Autoimmune diseases affect 50 million Americans (more than cancer and heart disease combined), and the number is rising. While these illnesses affect people in myriad ways, they all can devastate a person’s quality of life. But what can you do when your body starts attacking itself? Immuno suppressant treatments often cause long-term side effects, and other therapies fail to consider just how physically pervasive symptoms can be. But there’s one treatment that approaches autoimmune disorders holistically, acknowledging how deeply intertwined all the body’s functions are, and it’s a simple one: Food.
What we eat is central to our health, but it’s underappreciated as a way to prevent, treat, and reverse illnesses. Patients are more likely to receive medications (which can cause other problems, such as addiction and dependence) than be prescribed a lifestyle change, despite the fact that the Western diet has been linked to many diseases, including autoimmune disorders.
Multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis have been connected to a diet rich in animal products like dairy, meat, and animal fats, whereas evidence suggests that polyunsaturated fats and fiber may decrease risk. Consuming fish oil alongside plenty of vegetables and fresh fruit is correlated with reduced risk of psoriasis. For nearly all autoimmune disorders, excess fat consumption is linked to increased risk and more severe symptoms.
Of all factors contributing to autoimmunity, obesity is the greatest. When a person accumulates excess fat, some of that fat is stored as white adipose tissue. White adipose tissue behaves not like mere fat cells, but rather as an endocrine organ promoting inflammation. This results in a state of chronic systemic inflammation — and since many autoimmune diseases are related to inflammation, this means significantly increased risk.
So how can you change your diet to prevent autoimmune diseases or alleviate symptoms? If you’re overweight, reducing your weight to a healthy level is a clear first step, but even sufferers at a healthy BMI can take measures to improve their quality of life.
Adopting an anti-inflammatory diet can mitigate the inflammatory response caused by autoimmune diseases. An anti-inflammatory diet is one that’s rich in antioxidant foods like leafy green vegetables and deeply-hued berries, sources of beta-carotene like sweet potatoes and carrots, and omega-3 fatty acid sources like certain fish, seeds, and nuts. Anti-inflammatory herbs like turmeric, rosemary, and ginger are another helpful addition. On the other hand, eating refined starches, sugar, saturated fats, and trans fats can amp up your body’s inflammatory response and worsen symptoms.
Avoiding pro-inflammatory foods can be difficult as unhealthy fats, sodium, and added sugars exist in many packaged foods that consumers wouldn’t classify as fatty, salty, or sweet. It’s important to examine nutritional information to ensure you’re not accidentally sabotaging your diet or eating an ingredient you’re intolerant to. The easiest way to know what you’re getting is to build a diet around whole foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, and lean meats.
Another important measure to take is to assess your diet for undiagnosed food allergies and sensitivities. The common offenders are dairy, corn, soy, shellfish, nuts, and wheat — in fact, some autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease are correlated with celiac disease, which causes gluten intolerance. Adopting an elimination diet is a great way to find out if certain foods trigger your symptoms, and while it takes some dedication, it’s a temporary measure that can bring lasting benefits.
Sufferers of autoimmune disorders don’t need to be resigned to their illness. Adopting a healthy lifestyle with an anti-inflammatory diet full of whole foods can help alleviate symptoms and improve overall quality of life, and the body of research for treating autoimmune disorders through diet is only growing. And beyond autoimmunity, adopting a healthy diet is good for everyone, whether you’re concerned about illness or simply trying to live a long, happy life.
Image via Pixabay by Ajale
Author: Paige Johnson
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