The Role of Nutrition and Lifestyle in Fighting Autoimmune Disease

Autoimmune diseases are on the rise. An autoimmune disease is an inflammatory condition where the immune system malfunctions and attacks its own tissue. Women have a higher prevalence than men – roughly 80% of those with autoimmune diseases are women. The incidence of autoimmune diseases is increasing year over year. This is likely due to many factors, including hormonal changes, environmental toxins, food, stress, trauma, lack of exercise, infection, and other factors.

Photo of young woman reading food nutrition label.

The Causes of Autoimmune Disease

The cause of autoimmune disease is not yet fully understood, but evidence suggests that it may be related to epigenetic changes in genes involved with immunity and inflammation. Epigenetics is the study of how environmental factors can affect gene expression without changing the underlying genetic code.

The health of the gut plays a major role in the development of an autoimmune condition. This can be tricky because one may suffer from gut dysfunction and not realize it. Gut dysfunction can certainly be expressed as typical symptoms such as pain, bloating, heartburn, diarrhea, constipation, and a combination of all of these. But it can also express as brain fog, joint pain, depression, anxiety, and on into potential chronic disease.

Environmental Toxins

There are many different environmental toxins that can impact your health and impede balance and repair. The most common source of environmental toxins is from our everyday products such as shampoos, lotions, cosmetics, perfumes, laundry detergent, home “cleaning” products (which are not so clean!), lawn and garden chemicals, etc. Certain chemicals in these products are called “xenoestrogens” and can mimic hormones in the body and disrupt normal hormone function. Look at the ingredients and purchase products that are free from chemicals. If you can pronounce the ingredient or it is recognizable such as herbs, it’s usually safe.  

Misleading Marketing Practices

Be sure not to fall for marketing gimmicks. This is called “green washing” which is “the act or practice of making a product, policy, activity, etc. appear to be more environmentally friendly or less environmentally damaging than it really is”, Merriam-Webster Dictionary. There are vague terms to watch out for, such as “eco-friendly”, “environmentally friendly”, “produced sustainably”, “100% sustainable”, and “all natural”, among others. These terms don’t necessarily mean safer for your body or for the environment. Ask questions, look for certifications.

Food Choices

Healthy food choices include anti-inflammatory foods such as omega-3 fatty acids from fish and fish oil supplements, 100% grass-fed/pasture-raised meat, healthy fat, lots of vegetables, and some fruit, if blood glucose levels are managed. Foods you may want to avoid include gluten and dairy (always), eggs, grains, nuts (and their oils), seeds (and their oils and spices), legumes, and nightshades (and their spices). Also consider avoiding processed foods such as processed vegetable oils (including canola), processed food chemicals and ingredients, added sugars, sugar alcohols, artificial sugars, alcohol, and a few other miscellaneous items. This may or may not be long term. If you are well-controlled without the use of drugs, you may determine that a few of these foods are tolerated by your body. If you are not well controlled, taking prescriptions medication or other therapeutics, it may be well worth the effort to eliminate all these foods for a period of time to reduce the burden on your body. Consult with your primary care provider before making dietary changes.

As difficult as it may seem, across the board, anyone with a diagnosed autoimmune condition should NEVER have gluten or dairy as a part of the diet. I know…I hear it all the time; “I love my pasta/bread!” or “I must have my cheese!” I get it, but please understand these are biochemical reactions due to the constituents in these foods. When inflammation is present, these will push inflammation and may trigger flares. Even when we don’t realize there is a reaction in the body, likely there is.

Organic is always best to help keep down exposure to toxins, such as pesticides and herbicides. Besides creating a toxin burden on the body, they are also hormone disruptors. This fuels the flame of inflammation and autoimmune disease. Depending on your situation, consider growing your food and getting to know your local farmers and ranchers. If your situation doesn’t allow for this, refer to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) website to help you determine the foods that are the lowest in chemicals. The Dirty Dozen is a great resource released yearly by EWG.

Lifestyle Choices

Lifestyle modifications include a focus on sleep, stress reduction including a prayer/meditation practice and movement that is suitable to your lifestyle. Other beneficial practices can include grounding or earthing, aroma therapy (not all oils are created equally!), journaling, walking in nature.

Lastly, always ask “Why?” Never stop asking “Why?”. Chronic conditions, such as autoimmune disease, as well as other conditions and symptoms don’t “just happen”. It is a cascade of events that could have been brewing for years. Pay attention to your body and what it’s trying to say to you. Symptoms and diseases are your body letting you know that there is a problem, or multiple problems that must be addressed. And if autoimmune disease runs in the family, it doesn’t mean that’s your destiny. The beauty of better understanding epigenetics is that it puts each of us in control of our health – today, tomorrow, and for generations to come.

I would be remiss if I didn’t expand on my last comment. More couples than ever before struggle with getting pregnant. Sometimes the reason behind the struggle is diagnosed or undiagnosed autoimmune disease. This can be very difficult and disempowering. But it is incredibly empowering to take the time to understand your body and the symptoms you may be experiencing (struggling to get pregnant is a symptom) Bring balance to your body to be as healthy as possible BEFORE getting pregnant. Your health today can have a major impact on your pregnancy, your delivery, your child, and your grandchildren. This is how we change the future of health.

Nikki Burnett, MS CNTP MNT

The information contained on this blog is intended for informational purposes only. Nothing contained, expressed or implied in this blog, is intended as medical advice nor should it be construed as such. This blog is not a substitute for professional medical advice, medical diagnosis or treatment by a licensed physician or health care provider. It is not meant to and does not cover all possible precautions, drug interactions, circumstances or adverse effects and reliance on the information on this blog is at your own risk. Always talk to your doctor or other qualified health care provider about any concerns or questions you have about your medical care and do not disregard professional medical advice based on the information herein. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.