Autoimmune diseases affect over 250 million people all around the world, and many more suffer from chronic inflammatory conditions (1). Given that we live in a world that puts high demands on our bodies, its no wonder we’ve become so sick.
Healing autoimmune disease requires taking a good look at your diet and lifestyle – something Western medicine never considers. Instead, autoimmune diseases are addressed by powerful immune-suppressing medication, not by addressing the cause.
Reducing inflammation and healing autoimmune disease does take a little work – but its well worth it for the healthy-functioning body you’ll gain in the end.
What is Autoimmune Disease?
Autoimmune disease is exactly as it sounds – a disorder of the immune system. Normally, your body’s immune system protects you from disease and infection, but if you have an autoimmune disease, your immune system attacks healthy cells in your body by mistake (2). Patients with autoimmune diseases frequently have unusual antibodies circulating in their blood that target their own body tissues (3).
Examples of autoimmune diseases include (4):
– Addison’s disease
– Celiac disease
– Crohn’s disease
– Graves’ disease
– Guillain-Barre syndrome
– Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
– Interstitial cystitis
– Leaky gut syndrome
– Lyme disease chronic
– Meniere’s disease
– Multiple sclerosis
– Restless legs syndrome
– Rheumatoid arthritis
– Type 1 diabetes
– Ulcerative colitis
The list doesn’t end there, and in fact, it goes on to include over 100 different autoimmune diseases. For the purposes of this article, I included diseases above based on how familiar and common they are.
Unfortunately, many autoimmune diseases come on slowly, and it isn’t until we start experiencing a plethora of different symptoms that we realize we have autoimmunity. The road to a diagnosis can also be long and frustrating – it can take over five years to receive an official autoimmune diagnosis.
The average person shifts between six to 10 doctors before autoimmunity is diagnosed – mainly because the symptoms can be vague and tell-tale of other smaller-scale conditions.
How can you tell if you’re suffering from autoimmune symptoms? You may experience (5):
– Brain fog
– Attention deficit problems
– Body rashes, red bumps on facial skin and flaky red skin
– Dry mouth
– Frequent colds
– Thyroid issues that may point to Hashimoto’s disease or Graves’ disease
– Fatigue or hyperactivity
– Weight gain or loss
– General feeling of malaise
– Muscle pain and weakness
– Stiffness and pain
– Feeling “wired and tired”
– Stomach cramping
– Digestive upset
– Bloated stomach
If you have any of these symptoms – do not ignore them! You only have one body, and you need to take care of it accordingly.
Chronic Inflammation and Autoimmune Disease
Chronic inflammation and autoimmune disease are tightly interconnected. While autoimmune disease is often associated with high levels of inflammation in the body, one could have a chronic inflammatory condition without having autoimmunity.
A chronic inflammatory condition occurs when there is some sort of trigger (like pollen, food particles, chemicals, etc.) that initiates an inflammatory response that involves a progressive change in the type of cells present at the site of inflammation. What happens next is simultaneous destruction and repair of the tissue, such as the gut lining, blood vessels, the sinuses, lung, joints, etc. This would create inflammatory conditions like asthma, allergies, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease, osteoarthritis, and more.
When a condition is characterized by autoimmunity, the body’s white blood cells produce a specific antibody to target a particular tissue or enzyme within a tissue of the body. For example, Celiac disease happens when gluten in food causes your immune system to attack the lining of your small intestine. As part of this mistaken attack, your immune system creates certain proteins called antibodies, because it views the gluten (proteins found in wheat, rye and barley) as a threat (6).
So with chronic inflammatory conditions, tissue damage results as an indirect effect of the inflammatory process, whereby in autoimmune conditions, tissue damage results as a direct effect of the inflammatory process.
The Immune System and Autoimmune Disease
To reduce inflammation and autoimmunity, you need to balance your immune system in order to establish immune tolerance.
