If you or someone you know has an autoimmune disease, you
know these illnesses can be overwhelming, frustrating, and debilitating.
When you have an autoimmune disease, basically, your body is
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.
Autoimmune diseases are on
the rise in a significant way.
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.
What’s An Autoimmune Disease?
When you have an autoimmune disease, your immune system
misidentifies healthy tissues and organs as being foreign. This causes the body
to produce antibodies that attack your body’s own tissues.
Your symptoms might come on quickly or gradually. You may
feel overwhelming fatigue, crippling pain, and debilitating weakness. Or you
may feel dizzy and have brain fog.
You may feel miserable like you’re on a roller coaster of
good days and bad days with no end in sight. These diseases can be frustrating
and isolating, but each experience is unique.
In fact, autoimmune diseases can show up in at least 80
different ways in all areas of the body.
But all autoimmune diseases share one common theme:
an out-of-sync immune system that has turned inward, attacking parts of the
body as if they were foreign invaders.
Your immune system is crucially important, serving the
purpose of protecting your body from infections and bacteria. But when
its functions are out of balance, your immune system can become dangerous.
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
Graves’ disease, in which the thyroid
overproduces hormones. It can manifest in anxiety, tremors, and puffy
Sjögren’s syndrome, a condition which causes
dryness of the eyes and mouth and can often accompany other autoimmune
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
And environmental factors including diet,
toxins, and the balance of intestinal bacteria
In recent history, Westernized countries have seen significantly
higher rates of these diseases — suggesting that autoimmune diseases are not
just a product of genetics or bad luck. Instead, the choices we make
may strongly influence our chances of getting an autoimmune disease.
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
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
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 Reportsfound 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
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.
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.”
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. The
particular kinds of fiber that are most beneficial are found in chicory root, Jerusalem artichoke,
dandelion greens, garlic, leek, onion, asparagus, jicama, apple, flaxseed, and
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:
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.
Fungi have demonstrated some tremendous anti-inflammatory
One 2005 study published in Mediators
of Inflammation found that mushrooms can promote anticancer
activity, the suppression of autoimmune diseases, and aid in
These flavorful veggies have long been touted for their
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).
The squash family, which includes a colorful array of
options, like butternut, zucchini,
and pumpkin, are winners when it comes to anti-inflammatory
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,
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.”
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3 Foods You May Want to Avoid If You Have An Autoimmune
Many people battling autoimmune disorders may want to
consider reducing or eliminating the following foods/ingredients:
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
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,
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.
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 Nutrition, sugars
in all forms (glucose, fructose, and sucrose) can impair immune system function,
hurting the ability of white blood cells to do battle against threats.
It’s best to minimize sugar consumption and to try to keep
sugar at around five percent of your dietary makeup.
Many animal-based proteins, like those found in meat,
milk, and eggs, can cause an inflammatory response in the body,
exacerbating autoimmune conditions.
A 2010 study reported in
the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that
patients who adhered to a vegan diet for three and a half
months experienced a great deal of improvement in pain, swollen/tender
joints, and morning stiffness than the control group patients who
followed a standard American diet.
A 2015 study published in Complementary
Therapies in Medicine determined that patients who ate a vegan
diet for three weeks significantly reduced their C-reactive
protein, a significant factor in acute inflammation.
Twenty years ago, scientists published research
in the American Journal of Cardiologyshowing that a single
meal high in animal fats could cause an immediate spike in inflammation that
peaked at around four hours.
Essentially, these animal fats paralyzed the arteries,
cutting their flow volume almost in half.
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.
Empower Yourself to Heal Through Food
Autoimmune diseases can be notoriously frustrating. But food
can be a powerful tool in fighting back against illness and helping your body
By sticking to a healthy diet based around whole plant
foods and by avoiding some of the key triggers, you can make a world of
difference to support your own well-being. And you can boost and balance
your immune system so it can be your reliable friend and protector for years
and decades to come.