A lot of questions still swirl around the autoimmune condition. What is autoimmunity? How can you help lessen the symptoms of autoimmune diseases? Does nutrition play a role? Since at least 24 million Americans suffer from autoimmune diseases, these are important questions. (1)
What is autoimmunity?
An autoimmune disease develops when the immune system sees healthy cells as foreign and decides they are dangerous to the body. The immune system then attacks healthy cells, affecting one or many different types of body tissue. There are at least 80 different types of autoimmune diseases. They fluctuate between periods of remission, with little or no symptoms and flare-ups with worsening symptoms. Current treatment for autoimmune diseases focuses on symptom relief, as there is no cure. (2)
While autoimmune diseases often run in families, research suggests that genetics only account for about one-third of autoimmune disease factors. Environmental triggers, and diet and lifestyle may be largely responsible, which suggests that those suffering from autoimmune disease may be able to lessen the inflammatory attacks and attempt to put their autoimmune response into remission. (3)
Dr. William Cole, who specializes in functional medicine and clinical nutrition, put together a list of five nutrients that he strongly recommends for those suffering from autoimmune disorders, to help them fight the disease and eventually remove the problem. (4)
Here are the 5 nutrients that help fight autoimmune diseases:
1. Vitamin A
A Vitamin A deficiency has been linked to some autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis and type 1 diabetes. Researchers believe that Vitamin A helps regulate a “calm down” message to the immune system, which can tone down excessive immune responses that can damage the body. Yes, true Vitamin A can only be found in animal products such as fish, shellfish, and liver. But the body converts beta carotene – a Vitamin A precursor – into Vitamin A to use. Look for foods with deep gold and orange colors, like sweet potatoes and carrots. (5)
2. Vitamin D
Vitamin D is essential for many metabolic and immunological pathways in the body, including Th17 cells. Th17 cells are helper T-cells that produce inflammatory chemicals. In someone suffering from an autoimmune disease, their Th17 cells are out of control, but Vitamin D has been shown to help dampen the Th17 inflammatory response. Vitamin D is most abundant in animal and dairy fats, but spending some time in the sunshine outdoors can help you soak up some of this essential vitamin! (6)
3. Vitamin K2
Vitamin K2 is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the western diet. A study published in the Journal of Neuroimmunology found that Vitamin K2 was effective at inhibiting the pro-inflammatory iNOS in the spinal cord and the brain immune systems – a gene under he control of a variety of inflammatory mediators. Vitamin K2 is best paired with other fat-soluble vitamins such as A and D. Look for ghee (clarified butter) with a rich gold color, or enjoy some Natto, a Japanese superfood made from soybeans. (7)
Iron deficiency is linked to many autoimmune diseases, because a large amount of stored iron is absorbed in the intestines. Both damage to the gut lining and leaky gut syndrome, as well as inflammation, create the conditions that lead to autoimmunity. Therefore, finding the underlying problem is the first step to controlling an iron deficiency. Seek out organic plant foods grown in rich soils, like lentils, spinach, and chia seeds, but you may need to supplement with iron, too, if you have problems with iron absorption. (8)
Micronutrients, or phytochemicals, come in small amounts but have a big impact on your body. For example, micronutrients like selenium, magnesium, and zinc, influence several autoimmune diseases. Also, chronic inflammation decreases the absorption of these nutrients. Micronutrients are essential for producing the right amount of hormones, and the thyroid hormone in particular. Thyroid problems are some of the most common autoimmune conditions. Many seeds and nuts, including Brazil nuts, are good sources of micronutrients. (9)
According to Dr. Cole, if you’re struggling with an autoimmune disease, these are essential steps to take:
- Check your nutrient levels with appropriate testing.
- Find out if you have absorption issues.
- Avoid your trigger foods.
- Implement natural methods.
Also consider a functional medicine evaluation.