Finding the right foods to eat when you have an autoimmune disease such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis or alopecia areata can be challenging. When you have a flare, it is even worse! Whether you suffer from bloating, itchy skin, fatigue, or migraines, it is hard to pinpoint what foods or lifestyle events trigger the symptoms.
However, research suggests that specific diets can help symptoms of autoimmune disease. This article will explore the diets that may be most beneficial for managing symptoms of these unpredictable conditions.
How does diet affect autoimmune disease?
Autoimmune disease occurs when your immune system causes harm to your own tissue or organs. There are more than 80 different autoimmune diseases, including Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthritis and sarcoidosis. The underlying cause of these conditions is still not fully understood. Still, research suggests a combination of genetic susceptibility, environmental triggers and impairment of biological barriers, such as so-called leaky gut syndrome.
One environmental trigger that may play a role in the development and flare-up of autoimmune disease is diet. And even though there are autoimmune-friendly diets such as anti-inflammatory foods, as we are all bio-individual beings, a one size fits all approach is unlikely to work. You are always best to unravel your underlying root causes first, which you can explore working with a Functional Nutritional Therapist as we do at The Autoimmunity Nutritionist clinic.
However, here are some of the autoimmune-friendly diets that may be beneficial if used properly.
The anti-inflammatory diet
This diet is based on the Mediterranean diet and is recommended for those with rheumatoid arthritis. Foods like extra virgin olive oil, fish, vegetables and legumes are all stables in this diet.
And not only is eating a Mediterranean diet thought to be helpful for autoimmune disease, but it is also thought to extend lifespan and help prevent the onset of chronic illness.
Cooking from scratch is the principal factor in this traditional cuisine and maybe one of the reasons it is so health rewarding. If you have ever been to Italy, you will see fields of natural healthy foods growing such as olives, figs and grapes – fresh, organic produce is the heart of this diet and even more ground to eat this way.
A small amount of cheese and yoghurt is often part of the Mediterranean diet. However, lactose and casein found in dairy products can be problematic for those who suffer from autoimmune disease, even though both nutrient-rich food. Again, this potential issue emphasises why finding foods that are right for you and you alone is key to tackling autoimmune conditions.
The autoimmune paleo (AIP) protocol
The AIP protocol is based on the principle that we should eat like our Paleolithic ancestors. Yet, on top of this, the protocol also removes foods from the diet that may cause damage to the gut lining and/or stimulate an unwanted immune response.
This diet is particularly worthwhile for those with inflammatory bowel disease. Still, it can be used over the short term for anyone with inflammatory symptoms and help detect food sensitivities.
Unlike the Mediterranean diet, the AIP protocol is highly restricted. It is best to follow under the guidance of an AIP qualified practitioner, as we do at The Autoimmunity Nutritionist clinic. Foods restricted during the AIP elimination phase, which lasts roughly 4 – 6 weeks, include grains, legumes, dairy, eggs, nuts, seeds and processed foods. There is a strong emphasis on eating nutritious foods such as organ meat, shellfish, seaweeds, and vegetables in the AIP protocol.
The benefit of the AIP diet is that you can detect food sensitivities when you reintroduce the eliminated foods. It is vital to bring back foods into the diet one at a time and closely observe your symptoms for a few days after adding in these foods. If you work with a certified AIP coach, they will guide you through this process.
Due to the diet’s restrictive nature, there is a risk when following the protocol to develop nutritional deficiencies, and we know that this is a risk factor in autoimmune disease.
Any elimination diet should be followed with caution, and if you have been diagnosed with an eating disorder, it should be avoided altogether.
Is the gluten-free movement just a fad, or is there some basis to it? For someone with celiac disease, removing gluten is, of course, paramount, but what about others with autoimmunity?
In celiac disease, the body’s response to gluten is extreme and causes damage to the intestinal lining. However, gluten is hard to digest for everyone and can elicit an inflammatory reaction at the gut barrier, promoting leaky gut syndrome. If you are more susceptible to autoimmune disease or have an impaired immune system, this trigger could develop into something more sinister.
In Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune thyroid condition, studies have shown that when the immune system is exposed to gliadin, a major component of wheat gluten, the immune system begins to attack an essential enzyme of the thyroid called transglutaminase. As such, those with autoimmune thyroid disease may also benefit from trying a gluten-free diet.
As gluten-containing foods contain a large amount of dietary fibre, replacing these fibres from other foods is critical if you decide to follow a gluten-free diet. You can read my article in Thrive Magazine, ‘should you be going against the grain’ to make sure you avoid the pitfalls.
The best diet is the one that is right for you.
The truth is there is no best diet when it comes to autoimmune diseases. You need to find the diet that is right for you and stick to it. Yes, some of these diets do have a place for eating healthily and healing, but anything taken to the extreme is not helpful for anyone.
The core principles of these diets, which include eating whole nutrient-dense foods, avoiding processed and packaged foods, increasing self-awareness around food sensitivities and symptoms, and experimenting with new healthy recipes and flavours, are good choices for everyone.
In autoimmune diseases, you need to understand the underlying food triggers. Hence, there is a place for food and symptoms journalling, stool testing such as the GI Effects, and Cyrex food sensitivity testing, all available at The Autoimmunity Nutritionist clinic. With this information, you can design a diet best for you, rather than using diets short-term that don’t address the underlying issues.
If you would like to discuss my services at The Autoimmunity Nutritionist clinic, please book in for your free initial health consultation today.
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