Autoimmune conditions: What you really need to know!
Updated: Mar 11
If you have been following my blog for a while you will know that my inspiration for researching and writing a blog comes from common queries from clients or from the blog requests.
Over the last few months I have seen an increase in clients who have tried conventional treatment with Autoimmune conditions to no avail and have come and seen me (probably initially more as a last resort) when steroids and other medications haven't changed their situation.
I wanted to put together some information that I think is vital to understand around foods and lifestyle in relation to Autoimmune conditions. I have to say that the results I've seen speak for themselves but it is not an overnight fix.
Did you know there are over 100 Autoimmune diseases and they classified by this definition:
"One of the functions of the immune system is to protect the body by responding to invading microorganisms, such as viruses or bacteria, by producing antibodies or sensitized lymphocytes (types of white blood cells). Under normal conditions, an immune response cannot be triggered against the cells of one's own body. In some cases, however, immune cells make a mistake and attack the very cells that they are meant to protect. This can lead to a variety of autoimmune diseases"(1).
Hippocrates, is famed for the saying, “All disease begins in the gut.” But its taken close to 2000 years, for scientific research to catch up. Several thousand articles and studies now exist discussing our increasing understanding of immunity, gut function and how our modern way of eating and lifestyle negatively contribute to overall health by damaging our digestive system.
This is referred to as Leaky gut syndrome or “Intestinal hyperpermeability.”
(I just want to note that this topic is huge and I am giving a very condensed version of a lot of information so am not going to go hugely into the scientific breakdown but rather focus on some basic points that should be understood and then a practical aspect of healing the gut).
Pic Credit (draxe.com)
Did you know that the lining of your intestines is only one cell thick in many places but its surface area is the size of a tennis court!!! (2)
This single layer of specialized epithelial cells are linked together by tight junction proteins. Its a huge task for a single line of cells to man this huge border as well as absorb minerals, vitamins, fatty acids, amino acids and sugars. You are an incredible creation!!!
Frontiers of Immunology report describe Leaky gut as "The intestinal epithelial lining, together with factors secreted from it, forms a barrier that separates the host from the environment. In pathologic conditions, the permeability of the epithelial lining may be compromised allowing the passage of toxins, antigens, and bacteria in the lumen to enter the bloodstream creating a ‘leaky gut.’" (3)
In simple terms this mean, if you have leaky gut, certain proteins, bacteria and lipopolysaccharides that should NEVER be able to enter your bloodstream can sneak through the loose tight cell junctions. This evokes antimicrobial molecules, immunoglobulins and cytokine activities which presents a major problem, as the vast majority of your immune system is found inside the gut.
The result? Acute inflammation that leads to chronic inflammation if left unchecked, which can result in autoimmune reactions. A normal part of your immune response that serves to fight infections and diseases winds up over-performing, leading to chronic inflammation, which is at the root cause of most illness/diseases.
So what causes the gut lining to become weakened so that the proteins, bacteria and lipopolysaccharides can get through into the bloodstream?
The main disruptors are:
1. Broad spectrum anti-biotics.
Yes I realize they are necessary at times but they over prescribed in our modern day in age. If you find yourself or your kids at the doctor for colds, UTIs, repeat sore throats I highly encourage you to look into some natural options to have on hand at home so you can get on top of the initial symptoms.
Your gut microbiome should be like a mature rainforest - a wonderfully complex ecosystem where one species depends on several others for survival. Just like Agent Orange can't target one species of plant in the rainforest neither can a broad spectrum anti-biotic target one bacteria. It essentially carpet bombs your microbiome - the good and bad bacteria. It can take 2-4 years to regrow your microbiome after a round of antibiotics (4). Another point to note is that its not just antibiotics from a doctors prescription that you need to watch. If you are eating meat you need to be aware that all caged animals and most free-ranged animals are well dosed up on antibiotics that are still present in the meat when its brought. If you are not buying home-kill or organic free range meat from reliable sources its in my opinion if you have a chronic health issue it is best to avoid.
2. Non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS)
Reaching for the ibuprofen or similar regularly for period pain, headaches or a teething baby. Its time to think again!
According to a study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), "All the conventional NSAIDs studied were equally associated with small intestinal inflammation apart from aspirin and nabumetone which seem to spare the small bowel." Another study concluded, "NSAIDs are thus shown to disrupt intestinal integrity and long-term treatment leads to inflammation of the small intestine." (5)
3. Endocrine Disruptors
Low dose estrogen-like substances are a diverse groups but encompass chemicals found in standard cosmetics, sunscreens, cleaning products, plastics, preservatives etc and all react havoc on our hormones which can lead to reproductive issues, metabolic disorders, hormone sensitive cancers, thyroid problems.
