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The Relationship Between Diet and Autoimmune Disorders

Dr. Matthew Marturano By Dr. Matthew Marturano, Naturopathic Physician
Friday, June 15, 2012
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Autoimmune disorders can be difficult to understand, and even more difficult to treat. These disorders comprise a variety of sometimes painful conditions that result from an overactive immune system.

In addition to immunosuppressive medications, diet can act as a powerful tool to manage these troublesome conditions. In order to understand how diet can impact autoimmune disorders, it's important to understand what these disorders are, how they affect the body and how different elements of the diet can affect the development and progression of such disorders. 

What is an autoimmune disorder?
Part of the body’s natural means of protecting itself is the immune system. When presented with a foreign substance or microbial invader, the immune system responds by producing antibodies and taking specific actions to neutralize, or eliminate, the offending parties. In order to properly fulfill this function, the immune system must be able to accurately distinguish between self and non-self.

An autoimmune disorder develops when the body improperly recognizes a part of itself as non-self and responds as if it were a foreign influence. These disorders can result in the total destruction of bodily tissues, abnormal growth of an organ or changes in the effectiveness or style of the function of an organ or system. In some cases, such as Hashimoto's disease, the attack is limited to a specific tissue (in this case the thyroid), however it's also possible for the disorder to affect several organs, tissues or systems simultaneously. In addition, the development of one autoimmune disorder often places a person at risk of developing others. Some other examples of autoimmune disorders include celiac disease, psoriasis, multiple sclerosis, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis

How do I know if I have autoimmune disorder?
Unfortunately, autoimmune disorders are often misdiagnosed, as many of the symptoms can be similar to other diseases. It's important to mention all of the symptoms one may be experiencing to health professionals, even if they appear to be unconnected. It's also prudent to seek out a second or even a third opinion, as another practitioner may pick up on an important detail that was previously overlooked. 

Can diet really help my autoimmune disorder?
Research has demonstrated that diet can have a tremendous impact on the course of certain autoimmune disorders, both for the positive and negative. By eating the right combination of foods, one can influence the body to recognize itself and foreign influences properly. Some of the diet recommendations commonly given include:

  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids:
    Consuming fatty fish (such as salmon or mackerel) three times per week, or taking fish oil supplements can quickly increase your body’s supply of omega-3 fatty acids. Flaxseed oil is another option. These fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties that can offset the effects of autoimmune disorders. 
  • Vitamin D:
    This “vitamin” is actually a prohormone which exerts a number of regulatory effects on the immune system. Ten to 20 minutes a day of direct sunlight is the best source, however supplementation can benefit those whose vitamin D levels are very low, or do not have regular access to sunlight. Certain foods, such as milk and orange juice, may also be supplemented with vitamin D.
  • Vitamin C:
    This vitamin can help to stabilize immune cells which are causing inappropriate destruction of tissues. Excellent sources of vitamin C include citrus fruits, bell peppers and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, brussels sprouts and kale.
  • Understanding Food Sensitivities:
    Underlying food sensitivities can ramp up the immune system and exacerbate autoimmune reactions elsewhere in the body. Common food allergens include wheat, corn and soy. Keep in mind the body can have a negative reaction to food without developing a full-blown allergic reaction, such as anaphylaxis. More mild symptoms of food sensitivities include abdominal pain after eating, gas and bloating, headaches, fatigue, anxiety and lack of mental clarity. Limiting exposure to food allergens, and/or eliminating the allergic response can help to reduce the severity of autoimmune conditions.

There are many benefits to eating a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables, one of which is the reduction of autoimmune symptoms. If diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, be sure to consult with a health professional about how using diet as a tool can help with managing symptoms.


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