A Whole Food, Plant-Based Approach to Autoimmune Diseases in 4 Steps
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), between 14.7million and 23.5 million people in the U.S. suffer from autoimmune diseases, including type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, celiac disease, and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. In these and other autoimmune conditions, immune cells attack healthy tissues—the “self”—leading to damage and symptoms in affected body systems.
One small study showed that people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis experienced more relief following a gluten-free plant-based diet than those in a non-plant-based control group.
Unraveling the pathology of autoimmunity is an ongoing challenge, but research suggests diet can play a role in the development, strength, and behavior of the immune system. A whole food, plant-based (WFPB) diet in particular may be beneficial in several key areas associated with autoimmunity.
Eliminating the Biggest Offenders
Standard dietary recommendations for autoimmunity focus on removing foods with the potential to cause symptoms, including processed foods, refined sugar, dairy products, artificial sweeteners, and most vegetable oils. Gluten is also on the list of foods to restrict, along with eggs, coffee, grains, legumes, nightshade vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Spices derived from seeds and nuts may also be eliminated. Suspect foods are reintroduced individually after symptoms have subsided to determine what can safely be consumed and what must be avoided altogether.
The extent of the elimination protocol depends on the severity of the autoimmune condition. Some people may find relief by following a WFPB diet with no further modifications since the diet doesn’t include the majority of foods removed on an autoimmune protocol. Others may need to remove more foods to see an improvement in symptoms. One small study showed that people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis experienced more relief following a gluten-free plant-based diet than those in a non-plant-based control group. Because these diets can be very restrictive in the short term, it’s best to work with a knowledgeable physician, dietician or nutritionist during the protocol to ensure you’re getting all the nutrients you need for optimal health
Inflammation is a major characteristic of autoimmune diseases, which is why elimination protocols tend to be militant in their attempts to eradicate all foods with the potential to trigger an inflammatory response.
Vegetarian and vegan diets in general are associated with lower levels of inflammatory markers, such as C-reactive protein (CRP), whereas diets high in animal products and saturated fat tend to promote inflammation. A whole food, plant-based lifestyle offers the additional benefit of removing extracted oils, many of which are high in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats. Antioxidants found in whole plant foods also combat inflammation. The effect can be enhanced by consuming anti-inflammatory spices, such as ginger, garlic, turmeric, and cayenne pepper.
Healing the Gut
It’s now known the state of the gut plays a big role in immunity. Lymphoid tissue in the gut lining monitors gut contents for pathogens while the microbiome breaks down undigested food particles and releases metabolites. Poor diet throws off the balance of bacteria and promote the production of damaging metabolites, which can cause the tight junctions between cells in the gut to lose their integrity. When food particles and microbes slip between these “leaky” spaces, the immune system may view them as invaders and launch an attack.
Dietary protocols used to address autoimmunity target foods considered highly allergenic and thought to promote leaky gut. Although individual reactivity may vary, foods consumed as part of a WFPB diet generally promote gut health by diversifying the microbiome and increasing the production of metabolites that strengthen and tighten the gut lining to prevent the contents from entering the bloodstream.
Supporting Immune Health
- Carotenoids and flavonoids: brightly-colored vegetables and fruits, especially berries
- B Vitamins: grains, nuts, seeds, leafy greens, root vegetables, and nutritional yeast
- Vitamin C: bell peppers, oranges, papayas, broccoli, tomatoes
- General immune support: leafy greens, mushrooms, ginger, garlic, and onions
Supplementing with high-quality plant-based vitamin D may provide additional support if vitamin D levels are low.
Although individual protocols must be designed to address the specific symptoms and reactions in each case of autoimmune disease, a diet high in nutrient-dense plant foods shows promise for reducing symptoms and healing the body. People suffering from autoimmune diseases may benefit from switching to a whole food, plant-based diet to cut out many of the foods suspected to exacerbate autoimmune symptoms, introduce beneficial anti-inflammatory compounds, and increase the diversity of the gut microbiome.
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