Immune tolerance is the “state of unresponsiveness of the immune system to substances or tissues that have the potential to induce an immune response (7).” This allows the body to create a more precise inflammatory process, so that there isn’t any significant tissue damage.
A healthy immune system is dependent on good communication and regulatory patterns, which is necessary to heal autoimmune disease.
One category of very important immune cells, called T regulatory cells, are produced in the thymus. This includes T helper cells, cytotoxic T cells, killer T cells and T suppressor cells. Each of these cells are produced so that they are in balance with one another – that is, unless you have an autoimmune disease.
One test used to look at the balance of T regulatory cells is the CD4:CD8 test. T helper cells are in the CD4 category, whereas the T suppressor cells are in the CD8 category. The result of this balance can tell someone how immune tolerant their body is (8).
If T helper, cytotoxic and killer T cells are elevated, there is an increased risk of developing chronic inflammatory conditions and autoimmunity. If the body has elevated immune suppressor cells, the immune system will subsequently be quite weak, making the individual more susceptible to infection.
8 Steps for Healing Autoimmune Disease
Fortunately, there are many things you can do to help your immune system. And starting with the gut is number one (after all, over seventy to eighty percent of your immune tissue is located within your digestive system!).
1. Heal Your Gut
Studies published in journals like the Lancet, the British Medical Journal and the International Journal of Gastroenterology have suggested that autoimmune diseases stem from leaky gut. Leaky gut or “intestinal permeability” is a condition whereby the lining of the small intestine becomes damaged, causing undigested food particles and toxic waste products to “leak” through the intestines and into the blood stream.
If you don’t address leaky gut syndrome, then you won’t be able to reverse your condition. In this article, I talk about how to heal leaky gut syndrome, but the other tips mentioned below essentially sum up what I wrote.
2. Incorporate Heavy Metal Healing Foods
Heavy metals, can, over time, cause autoimmunity. Exposure to toxic metals and chemicals can damage your immune system and other cells in your body, leading to many different disorders and symptoms, including autoimmunity.
When a heavy metal enters our body, they change the chemical structure of our DNA and RNA. This essentially changes the structure of our body tissues, so much so that our bodies view the damaged tissue as a foreign substance. The body then attacks the new (foreign) tissue, resulting in an autoimmune attack (9).
I wrote an article on heavy metals that goes more in-depth, but if you’re looking to detox your body of heavy metals (we all have them), then focus on these foods:
– Wild blueberries
– Bentonite clay
– Atlantic dulse
– Activated charcoal
– Barley grass juice powder
3. Eliminate Food Allergens
Eliminating food allergens is one of the most important steps in healing your gut and preventing autoimmunity. The goal is to get rid of things that negatively affect the environment of the GI tract like inflammatory foods, alcohol, caffeine and drugs (like antibiotics).
Inflammatory foods like dairy, GMO corn, soy, eggs, fried foods, wheat, refined sugar and carbohydrates, red meat, highly processed vegetable oils, as well as additives and preservatives should be avoided.
Foods that cause inflammation actually damage epithelial tissue, which is your gut tissue. This damage can cause intestinal permeability (aka. leaky gut), as it creates small holes in the gut lining (10).
If you want to create immune tolerance, you will need to eliminate any food sensitivities (aka. foods that cause inflammation) until your gut has been given time to heal (this can take years).
There are a few supplements anyone with chronic inflammation or autoimmune disease should be taking on a daily basis. Even individuals who want to avoid these conditions should be taking what I describe below.
Vitamin D is the first vitamin everyone should be taking (in the form of vitamin D3, or even better, exposure to the sun). Vitamin D is a hormone that has the ability to activate over 1,000 genes in the body (11). All of the major immune cells have vitamin D receptors, and are capable of synthesizing the active vitamin D metabolite. Studies have shown that vitamin D deficient individuals are more prone to autoimmune development and have increased susceptibility to infection (12).
