Autoimmune disease is when the immune system attacks or mistakes healthy organs and tissue in the body. In other words, the immune system can no longer tell the difference between healthy tissue and harmful substances such as bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens.
There are over 80 different types of autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and type 1 diabetes, which means there is a huge variation of symptoms, such as fatigue, joint pain, skin rashes, and more. The exact cause of autoimmune diseases is unknown, but it is thought to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
In fact, there are multiple underlying factors that contribute to developing autoimmunity. In order to activate the autoimmune mechanism, it is understood that three things are required:
Intestinal Permeability (aka Leaky Gut).
An Environmental Trigger such as bacteria, virus, stress, trauma, inflammation, and cross-reactivity to foods (there is a significant link between gluten, dairy, and autoimmunity)
Read my blog post Nutritional Therapy for Autoimmune Disease to learn more about the Functional Medicine approach to autoimmune conditions.
Nutritional supplements and herbal remedies can be an important tool in managing the symptoms of autoimmune disease. However, not all supplements and herbal remedies are advised for people with autoimmune diseases.
This is because the immune system in individuals with autoimmune disease functions in a slightly different way than those without.
The immune system is the body's first line of defence against invading pathogens and foreign substances. It is a complex network of cells, tissues, and organs that work together to protect the body from harm. However, in some cases, the immune system can mistakenly turn against the body's own tissues and organs, causing autoimmune diseases.
In people with autoimmune diseases, the immune system produces auto-antibodies, which attack healthy cells and tissues, leading to inflammation, tissue damage, and organ dysfunction.
Differences in Immune System of Individuals with Autoimmune Diseases
In people with autoimmune diseases, the immune system is dysregulated, meaning it does not function properly. There are several differences in the immune system of individuals with autoimmune diseases compared to those without autoimmune diseases.
Abnormal B Cells
B cells are a type of white blood cell that produces antibodies to fight off foreign substances. In people with autoimmune diseases, B cells can produce auto-antibodies, which attack healthy cells and tissues. This can lead to inflammation and tissue damage. In addition, B cells in people with autoimmune diseases can be overactive and produce too many antibodies, leading to a heightened immune response.
Dysfunctional T Cells
T cells are another type of white blood cell that play a crucial role in the immune system. In people with autoimmune diseases, T cells can become overactive and attack healthy cells and tissues, leading to inflammation and tissue damage. In addition, T cells can produce cytokines, which are proteins that regulate immune responses. In people with autoimmune diseases, T cells can produce too many cytokines, leading to a heightened immune response.
Inflammation is a normal part of the immune response and helps the body fight off infection and injury. However, in people with autoimmune diseases, inflammation can be chronic and lead to tissue damage and organ dysfunction. This chronic inflammation can be caused by the production of auto-antibodies, overactive B and T cells, and excessive cytokine production.
Autoimmune diseases have a strong genetic component, meaning that they tend to run in families. Researchers have identified several genes that are associated with an increased risk of developing autoimmune diseases. These genes are involved in the regulation of the immune system, and mutations in these genes can lead to a dysregulated immune response.
Supplements to Avoid
So now with an understanding of how an individual with autoimmune disease's immune system functions, we will explore the supplements and herbal remedies that people with autoimmune diseases should avoid.
This list includes some of the supplements that can be harmful to people with autoimmune disorders:
People with autoimmune diseases should avoid echinacea because it can potentially stimulate the immune system and trigger an autoimmune response. Echinacea is an herb commonly used to boost the immune system and prevent or treat infections, but it can also increase the production of certain immune cells and proteins that may exacerbate autoimmune conditions.
So next time your Nan recommends it to you during flu season because she read it in the newspaper, smile and nod politely but steer clear.
Elderberry is a natural remedy that is often used to boost the immune system and to alleviate symptoms of the common cold and flu. However, people with autoimmune conditions may need to avoid elderberry because it can stimulate the immune system and potentially exacerbate autoimmune symptoms.