If you haven't switched to natural alternatives for cleaning, suncreen and body products I really encourage you to take that leap now. There so many great companies out there now whose products are affordable and a whole better for the environment and your health. For more on this topic check out this BLOG
We can absorb these disruptors though our skin, breathe them in or they can be absorbed though the compromised gut lining.
4. Herbicides and Pesticides
These powerful poisons make it easy to grow crops without labour intensive practices. However if you are trying to eat more fruit and vegetables to 'be healthy' and just buying them off the supermarket shelves you will be taking in a host of chemicals that do your hormones and gut no good. To get around this seek out your local farmers market, join a co-op that purchases certified organic foods or just grow your own!
There are a few tricks to reduce your exposure to herbicides and pesticides see this BLOG for more details
5. Artificial Sweeteners
Trying to trick the body is never a good idea - products like aspartame, saccharin, sucralose all alter the gut microbiome supporting the growth of bacteria that doesn't do us any good.
If you want something sweet take it from a natural source like raw honey, 100% pure maple syrup or a date at least the body recognizes what this is and can deal with the sugar accordingly.
Plants and there edible components like fruit, seeds, nuts are not benign. As plants can’t move, run, or put up their dukes, they have to use their own natural chemistry to protect themselves from anything that might want to make a meal out of them.
They want to survive to ensure they can reproduce just like we are designed to. The primary defense most plants have against predators like us are a group of proteins called lectins.
Lectins are specifically designed to protect the plants and research shows now that some of these plant defense mechanisms – like the lectins found in beans, for example – are at the root of cause of many of our illnesess and physiological discomforts like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.(6) Here's an example an individual bean may be small, but with the highest lectin content of any food group they can have a big impact. Five raw black beans or kidney beans will clot your bloodstream in 5 minutes.
You should understand Lectins link to Leaky gut as they are like little barnacles that look for specific sugar molecules in our blood, the lining of our gut, and on our nerves. When they find a good spot to land, they cling to those cells, breaking down their ability to communicate with our immune systems, which can lead to the immune system attacking its own body tissue by mistake.
OK now to the practical element. If you are suffering from chronic inflammation, ongoing digestive discomfort or an autoimmune condition, firstly consult a holistic health practitioner or medical practitioner. Your unique body and situation needs to be assessed thoroughly. Specific blood tests need to be done and often practitioner grade supplements need to be included with the following advice for the best result.
Here is some dietary advice that has worked wonders for a number of my clients that have come in for conditions such as Psoriasis, Crohns, Rheumatoid Arthritis and Celiac.
Initially cut out known lectin containing foods and after 6 weeks you can reintroduce in small amounts and see what response your body gets.
Beans & Legumes – As beans carry more lectins than any other food limit all beans, peas, lentils, and other legumes. Also, some legumes hide as nuts – so it’s best to cut out peanuts and cashews as well. Once you are at the reintroduction stage you can eat small amounts that have been soaked and pressure cooked. Pressure cooking significantly reduces lectins.
Nightshades – Nightshades are vegetables that include eggplant, all peppers, potatoes, and tomatoes. The peels and the seeds of these plants are full of lectins. Make sure to peel and de-seed them or pressure cook or ferment them. All these techniques reduce the amount of lectins.
Grains – Are a very interesting topic. If you have weight issues I would suggest you limit grains. If you want to fatten an animal fast farmers know to your grain - oats, corn, soybeans, wheat all turn typically lean animals into fat animals very quickly. Most grains (beside sorghum and millet) are also lectin rich. It’s best to limit grain intake. If you must, eat white rice over brown. Yes you heard me right!! It took me a while to get me head around this one as I was totally taught that brown is always better but the reality is that the 4 billion people in the world who eat rice as a dietary staple every effort has been made to remove the hull. Why - because that is where the bulk of the lectins lie. Its always a good idea to look to traditional practices in terms of how we should prepare foods.
Seed containing 'vegetables' – An easy rule to remember is that any vegetable with seeds is actually considered a fruit. Examples are squash, pumpkin, tomatoes and zucchini. The seeds and peels of these foods are full of lectins. Make sure to toss the peels and seeds aside.
In-Season Fruit – Again, it’s nature’s candy, so you’ll want to limit the quantity you eat, but when it’s in season, fruit is okay to add to your diet.
