Nutrition and autoimmune disease
As a nutritional therapist specialising in immune health, the most typical clients I work with have inflammatory symptoms or a diagnosed autoimmune disease. The most common autoimmune disorders I see in the clinic are chronic fatigue syndrome, psoriasis and eczema, and Hashimoto’s. I also have clients who have hair loss and alopecia.
These diseases are far more common in women than in men. However, recent scientific evidence suggests that cardiovascular disease has an autoimmune element. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in men and women worldwide.
Interestingly, there is a link between diet and the onset of autoimmune disease, which may help those at risk of developing an autoimmune disease, and take preventative measures to protect against it.
Diet may also help those who already have an autoimmune disease to manage their symptoms. This article will discuss lifestyle and diet strategies that may help settle the symptoms of autoimmune disease and inflammatory conditions.
In my clinic, The Autoimmunity Nutritionist, I offer nutrition and lifestyle protocols to help my clients overcome autoimmune disease symptoms, to improve their quality of life. I have experience living with autoimmune disease, being diagnosed with my first autoimmune disease at seven years old, and developing three more autoimmune conditions over 25 years. Fortunately, I am now symptom-free with the lifestyle and diet interventions I introduced eight years ago.
What is autoimmune disease?
An autoimmune disease is a condition where your own immune system mistakenly attacks its own tissue or organs. A healthy functioning immune system can identify ‘self’ tissue against a foreign invader, such as a pathogen. This identification mechanism is called immune tolerance. There is a breakdown of tolerance in autoimmune disease, leading to autoimmune disease, as your immune system cannot distinguish friend from foe. And, when the immune system attacks your tissue, the symptoms of autoimmune disease develop.
Autoimmune disease can affect the hair, muscles, skin, lungs, nerves, digestive system, brain, blood and thyroid. There are more than 100 autoimmune diseases, and this will likely increase over time as the research evolves.
Why are women more susceptible to autoimmune disease?
Statistically speaking, 80% of those people diagnosed with autoimmune disease are women. It is still not fully understood why this is the case. It may be due to either the difference in women’s hormones to men's or the fact that women have additional genes related to the immune system on the X chromosome that might play a role in autoimmune disease.
What triggers autoimmune disease?
The research suggests that there are three main components which make you more likely to develop autoimmune disease, which include:
- Family history of autoimmune disease.
- Environment triggers or stressors, such as exposure to airborne pollutants, infections, or emotional stress.
- Loss of barrier integrity is usually in the gut but may affect the blood vessels, gums and brain.
With these three factors combined, you are at a far greater risk of an autoimmune disease developing.
Looking at these three factors from my experience, I have many family members with autoimmune disease. They don’t have the same autoimmune diseases, but many have some form of inflammatory disease. I got brought up on a western diet and experienced emotional trauma as a child. I was ill with cytomegalovirus at university. I worked in large corporates for over 10 years, dealing with high-stress situations daily. Through my upbringing, I have always been encouraged to work hard at whatever cost, which has its pitfalls from a health perspective.
I am not surprised that with all these factors brought together, I ended up with multiple autoimmune diseases. But the beauty is that, by making changes to my diet, and managing my lifestyle better, I was able to reverse the symptoms of my conditions, including post-viral chronic fatigue syndrome and psoriasis.
What are the symptoms of autoimmune disease?
Most of the clients I work with have similar autoimmune conditions to those I developed, such as those related to the joints, thyroid, skin and muscles. These types of autoimmune diseases have a significant impact on your well-being.
Still, they are not as challenging to manage as those that develop into more severe autoimmune conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and autoimmune myocarditis. That’s why catching an inflammatory disease early is essential to ensure that it does not develop into a more severe autoimmune disorder.
About 25% of patients with autoimmune diseases tend to generate different autoimmune disorders, known as multiple autoimmune syndrome.
Here are some of the most common symptoms of autoimmune disease:
- Fatigue and muscle weakness.
- Gut symptoms such as pain, bloating, flatulence, diarrhoea, and constipation.
- Blood sugar regulation issues.
- Insomnia or sleep problems.
- Joint and muscle pain.
- Brain fog and difficulty concentrating.
- Skin rashes, irritations and acne.
- Rhinitis and allergies.
- Mood disorders.
- Recurrent yeast infections or skin rash (ringworm).
- Blood pressure abnormalities.
- Regular flu-like symptoms.
- Weight management problems - either over or under.
- Susceptibility to infections.
The autoimmune diseases I see most often in my clinic are hair loss, chronic fatigue, skin issues such as psoriasis and eczema, weight gain and obesity often linked to hypothyroidism and concentration and energy problems. I also work with clients with multiple sclerosis, arthritis, and ankylosing spondylitis.
What you should know about autoimmune disease
Autoimmune disease is often an invisible condition that means that those who suffer from it have to live their daily lives without acknowledgement from others of their condition. I worked for over 10 years with chronic fatigue syndrome, working over 12 hours a day, and I felt like I couldn’t tell anyone for fear of looking weak. The more awareness of these conditions, the better it will be for those living with them.
If you intuitively know there is something wrong, then seek medical help. I got to a point where I knew I just didn’t feel myself anymore, and it was only from doing multiple blood tests that doctors were able to diagnose my condition. If you believe that something is wrong, then don’t give up on your pursuit. Ask for the proper testing to understand what might be the underlying cause of your symptoms. When I first started exploring the root cause of my health problems, I worked with both my doctor and a nutritional therapist.
Even though there are ways to manage the symptoms of these conditions, there is no cure currently. Your doctor may be able to provide medication to help suppress the inflammatory response. By taking a holistic approach to healing your body with diet and lifestyle, you may live a better quality of life as a result.
How can nutrition and lifestyle support autoimmune disease?
Understand your triggers, especially if these relate to certain foods. For example, in coeliac disease and non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, removing gluten will significantly impact that person’s health for the better.
However, there are many foods that you might be intolerant to, and understanding your triggers is vital to start improving your health. The autoimmune paleo (AIP) protocol helps you explore and heal from foods that you might be reacting to due to a hyperactive immune system. As an AIP certified coach, I offer AIP coaching at The Autoimmunity Nutritionist clinic.
You can’t run away from stress entirely in your life, but you can find ways to manage it. Ensuring that you have a consistent sleep schedule, spending time outside daily, committing to some ‘me time’ in your diary and doing an activity that brings you joy at least a few times a week will build stress resilience.
Once you are more resilient to stress, you will become less affected by it, reducing its effect on your immune system.
Eat an abundance of nutrient-dense foods. So often I see clients who believe they are healthy by eating lots of salads and healthy grains. These foods don’t contain much nutrient density and are best to eat with nourishing oils, dark-coloured fruits and vegetables, and good quality meat and fish to ensure that you are getting all the nutrients you need for your body to function correctly.
If you would like to understand more about how nutritional therapy could support your immune health, contact me via my profile.