Elderberry also contains compounds called lectins that may trigger an inflammatory response in some individuals. This can further aggravate autoimmune symptoms and lead to other health complications.
3. Olive Leaf
Olive leaf has been traditionally used in herbal medicine for various health benefits, including its potential anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. However, there is limited scientific evidence regarding its safety and efficacy in people with autoimmune diseases.
Some studies suggest that olive leaf extract may modulate the immune system, potentially increasing the activity of immune cells that can worsen autoimmune conditions. So people with autoimmune diseases may want to avoid using olive leaf to be on the safe side, at least until there is more research available on it's safety and potential benefits.
Alfalfa is a plant that is commonly used as a dietary supplement and ingredient in various foods. However, individuals with autoimmune diseases should avoid consuming alfalfa or alfalfa supplements because it contains a substance called L-canavanine, which may exacerbate their condition.
L-canavanine is an amino acid that is found in alfalfa sprouts and seeds. It has been shown to stimulate the immune system in some people, which can trigger an autoimmune response in individuals with autoimmune diseases.
Alfalfa may also interact with certain medications, so it's always a good idea to consult with a healthcare practitioner before starting any new dietary supplement or making significant changes to your diet if you have an autoimmune disease.
5. Cat's Claw
Cat's claw is an herbal supplement that is often used to boost the immune system and support various health conditions. However, people with autoimmune diseases should exercise caution when taking cat's claw because it can potentially stimulate the immune system, which could worsen their symptoms.
Cat's claw may also interact with medications that are commonly used to treat autoimmune diseases, such as immunosuppressants. This could lead to unintended side effects or reduce the effectiveness of these medications.
6. Vitamin C
One that might surprise you is vitamin c - specifically high doses. People with autoimmune diseases should avoid high doses of vitamin C because it can stimulate the immune system and potentially worsen their condition.
High doses of vitamin C can also cause gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhoea, nausea, and cramps. These symptoms may be particularly problematic for people with autoimmune diseases who are already dealing with gastrointestinal issues, such as those with Crohn's or Ulcerative colitis.
While herbal remedies and supplements are an important tool for managing symptoms of autoimmune diseases, it’s important to be cautious. People with autoimmune diseases should avoid certain nutrients, as they can stimulate the immune system and worsen symptoms.
Working with a Nutritional Therapist to create a bespoke supplement program is important for individuals with autoimmune disease, as it can provide:
Personalisation: A nutritional therapist can create a supplement program tailored to your specific condition, requirements and goals. They can consider your diet, lifestyle, medical history, and other factors that may impact your nutrient requirements.
Avoidance of harmful nutrients: as described above - a nutritional therapist is trained to know what supplements individuals with autoimmune disease should avoid, and has access to supplement companies technical support to get clarity.
Therapeutic dosages: A nutritional therapist can help ensure that you are getting optimal amounts of nutrients that may be lacking in your diet or that you may need in higher amounts due to specific health concerns. This often means taking a therapeutic dose, e.g. a higher dose than is described on the bottle label.
Avoidance of nutrient imbalances: Taking too much of certain nutrients or getting too little can lead to imbalances in the body and potentially cause adverse effects. A nutritional therapist can help you avoid these imbalances and ensure that you are getting the right balance of nutrients.
Disclaimer: It's important to speak with a healthcare practitioner before taking any supplements or making changes to your diet, especially if you have a chronic condition like an autoimmune disease. They can provide personalised guidance and recommendations based on your individual health status and needs.
Hi I'm Molly, I'm a UK-based Nutritional Therapist (DipION, mBANT, CNHC) and Self-Compassion Coach (MSc) serving my community in Harpenden and online. Here in my little online home, you'll discover the benefits of nutritional therapy and complementary therapies for autoimmune disease and chronic illness.
Want to understand more about nutrition for autoimmune diseases? Download my free recipe book and discover 12 Nutritionist-Certified Recipes to Help Alleviate the Symptoms of Autoimmunity & Chronic Illness.