A properly functioning immune system is like a well-oiled machine. All the proteins and cells that make up our immune system must function in synergy to efficiently rid our bodies of any infection or disease. Unfortunately for many people, this process isn’t always as straight forward.
Immune disorders can cause significant changes in the immune response. Some of these disorders create a suppressed response such as with immunodeficiency disorders (AIDs, immune system cancers such as leukemia, immune-complex diseases such as viral hepatitis, etc.). Others cause an over-reactive response such as autoimmune diseases (rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, celiac disease, etc.).
When your immune system exemplifies this exaggerated response, as seen in those living with autoimmune diseases, it’s causing harm. Rather than having your immune cells solely fight off the invading foreign cells of the body, such as pathogens and cancer cells, they attack your healthy cells too (1).
In order to fight back, we need to first understand what’s really going on with autoimmune diseases.
What is an Autoimmune Disease?
Our immunity is an intricate system of cells and proteins that defend our bodies against disease and infection. As mentioned previously, an autoimmune disease causes a heightened immune response. Your immune system will then mistake a part of your body, such as your skin, joints, or nerves as foreign.
Common autoimmune diseases include:
Rheumatoid arthritis: a form of arthritis that attacks the joints
Lupus: a systemic disease that damages various parts of the body including joints, skin, and organs
Celiac disease: an immune disorder affecting the small intestines during the ingestion of gluten products. People with this disease experience diarrhea, bloating, gas, weight loss, fatigue, etc.
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD): an immune attack on the intestinal lining causing abdominal pain, diarrhea, urgent bowel movements, weight loss, etc.
Multiple sclerosis (MS): an immune attack on nerve cells causing pain, weakness, blindness, poor coordination, etc.
Type I diabetes: an immune attack on insulin-producing cells in the pancreas causing blood sugar levels to rise. People with type I diabetes require insulin injections for survival.
Psoriasis: an over-productive immune response of cells in the skin, causing it to reproduce rapidly and create scaly plaques of dry skin.
– Graves’ disease: when the body produces too much thyroid hormone (hyperthyroidism), causing weight loss, irritability, heat sensitivity, etc.
– Hashimoto’s disease: resulting in the body producing too little thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism), causing weight gain, fatigue, cold sensitivity, etc.
Despite the differences in disease type and how they affect the body, many of the underlying symptoms are very similar. This includes fatigue, joint pain and/or swelling, skin issues, abdominal pain and/or digestive issues, recurring fevers, and swollen glands (2). Oftentimes, autoimmune diseases are associated with “flare-ups”, which is a period of worsening and intensification of symptoms due to some form of a stressor that triggers the already compromised immune system.
Most autoimmune diseases are strongly associated with genetic, infectious, and/or environmental predisposing factors. Treatment of many of these diseases are focused on suppressing the immune system activity altogether, such as the medication methotrexate. (3).
Taking a step back from the traditional medicine approach, functional medicine has gained more momentum in the fight against autoimmune disease symptoms. This brings into play diet and lifestyle changes that can help influence disease severity and reduce the impact of flare-ups over time.
Is there a link between nutrition and autoimmune disease? In recent research, scientists have discovered the role that Western Diet has on autoimmune disease severity. It’s been noted that dietary habits of western society have become too fatty, too salty, and simply too much. This excessive fat, protein, sugar, and salt contribute to obesity, metabolic disease, and cardiovascular disease – all of which have been studied as possibly promoters of autoimmune diseases (4).
Depending on the specifics of the disease itself, there’s evidence of an association between obesity and inflammatory gut disorders. Although the direct cause and effect needs to be further investigated, it has been noted that those who suffer from any inflammatory autoimmune disease (rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, celiac disease, etc.) should limit their fat accumulation immediately (5).
The literature does not suggest which foods improve your symptoms; instead, it examines which foods may be causing your symptoms to flare up. One of the ways to address this is with the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) diet.
What’s the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) Diet?
The AIP diet limits certain foods that cause inflammation and may control immune-based flare-ups. The purpose is to reset your immune system and heal your gut by eliminating inflammatory-based foods, promoting more vitamin and nutrient-rich foods, and treating “leaky gut”. Dietary changes can influence the severity of your symptoms.
– Dairy products
– Processed foods
– Refined sugars
– Oils (such as canola oil)
– Nuts and seeds
– Artificial sugars
– Fresh, seasonal vegetables
– Natural, unprocessed meats
– Fermented foods (high in probiotics)
– Coconut products
– Variety of vinegars (balsamic, red wine, apple cider)
– Olive oil
Fun Fact about Vitamin D
Vitamin D assists in regulating calcium and phosphate uptake within our bodies. These nutrients contribute to maintaining healthy bones, teeth, and muscles. Recent research suggests a link between vitamin D signalling and other biological processes that regulate immune responses. Through these findings, it’s become evident that the vitamin D receptor is involved in several immune cell lineages, including activated T cells, monocytes (white blood cells), and dendritic cells. It was concluded that impaired vitamin D signalling and/or insufficient intake (due to genetic predisposition, environmental factors, or dietary habits) may contribute to the onset and progression of autoimmunity (6).
