition labeling, so it can be overwhelming to understand what you are picking up in store. Always consult a physician.