Written by: Bonnie Feldman, DDS, MBA, Becca Malizia, BS, Ellen M. Martin
Autoimmune Diseases are a group of many diseases in which one’s own immune system attacks otherwise healthy cells in the body. These diseases are characterized by increased and intermittent inflammation. They differ from allergies because they do not require exposure to a certain molecule (allergen) to activate the immune response. Although inflammation is a natural and necessary response to foreign invaders, its the dysregulation of the body’s immune system that causes autoimmune diseases. The body’s failure to distinguish healthy cells from pathogens or infected cells, triggers these unnecessary inflammatory cascades indicative of autoimmune diseases. Intermittent inflammation in various parts of the body and the resulting symptoms and tissue damage is what connects the over 100 different autoimmune diseases (1).
What causes autoimmune diseases?
There is no one “cause” of autoimmune diseases, but family history, sex, ethnicity, age, and environmental factors all play a role in disease onset and development. In addition to not fully understanding how these diseases manifest, there is no cure, and available drugs for symptom management are often ineffective, costly, and may have horrible side effects. It’s no wonder many people (myself included) have started looking outside traditional medicine for help. Pioneers in the field of autoimmune research have also started looking at alternative methods for managing symptoms- food therapy hold particularly promising results.
As our knowledge surrounding epigenetics and the microbiome continues to expand, the link between diet and health becomes better illuminated. The connection between the environment and disease, the gut and mind, the microbiome and health, all support the idea that food matters!
The food you eat has incredible potential to both help and harm you. Although different diet options have been proposed for certain autoimmune diseases, we think that all autoimmune patients can harness the power of food to mitigate their symptoms.
Using food therapy to get optimally healthy
1. Follow an autoimmune suggested protocol
Even though most significant research has been done on diets like SCD (specific carbohydrate diet) and its benefit for IBD patients (2), following an autoimmune suggested diet may be beneficial for ALL autoimmune patients. Other studies have looked at the Paleolithic diet and multiple sclerosis (MS) (3) and the GAPS diet (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) with autism spectrum (4). From all of this research, only one trend is really clear: food does matter!
There are many different diets to choose from: Paleo, Gluten-free, AIP, Wahl’s, SCD, Low-FODMAP, GAPS. Figuring out which works best for you and your symptoms will require experimenting and trying them out. For a complete dietary breakdown of these protocols as well as different dietary resources, like recipes, grocery lists or meal and delivery kits, refer to our last post called “A Deep dive into Diets: Comparing Autoimmunity Suggested Protocols”
2. Harnessing food as medicine
Over two thousand years ago, famous Greek physician Hippocrates once said “Let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food”- 460 BC. Although considered the father of western medicine, this idea of his seems to have been largely forgotten in western medicine practice. There are many foods that have been identified as having medicinal properties, with support from thousands of years usage.
Eastern medicine relies heavily on herbs and spices, vitamins, and certain foods as medicine to tackle all sorts of diseases, sickness, and infections. Entire books have been published on these foods and their properties (Food as Medicine, The A-Z Guide to Food as Medicine), but we are going to home in on a few that act as strong anti-inflammatories and are therefore extremely useful and important for autoimmune patients (5).
Foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and certain vitamins, and foods that act as antioxidants are good candidates for decreasing inflammation in the body. Some of the foods richest in these components are: turmeric, ginger, green leafy vegetables, berries, flax and chia seeds, walnuts and almonds, olive oil, and salmon.
Nerd alert: check out our expanded bibliography for these foods for autoimmune health.
3. Eating mindfully
In a fast-paced modern society, it is easy to give eating low priority (something’s got to give, right?). Well it turns out, what we eat, when we eat, and how we eat, play a big role in our overall health. Rushed eating is a major component of a busy lifestyle, and spending time to be mindful of eating takes effort.
What should you be mindful of?
How you eat: We know this probably sounds redundant, but actually chewing your food thoroughly is the first and easiest step to mindful eating. By chewing your food you engage your jaw muscles and activate your robust oral microbiome. You can also hijack your brain and gut axis by eating more slowly in order to think and feel more full.
What you drink: This matters too! Water normalizes the pH of mouth – healthy human saliva has a pH of 7.4. When acidic foods and beverages, such as fruit juice and soda, are consumed, oral pH is thrown out of balance (not to mention the additional sugar and calorie intake). When the pH within our mouths falls below 5.5 demineralization occurs, making you more susceptible to oral diseases such as dental caries and periodontal disease. Drinking plenty of water daily can help maintain a healthy mouth pH, in addition to keeping you hydrated. When drinking tea, coffee, juice or alcohol, we recommend drinking water alongside for optimal oral health.
Pick healthy options when “stress” eating: Let’s take a second to talk about stress eating (don’t worry, we’ve all done it). In addition to the anti-inflammatory foods we talked about earlier, there are many pro-inflammatory foods as well. These include processed meats, sodas, salty snacks, packaged sweets, refined carbohydrates, etc, which are easy choices when stress eating. If you suffer from an autoimmune disease, these types of food are likely to intensify any symptoms you’re already experiencing.
By learning about your different dietary options, the natural immune benefits certain foods can offer, and mindful eating, you can take control of your diet and optimize your health.
