Evidence is accumulating that diet could trigger autoimmune disease and flares. The bad news is that autoimmune patients may in all innocence be eating ordinary foods that make their conditions worse. The good news is that what you eat is something you have some control over. That is, we are what we eat in the sense that our immune response to certain food antigens may be how diet contributes to autoimmune diseases. Put more positively, that means avoiding trigger foods may be a help in managing disease and avoiding flares. Even more hopefully, avoiding dietary triggers may help patients use fewer medicines at lower doses.
Many patients and some medical researchers have observed that changes in diet sometimes seem to trigger flares in autoimmune diseases. Does this mean food causes autoimmune disease?
Diet triggers inflammation (in mice)
To test this theory, scientists conducted an experiment that examined the disease progression of osteomyelitis (bone inflammation) in mice with different diets. The mice were fed either a high-fat diet (HFD) or regular low fat diet (LFD). These different diets induced large-scale changes in microbiota composition. By day 100, all LFD mice had developed inflammatory bone disease while the HFD mice were protected.
Another study using mouse models, shows how Western lifestyle and diet could increase the incidence of autoimmune diseases. A typical Westerner’s diet, which is low in microbiota-accessible carbohydrates (MACs) alters the microbiome. MACs are better know as indigestible fiber, the stuff you eat that you can’t digest, so your GI bugs do it for you. A low MAC-diet creates a deficit in bacteria with short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). The loss of these bacteria can cause inflammation leading to autoimmune disease.
Are probiotics the solution?
Johnathon Eisen discusses the myth and fact behind probiotics. In his view, probiotics introduce too few bacteria into “a system where you have no idea if they have the right features to do well in that system”. Because they are competing with thousands of taxa that already thrive in our guts, it is difficult for these new species to compete. Therefore, probiotics have very little effect on our overall health, because they cannot survive in our bodies long-term.
On the other hand, prebiotics, food intended for the little critters already living in our guts, might be more useful. In fact, fermented foods like yogurt and kombucha may be good for you not because they contain friendly flora, but because they are food your flora already like to eat.
Should we consider food as therapy?
A new study focuses on changing diet as a therapeutic tool for IBD patients. The study tracks dietary intake, eating habits, and nutritional state. Then compares how changes in diet reduced inflammation and prevented of relapse in these patients. Evidence from this study shows how diet could be correlated with expression of IBD. In fact, another study showed that there changing diet causes significant changes to the gut microbiome. However, more research is needed to establish how food can be a preventative and therapeutic tool in autoimmune disease. One promising line of experiment is eating more anti-inflammatory foods. An increasing number of autoimmune patients are doing their own food experiments. In our opinions, one size does not fit all.
Functional medicine: can diet help chronic disease?
Some patients are turning to integrative medicine that focuses on the interactions between the environment and gastrointestinal, immune, and endocrine systems known as functional medicine. Two pioneers in this field Mark Hyman and Susan Blum, have created functional medicine clinics, aiming to use this holistic approach to heal those suffering from chronic illness.
How Real People Are Using Functional Medicine
Terry Wahls used functional medicine to bring herself back from debilitating MS. By redesigning her diet, she could attain important brain nutrients directly from the foods she ate. Within a year she was not only walking but could complete 18 mile bike rides. Learn more about her incredible story and the Wahls diet!
By Bonnie Feldman, Tiffany Simms, and Ellen M Martin
Want to Learn More?
Check out The Healthy Gut Summit, an informational site where you can learn more about how your digestive health is linked with you immune, endocrine, circulatory and central nervous system! Also, The Autoimmune Summit brings together top doctors, nutritionists, and researchers to teach you more about how genetics, environmental factors, and leaky gut relate to autoimmune disease.
What are your experiences with diet or functional medicine?