Glutathione, the “master antioxidant,” is another essential element required for healthy immune function. It’s main function is to protect our DNA, and it also plays a very important role in establishing immune tolerance (13). Glutathione has actually been shown to enhance the function of T cells, and modulates immune activity – making it essential for reducing the tissue damage associated with inflammation and immune reactions (14). Read my article on glutathione and where to get it here.
Probiotics are another important supplement everyone should be taking to help boost the levels of healthy bacteria in the gut. Probiotics help replenish good bacteria in the gut – so if you’ve ever had a round of antibiotics, you’ll for sure need probiotics to replenish your gut bacteria. Good bacteria will reduce harmful bacteria, inhibit yeast overgrowth, reduce inflammation and improve symptoms of leaky gut.
Zinc, while found in small amounts from the food we eat, simply is not enough when trying to heal from a disorder of the immune system. Zinc is a critical nutrient for healthy immune system function. It helps support the thymus gland, and the formation of T helper cells, which are vital for a strong, healthy immune system (15). When zinc levels are low, the thymus gland can atrophy, which leads to poor T helper cell maturation and an imbalance in the Th1 and Th2 branches of the immune system. This imbalance contributes to chronic inflammation and autoimmune disease (16). I like the liquid ionic zinc from Good State.
5. Learn to De-Stress
Stress worsens the immune response, so the last thing you need when trying to heal from an autoimmune condition is constant stress. The onset of at least 50% of autoimmune disorders has been attributed to “unknown trigger factors,” which are undoubtedly physical and psychological stress (17). Many studies have also found that a high proportion (over 80%) of patients reported uncommon emotional stress before disease onset.
Try to take up some relaxing de-stressing techniques like yoga, deep breathing, biofeedback or massage. Exercising (mentioned below) is another great stress-relieving activity. Get outdoors and connect with nature. Being in nature is a known stress-reliever, as it helps you to slow down and appreciate the little things.
6. Exercise regularly
As mentioned above, exercise is a great stress-relieving activity, which therefore takes stress off the immune system. If done properly, exercise can help reduce inflammation and pain caused by inflammation.
Exercise has been documented by numerous medical studies to have a major positive impact on reducing the symptoms of autoimmune disorders like fibromyalgia and lyme disease (18, 19).
It doesn’t matter what exercise you perform. If you prefer walking, go on walks. If you like to lift weights, lift weights. Whatever you can do, do it!
7. Incorporate Body-Healing Foods
While you eliminate inflammatory foods, be sure to replace them with body-healing foods. Add back in the essential ingredients for proper digestion and absorption. This includes things like dark leafy greens, omega-3 rich chia seeds, ripe fruit (like bananas, avocado, mango, pineapple, papaya, berries), root veggies (like sweet potato, carrots and beets), healing herbs (like cilantro, dill and basil), and other vegetables like cucumber and celery.
All of these foods support a healthy-functioning body and are rich in enzymes when consumed raw. Whole plant-based foods are also anti-inflammatory by nature, so if they consist a major part of your diet, your body will heal from the inside out.
8. Balance Your Blood Sugar
While eating a whole foods, plant-based diet will naturally relieve any blood sugar problems you might have, it is still important to mention. Elevated blood sugar reduces the strength and tone of the immune system. When this happens, it favours chronic inflammation as a way of prioritizing survival. If you want to keep your inflammation levels low, keep your blood sugar balanced.
If you’re going to eat fruit, make sure you have some sort of greens with it to slow down sugar metabolization. Keep fat in your diet to a minimum (and stay away from animal fats) to ensure insulin can effectively reach and power the cells in your body. You can also incorporate spices like cinnamon to improve insulin receptor sensitivity. Eating smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day can also keep your blood sugar levels balanced.
And there you have it! Remember to always consult with your physician before stopping or changing medications or taking on new health strategies. I also highly recommend seeing a doctor trained in functional medicine or a naturopathic doctor.