What is the Relationship Between Diet and Autoimmune Disease?

diet and autoimmune disease

According to the Centers for Disease Control, autoimmune disease is the third most prevalent category of disease in America, affecting approximately 5% to 8% of the population (14 to 22 million people). Rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, lupus and celiac disease are some of the most common disorders, but there are over 100 known autoimmune diseases. Understanding the relationship between diet and autoimmune disease can help you control symptoms and slow the progression of the disease, as well as lower your risk of developing certain autoimmune diseases.

What Causes Autoimmune Disease?

An autoimmune disease occurs when the immune system mistakes part of the body for a foreign invader and starts to attack healthy cells and tissues. For example, in Hashimoto’s thyroiditis the immune system attacks the thyroid, rheumatoid arthritis attacks joint tissue, and lupus attacks multiple organs and tissues.

But what causes the immune system to start attacking the body? Studies have shown that genetics can play a role in certain autoimmune diseases, which is why conditions like rheumatoid arthritis tend to run families. However, simply having a predisposition does not guarantee development of an autoimmune disease. There also needs to be a “trigger” that sets off the dysfunction. The most common triggers are infections, stress, exposure to environmental toxins or allergens, and lack of sleep. Essentially, anything that suppresses an already compromised immune system can cause it to swing out of balance into hypersensitivity. 

The role of environmental toxins and diet in autoimmune disease is highlighted by the fact that the highest rates of autoimmune disease are found in developed countries, where chemicals and heavily processed foods are common. There are more than 80,000 toxic chemicals produced and used in the United States, and most Americans are exposed to thousands of these chemicals on a daily basis. Furthermore, the average American diet is high in processed foods and low in organic, nutrient dense foods. Combine that with low vitamin D levels (a risk factor for multiple sclerosis), chronic stress, high sugar consumption and sedentary lifestyles, and you have the perfect storm for autoimmune disease.

How are Diet and Autoimmune Disease Connected?

Diet plays a key role in controlling autoimmune symptoms, slowing the progression of the disease, and preventing flare-ups that can be both painful and debilitating. For some autoimmune diseases, dietary adjustments are obvious. Celiac disease, for example, is triggered by the consumption of gluten, so celiac patients are likely to need to follow a gluten-free diet. Type 1 diabetes patients have to closely monitor their sugar and carb intake to prevent sugar spikes and drops.

But diet plays a key role in other autoimmune diseases as well. For example, rheumatoid arthritis patients might be able to prevent flare-ups by avoiding inflammatory foods such as sugar and gluten. Hashimoto’s patients are highly likely to have gluten intolerance and might need to avoid gluten to minimize immune response. 

Furthermore, intestinal permeability (“leaky gut“) has been shown to both trigger and worsen autoimmune diseases. Since nearly 70% of the immune system resides in the gut, a healthy gut is the first line of defense for an overall healthy body. Patients who have or are at risk of autoimmune disease should be screened for food sensitivities and nutritional deficiencies in order to develop a personalized diet that repairs and supports a healthy gut and immune system.

Treating Autoimmune Disease with Functional Medicine

At Anchor Wellness Center, we use functional medicine protocols to treat autoimmune disease. These include lab tests that screen for multiple autoimmune conditions at once and testing for triggers in your environment (including food sensitivities and chemical exposures). As a Board Certified physician in Family Medicine, as well as Board Certified with the American Board of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine, Dr. Malhotra can help you successfully manage autoimmunity. Call us today at (832) 246-8437 and schedule a consultation with Dr. Minni Malhotra, MD, FAARM, ABAARM.

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