We've all heard about cancer and we've heard about heart disease. But what about autoimmune disease? It is the third leading cause of death and yet many people have never heard of it or know exactly what it is. The National Institutes of Health estimates up to 24 million Americans suffer from autoimmune disease and close to 100 different autoimmune diseases have been identified.
It is difficult to diagnose (unfortunately often by the time it is, it is systemic) and it's hard to treat with conventional medicine, but there are some diet and lifestyle changes that can help tremendously for those with autoimmune disorders. Reducing symptoms and bringing about stability is a more realistic goal than a total cure when it comes to autoimmune diseases, but this can go a long way for improving the quality of life of those with this health issue.
So, what is autoimmunity? It is an immune system attack against the body's own damaged tissues, organs, and hormones. Your body is literally attacking itself. Symptoms can include fatigue, dizziness, fever (low grade), general malaise, depression, hair loss, skin rashes, joint stiffness, and gastrointestinal issues. There are some indicators on blood tests which can support an autoimmune diagnosis including a low white blood cell level count (less than 4) and high monocyte count (greater than 7). Autoimmune disorders include Hashimoto's Thyroiditis, Grave's Disease, Lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Multiple Sclerosis, Celiac Disease, and Raynauds.
Triggers of autoimmunity include:
- immune shifts
- gluten intolerance
- cross-reactive foods
- insulin surges
- genetic predisposition
I have had several clients who have autoimmune diseases. Although I have made specific individual recommendations based on their current diet, lifestyle, and particular autoimmune disease, here are some general recommendations for diet for those with autoimmune diseases:
- Low allergenic diet
- Low inflammatory diet
- Blood sugar regulation
- High antioxidants
So, what does this look like? Basically it means eating real food—opting for fruits, vegetables, and lean meats. A low allergenic diet means removing top allergenic foods like gluten, dairy, soy, and nuts. For a low inflammatory diet, it means avoiding processed foods, trans fats, and high lectin foods. Lectins are carbohydrate binding proteins found in plants. High lectin foods include legumes, grains, and nightshade vegetables (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, and peppers). I also recommend removing caffeine, sodas, and sugar from the diet.
Managing blood sugar regulation means eating every few hours and including a protein with all meals and snacks. Eating high antioxidant foods means eating the rainbow of fruits and vegetables. For those with autoimmune conditions, it is important to buy organic, especially for the high pesticide produce.
There are blood tests that can be done to determine which foods you are sensitive to. Another way is to do a detox diet removing all possible allergenic and inflammatory foods and then reintroduce them one by one to see which ones cause problems. For those with active flare-ups or advanced autoimmune diseases, I recommend doing a detox diet as the first order of business to detoxify the body and calm down the inflammation.
For lifestyle, I would look at the following factors:
- Toxic exposure
One client I'm working with now who has an autoimmune disease works on a weekly basis with toxic chemicals. We have adjusted her diet as per the above, but we have also looked at how to reduce her toxic exposure. I suggested she wear a mask and goggles, as well as wash her hair nightly—none of which she was doing. Toxins can get into our body through our eyes, nose, skin, hair, and mouth. We need to protect all of these areas when around toxins. We can even go to the next level and look at the various beauty and cleaning products we use on our bodies and in our homes to choose ones that are less toxic.
I also looked at my client's stress level. She has a lot of stress at home and at work. We have worked on finding ways to reduce stress, including the simple act of breathing when she feels herself particularly stressed. She is also making time to do things that she enjoys like bike riding with her son and dancing with her boyfriend. She is doing visualizations at night, envisioning a healthy body. She is making an active effort to reduce her stress and now feels more balanced.
Although I believe we can get most of the nutrients we need from food, I do believe that supplements can play a role based on certain health conditions. For those with autoimmunity, I recommend Vitamin D (depending on what your current level is as per a recent blood test), glutathione, and fish oils—all of which have been shown effective with autoimmune disorders. I recommend working with a health professional to determine if these supplements are right for you.
When working with a client who has an autoimmune disease, I look at all four quadrants of their life. In the Mind quadrant, are they under a lot of stress? Have they experienced a recent trauma? In the Body quadrant, are they eating inflammatory and allergenic foods? Do they have a genetic predisposition to it? Do they have an infection? In the Relationships quadrant, do they have a strong social support network or are their relationships causing them stress? In the Environment quadrant, what toxins are they exposed to? Healing from autoimmunity is a four quadrant endeavor.
I am passionate about helping people with autoimmune disorders because I know that it is often a long road to finally get a diagnosis with this disease. It takes many doctor visits, and by the time a diagnosis is made, the symptoms may have become systemic (throughout the entire body). Also, there is not a lot that conventional medicine can do to "treat" these diseases. The good news is that steps can definitely be taken to calm the body down and provide relief. If you have an autoimmune disease or know someone who does, try some of the diet and lifestyle changes above. Don't give up hope that you can feel better!
This is part of a series looking at specific diseases and what can be done from a nutritional and lifestyle standpoint. Also part of this series is Cancer and Health, Heart Disease and Health, Diabetes and Health, and more. These will be forthcoming.
I am offering a 25% discount to anyone who wants nutritional consulting and health coaching for an autoimmune disease. Just mention this blog.
Dina Colman, MA, MBA, is a healthy living coach and writer. She has her Master’s degree in Holistic Health Education from John F. Kennedy University and her MBA from Kellogg at Northwestern University. She founded Four Quadrant Living—a simpler, natural, more fun way to a healthier, happier, and energetic life. Four Quadrant Living provides information and motivation for healthy living through nourishment of the four quadrants of our lives—Mind, Body, Relationships, and Environment. Dina has a private practice, working with clients to help them create health in their lives by eating well, finding the fun in exercise, reducing stress, managing relationships, and creating a healthy environment. Dina is also writing a book about healthy living that will be published later this year. Contact Dina at firstname.lastname@example.org