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Why is Nutrition Important for Autoimmune Disease?

Updated: Apr 4, 2023

Autoimmunity occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s own tissue, creating a cycle of inflammation and further immune dysregulation; damaging tissues in the body, causing pain and loss of function. Any illness that involves this improper immune response is called an autoimmune disease.


Currently more than 80 autoimmune diseases have been classified by the National Institutes for Health, but the mechanism involved in autoimmune disease is present in 100+ diseases, which are not officially classed as autoimmune diseases, such as Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome (known as PCOS).


Here Are Some Of The Most Common Autoimmune Conditions:

  • Endometriosis

  • Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis

  • Graves Disease

  • Psoriasis

  • Rheumatoid arthritis

  • Type 1 Diabetes

  • Coeliac Disease


While the causes of autoimmune diseases are still not fully understood, research shows that nutrition can play a significant role in both the prevention and management of these diseases.


The relationship between nutrition and autoimmune diseases is complex and multifactorial. But there are several factors that research has highlighted as having an impact on the development and progression of autoimmune diseases.


Disclaimer: There is no one-size-fits-all dietary approach for autoimmune disease. A dietary change may improve one person’s symptoms, but may exacerbate symptoms in another - so it is important to work with nutrition professional when making any dietary changes.



How Nutrition Influences Autoimmune Disease



Nutrient Deficiencies

Many people with autoimmune diseases are at risk of nutrient deficiencies due to poor absorption and / or increased nutrient requirements.


For example, people with celiac disease, an autoimmune condition that affects the small intestine, may be deficient in nutrients such as iron, calcium, and vitamin D. These deficiencies can cause a range of symptoms, including fatigue, anaemia, and bone loss.


Nutrient deficiencies can also affect the immune system, making you more susceptible to infections and other illnesses.


Eating a diet that is rich in nutrients, rather than a processed diet, can help prevent these deficiencies, provide the body with what it needs, and improve overall health.


A diet that is high the following may provide your body with the vitamins and minerals it needs to manage autoimmune disease, and function optimally. :

  • A variety of vegetables

  • Phytonutrients and polyphenols

  • Healthy fats

  • And lean protein


Additionally, supplements such as vitamin D, B12, folate, and magnesium, may be recommended to help prevent or correct deficiencies.



Inflammation

Acute inflammation is a critical component of the immune system's response to infection and injury. However, chronic inflammation can contribute to the development and progression of autoimmune diseases, as it creates dysregulation in the immune system.


Ultimately, inflammation can drive the autoimmune process, leading to tissue damage, and causing pain, swelling, and other symptoms linked to your condition.


Several dietary factors can impact inflammation in the body:


  • Diets that are high in saturated fats, refined sugars, and processed foods can increase inflammation.

  • Diets that are rich in vegetables, fruits, herbs, spices, and healthy fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids, can help reduce inflammation in the body.


For more information on inflammation read my blog post Inflammation: The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly.


Research suggests that some specific nutrients may also help reduce inflammation in people with autoimmune diseases:


  • Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish, flaxseed, and walnuts, have been shown to reduce inflammation in people with rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic autoimmune condition that affects the joints.

  • Certain targeted supplements such as curcumin, resveratrol, and glutathione may help to manage or reduce inflammation in the body.



Gut Health

The gut microbiome plays a crucial role in regulating the immune system and reducing inflammation in the body. A healthy gut microbiome is essential for preventing and managing autoimmune diseases.


In contrast, an unhealthy gut microbiome can contribute to the development and progression of autoimmune diseases.


Several dietary factors can impact gut health. Foods that can help promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut include:

  • Diets that are high in fibre and plant foods

  • Herbs and spices

  • Prebiotic foods

  • Probiotic foods


Additionally, fermented foods, such as yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut, can help improve gut health by providing beneficial bacteria to the gut.*


*However fermented foods should be added into the diet slowly and in small amounts; they may adversely affect certain individuals, such as those with Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth.


Research suggests that gut health may be particularly important in the development and progression of autoimmune diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), a chronic autoimmune condition that affects the digestive tract. Studies have found that people with IBD have altered gut microbiomes compared to healthy individuals, and improving gut health may be a promising approach to managing these conditions.



Immune System Modulation

The immune system is a complex network of cells and molecules that work together to protect the body from infections and other threats. In autoimmune diseases, the immune system becomes overactive and attacks healthy cells and tissues in the body.


Research suggests that certain nutrients can help modulate the immune system in individuals with autoimmune conditions.


  • Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish, flaxseed, and walnuts, have been shown to reduce inflammation and modulate the immune system in people with autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

  • Vitamin D, which is essential for immune function, has been found to be deficient in many individuals with autoimmune conditions.

  • A diet that is high in vegetables, fruits, phytonutrients, polyphenols, and lean protein can provide the body with the nutrients it needs to function optimally and help modulate the immune system.


Additionally, certain nutritional supplements may help support immune function in individuals with autoimmune conditions, such as:

  • Vitamin A

  • Vitamin E

  • Selenium

  • Zinc


Final Words

Nutrition may play a crucial role in both the prevention and management of autoimmune diseases.


A healthy diet that is rich in nutrients, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory compounds may help to modulate the immune system, reduce inflammation, improve gut health, and prevent nutrient deficiencies.


If you have an autoimmune disease, it is essential to work with a healthcare professional and a registered nutrition professional to develop a personalised nutrition and lifestyle plan that meets your unique needs and goals.


Disclaimer: There is no one-size-fits-all dietary approach for autoimmune disease. A dietary change may improve one person’s symptoms, but may exacerbate symptoms in another - so it is important to work with nutrition professional when making any dietary changes.



Next Steps

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.




If you’re ready to take the next step, please book a FREE mini consultation


In this appointment, we will discuss your goals, any symptoms that you would like to address and relevant medical history that you think I should know about.


Together, we will decide whether this is the right step for you.





References


National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Autoimmune Diseases. https://www.niaid.nih.gov/diseases-conditions/autoimmune-diseases


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Hahn J, Cook NR, Alexander EK, Friedman S, Walter J, Bubes V, Kotler G, Lee IM, Manson JE, Costenbader KH. Vitamin D and marine omega 3 fatty acid supplementation and incident autoimmune disease: VITAL randomized controlled trial. BMJ. 2022 Jan 26;376:e066452. doi: 10.1136/bmj-2021-066452. PMID: 35082139; PMCID: PMC8791065.


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De Luca F, Shoenfeld Y. The microbiome in autoimmune diseases. Clin Exp Immunol. 2019 Jan;195(1):74-85. doi: 10.1111/cei.13158. PMID: 29920643; PMCID: PMC6300652.


Wu WH, Zegarra-Ruiz DF, Diehl GE. Intestinal Microbes in Autoimmune and Inflammatory Disease. Front Immunol. 2020 Dec 23;11:597966. doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2020.597966. PMID: 33424846; PMCID: PMC7786055.


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