What are your favorite recipes with these immune boosting foods? Comment below!
- “There are more than 100 autoimmune diseases.” Autoimmune American. https://www.aarda.org/diseaselist/ . Accessed 17 August 2018.
- Kakodkar, Samir et al. “The Specific Carbohydrate Diet for Inflammatory Bowel Disease: A Case Series.” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Vol 115. 1226-1232. 2015. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2212267215005043 . Accessed 17 August 2018.
- Bisht, B et al. “Effects of intensive directed nutrition, progressive exercise program and neuromuscular electrical stimulation on secondary progressive multiple sclerosis.” http://www.abstractsonline.com/Plan/ViewAbstract.aspx?mID=2773&sKey=09785855-9734-496b-b682-d5b790e3eb46&cKey=4f661b9f-223e-44e7-89cd-c464d1222d6d&mKey=%7b8334BE29-8911-4991-8C31-32B32DD5E6C8%7d . Accessed 17 August 2018.
- Campbell-McBride, Natasha. “Gut and Psychology Syndrome: Natural Treatment for Autism, Dyspraxia, A.D.D., Dyslexia, A.D.H.D., Depression, Schizophrenia.” https://fsde6kygm03.storage.googleapis.com/MDk1NDg1MjAyOA==01.pdf . Accessed 17 August 2018.
- “Anti-inflammatory Diet: Road to Good Health?” WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/diet/anti-inflammatory-diet-road-to-good-health#. Accessed 17 August 2018.
- Watson, Kathryn. “Turmeric side effects: Health benefits and risks.” https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/318405.php . Accessed 17 August 2018.
- Aggarwal, Bharat; Harikumar, Kuzhuvelil. “Potential therapeutic effects of curcumin, the anti-inflammatory agent, against neurodegenerative, cardiovascular, pulmonary, metabolic, autoimmune and neoplastic diseases.” The International Journal of Biochemistry & Cell Biology. Vol 41(1). 2009. 40-59. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1357272508002550 . Accessed 17 August 2018.
- “Common Ginger, Root Ginger.” Lovethegarden.com. https://www.lovethegarden.com/plant-finder/perennials/common-ginger-root-ginger . Accessed 17 August 2018.
- Prakash, Jamuna; Pilerood, Shirin. “Chemical composition and antioxidant properties of ginger root (Zingiber officinale).” Journal of Medicinal Plant Research. Vol. 4(24). 2010. 2674-2679. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228476601_Chemical_composition_and_antioxidant_properties_of_ginger_root_Zingiber_officinale . Accessed 17 August 2018.
- “Various green leafy vegetables in row on white background.” 123RF. https://www.123rf.com/photo_53308721_various-green-leafy-vegetables-in-row-on-white-background-top-view-point-.html . Accessed 17 August 2018.
- Tufts, H. et al. “Antioxidant and Anti-Inflammatory Activities of Kenyan Leafy Green Vegetables, Wild Fruits, and Medicinal Plants with Potential Relevance for Kwashiorkor.” Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2015. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4510108/ . Accessed 17 August 2018.
- “Berry Fruit Salad.” Gimme some Oven. https://www.gimmesomeoven.com/berry-fruit-salad-recipe/ . Accessed 17 August 2018.
- Joseph, SV. et al. “Berries: anti-inflammatory effects in humans.” Journal and Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 2014. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24512603 . Accessed 17 August 2018.
- “Flax and Chia Seed Benefits.” Zen Breakfast Blend. https://www.zenbreakfastblend.com/pages/flax-chia-seed-benefits . Accessed 17 August 2018.
- Taga, M. et al. “Chia seeds as a source of natural lipid antioxidants.” Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society. Vol 61(5). 928-931. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF02542169 . Accessed 17 August 2018.
- “Why You Should be Eating More Almonds and Walnuts.” One Green Planet. http://www.onegreenplanet.org/vegan-health/why-you-should-be-eating-more-almonds-and-walnuts/ . Accessed 17 August 2018.
- Yu, Zhi et al. “Associations between nut consumption and inflammatory biomarkers.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Vol 104(3). 2016. 722-728. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4997300/ . Accessed 17 August 2018.
- “Is it safe to cook with olive oil?” Chris Kresser. https://chriskresser.com/is-it-safe-to-cook-with-olive-oil/ . Accessed 17 August 2018.
- Santangelo, C. et al. “Anti-inflammatory Activity of Extra Virgin Olive Oil Polyphenols: Which Role in the Prevention and Treatment of Immune-Mediated Inflammatory Diseases?” Endocrine, Metabolic & Immune Disorders Drug Targets. Vol 18(1). 2018. 36-50. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29141574. Accessed 17 August 2018.
- “Alaskan King Salmon 20lbs.” Tanner’s Alaskan Seafood. https://www.tannersfish.com/product/alaskan-king-salmon-20lbs/ . Accessed 17 August 2018.
- Ahn, Chang-Bum et al. “Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory peptide fraction from salmon byproduct protein hydrolysates by peptic hydrolysis.” Food Research International. Vol 49(1). 2012. 92-98. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0963996912003109 . Accessed 17 August 2018.