Sources of Vitamin D include:
– Fatty fish (tuna, mackerel, and salmon)
– Foods fortified with vitamin D (including some dairy products, orange juice, soy milk, and cereals)
– Beef liver
– Egg yolks
Aside from dietary habits that help mitigate symptom severity of your autoimmune disease, there are also various lifestyle choices you can implement to help too!
Manage Your Stress
Stress is defined as an experience that causes some form of tension – whether it’s physical, psychological, or emotional. Persistent or chronic unmanaged stress can become harmful for those living with autoimmune diseases. The long-term effects cause a stress hormone, commonly known as cortisol, to be excreted into the body over prolonged periods of time (8), which can trigger an autoimmune response.
As mentioned previously, stressors in your environment, whether external or internal, can induce an autoimmune response in the form of a flare-up. In order to mitigate this, you can implement small changes to your daily routine to manage your stress. This includes practicing mindfulness through meditation, journaling, adding activities to your day that bring you joy, and adopting an exercise regimen.
Those living with an autoimmune disease are more accustomed to pain and discomfort associated with stress-induced flare ups. Exercise is in fact another stress to the body as it causes the body to produce cortisol.
So you may be asking, ‘why would exercise be advantageous for people living with autoimmune disease?’.
Although stress is associated with flare-ups, consistent exercise can be beneficial towards managing pain by causing “adaptation”. Not only can it induce long-term health benefits to the heart, lungs, muscles, and joints, it can also reduce the severity of these autoimmune flare-ups. This is done by teaching your body to be comfortable with discomfort in order to adapt and overcome as you move through life.
Four parameters to keep in mind:
1. Frequency (how often you exercise)
More benefits are seen when consistency is established. In the beginning you should be aiming towards 1-2 days of exercise followed by a rest day in between and return to exercise the next day.
2. Duration (how long you exercise)
Workout duration does not need to be long. In fact, too much time spent exercising will only induce a greater cortisol production leaving you feeling fatigued. Instead, you can spend 15-30 minutes exercising to gain the benefits.
3. Intensity (how easy/difficult your workout is)
As mentioned above, much like too long of a duration can spike cortisol, too intense of exercise can do the same. It’s better to adhere to low-to-moderate intensities, especially in the beginning. Over time you can slowly climb into more intense levels of exercise only when your body begins to adapt.
4. Type (what kind of exercise)
Most all exercises can be incorporated into your exercise routine; however, be more cautious over some that may induce more of a cortisol response. This includes high intensity interval training (HITT), spin classes, CrossFit, etc.
Remember, slow and controlled progression is key to helping your body adapt to the pain throughout this process.
Get More Rest
Fatigue is a common symptom of numerous autoimmune diseases. This term is defined as a debilitating period of excessive tiredness that interferes with your daily activities. Studies suggest that autoimmune diseases impact fatigue both directly and indirectly in two major ways. First, fatigue is physiologically influenced by oxygen or nutrient supply, metabolism, mood, motivation, and sleepiness – all of which are impacted by inflammation. In addition, there is a link between the central nervous system and fatigue (9).
Getting a good nights’ sleep is one way to put your fatigue to rest. Sleep is a key player in restoring your energy and improving your overall health. Oftentimes it’s difficult for those living with an autoimmune disease to get enough sleep due to the chronic aches and pains. In the efforts to improve your chances of getting a good nights’ rest, here’s a list of 5 simple changes you can make to your routine:
1. Establish a regular sleep schedule (both on weekdays and weekends)
2. Spend more time outside during the day
3. Expose yourself to natural, bright light in the morning
4. Keep your bedroom dark and cool in the evenings
5. Create a relaxation routine an hour before bedtime, such as reading, having a bath, or meditating
Take Control Today!
Autoimmune diseases can often be very painful, disruptive and for some incredibly devastating. Our hope is that an autoimmune condition shouldn’t have to take over your entire life. Fighting back with the right approach can help to ease your pain and control your symptoms. In the effort to minimize flare-ups, progress towards a better diet to reduce inflammation while also incorporating one or more lifestyle changes. Remember to progress slowly to ensure your body doesn’t become overwhelmed with the changes. The goal is to adapt comfortably and find out what works best for you and your body before you establish a routine.
For more personalized guidance, request an integrative medicine consultation with Dr. John Gannage, MD.
Stay informed. Follow Dr. Gannage on Facebook and sign up for our newsletter for the latest articles and news about health, nutrition, and integrative medicine.