Cut out the Following Foods completely
Corn and corn-fed ‘free-range’ meats – It doesn’t take much to see why corn is among the worst lectin-filled grains. Just look at the American farm industry. Farmers use corn for the sole purpose of fattening up cattle. Instead, opt for only certified organic pasture-raised meats or freshly caught fish.
Casein A1 Milk – It may sound like science fiction, but at some point cows in Northern Europe suffered a genetic mutation. The result was a lectin-like protein in their milk called casein A1. Turns out, casein A1 is converted to a protein called beta-casomorphin. And this protein can prompt an immune attack on the pancreas of people who consume milk from these cows, or cheeses made from it (8)
Most store-bought milk in your grocery store, even if it’s organic, is A1 milk.
Most cows in NZ produce both A1 & A2 proteins in their milk. A1 proteins produce an amino acid that can be troublesome for some people when it is broken down by the body. That amino acid is not not produced by A2 proteins, meaning that milk from A2 cows may be more easily digested. This can be of particular benefit to those with a dairy intolerance or digestive issues & those with an inflammatory disease such as eczema or asthma. If you want to consume milk I would find your local Raw milk provider and check if their cows produce A2 milk.
Increase these Nutrient Dense Foods
Leafy Greens – Romaine, red & green leaf lettuce, kohlrabi, mesclun, spinach, endive, butter lettuce, parsley, fennel, and seaweed/sea vegetables are all great to add to a lectin-free diet. They are high in nutrients and incredible for your health. To boot, they are very filling, especially if you drizzle olive, hemp or avocado oil on them!
Cooked tubers – Purple sweet potatoes, yams, yucca, and taro root are a great source of vitamins and minerals. That’s because their roots have strong absorption abilities and draw water and minerals from the soil for nourishment.also, They’re also high in resistant starch that feeds your good gut bacteria.
Cruciferous & other great vegetables – Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts. And include these lectin-free veggies in your diet as often as you like: asparagus, garlic, leek, celery, mushrooms, and onion. They are full of fiber and polyphenols and prebiotics for the good bacteria (probiotics)
Avocado – Avocado is a fruit, but it’s essentially sugar-free and full of good fat and soluble fiber – key when trying to reduce inflammation and absorb antioxidants.
Bone broth - Amino acids present within bone broth are very helpful for digestion and healing the gut lining. A 2017 study in the journal Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care notes, glutamine supplementation helps heal the intestinal barrier in human and animal models.This may help with conditions such as leaky gut, which irritates the mucosal lining in the intestines and interferes with the body's ability to digest food (9). People with inflammatory bowel disease tend to have lower levels of some amino acids in their bodies. For these people, getting additional amino acids into their diets may help with some symptoms of the condition. Drinking bone broth daily is a simple way to get anti-inflammatory amino acids into the body.
Olives and Extra Virgin Olive Oil – Olive oil is filled with essential vitamins and minerals containing vitamin K, vitamin E, calcium, iron, sodium, and potassium. Furthermore, olive oil contains polyphenols and fatty acids. It’s an all-around superfood.
Olive oil can contribute to the reduction of inflammatory activity in those suffering from autoimmune disorders. And, it’s an incredible source of polyphenols, especially oleuropein – a.k.a. the longevity polyphenol. The Mediterranean cultures have got it right with copious olive oil on everything!!
1. American Autoimmune Disease List. 2018 https://www.aarda.org/diseaselist/ [Accessed 22/05/2019]
2. Childrens Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. 2016. About the Small and Large Intestines. http://www.chp.edu/our-services/transplant/intestine/education/about-small-large-intestines [Accessed 22/05/2019]
3. Frontiers of Immunology. 2017. Leaky Gut As a Danger Signal for Autoimmune Diseases https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5440529/ [Accessed 22/05/2019]
4. Blaser, M.J. 2014. Missing Microbes. How the overuse of Antibiotics in Fuelling our Modern Plagues. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.
5. PubMed. 1986 Effect of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs on the human small intestine https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3780475 [Accessed 22/05/2019]
6. Peumans, Willy J. “Lectins As PLant Defense Proteins”. N.p., 1995.
7. NZ Food Safety. Natural toxins in Vegetables and Beans. https://www.mpi.govt.nz/food-safety/food-safety-for-consumers/is-it-safe-to-eat/natural-toxins-in-vegetables-and-beans/ [Accessed 22/05/2019]
8. Pal et al. 2015. Milk intolerance, beta-casein and lactose. Nutrients 7(9): 7285–7297.
9. PubMed 2017. Glutamine and the regulation of intestinal permeability: from bench to bedside.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27749689 [Accessed 22/05/2019]