by Dr. Will Cole
It’s become an epidemic: Autoimmune diseases are one of the leading causes of suffering in the world. To put the widespread nature of this huge health issue into perspective there are now twice as many Americans living with autoimmune diseases than heart diseases, according to The American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association.
Yet, despite billions of dollars spent on care every year, more people are struggling with autoimmune problems than ever before. The good news is that there is a lot you an do to take control of your health. Research suggests that genetics account for only about one-third of autoimmune disease factors. Environmental triggers, diet, and lifestyle are likely primarily responsible for triggering and/or worsening autoimmune disease. That’s good news for sufferers because it means they can help themselves manage their health by dampening inflammatory attacks and even sending the dreaded autoimmune response into remission.
As Hippocrates, the father of medicine, said “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine thy food.” When there are a lack of nutrients in the foods you’re consuming, the genetic switch for autoimmunity could be triggered, but that works both ways. Flooding our body with the nutrients it needs could switch off that trigger. In that spirit, these are the top nutrients and corresponding food medicines I recommend for people struggling with autoimmune conditions:
1. Vitamin A for immune system calming.
Vitamin A is essential for a strong immune system, and vitamin A deficiency has been linked to autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and type 1 diabetes. Researchers suspect the reason has to do with our dendritic cells, which send out a “red alert” at the sign of a supposed invader, to stimulate immunity, or a “calm down” message that tones down excessive and damaging immune reactivity. The “calm down” message makes use of vitamin A!
Food Medicine: True vitamin A, called retinol, is only found in animal products like fish, shellfish, fermented cod liver oil, liver, and butterfat from grass-fed cows. Plant carotenes, a precursor to vitamin A, are found in sweet potatoes and carrots but the conversion rate to the usable retinol is very weak. In fact, research suggests that in healthy adults, just 3% of beta-carotene gets converted in a healthy adult.
2. Vitamin D for better immunological function and lower inflammation.
Known as the “sunshine vitamin,” this nutrient is essential for many metabolic and immunological pathways in the body, but specifically, vitamin D works in conjunction with vitamin A and has been shown to synergistically dampen the inflammatory response of Th17 cells, which are helper T cells that produce a number of inflammatory chemicals, such as interleukin-17. With autoimmune conditions like inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, and rheumatoid arthritis, Th17 cells run out of control, but Vitamin D can help quell that inappropriate response.
Food Medicine: As with vitamin A, vitamin D is most abundant in animal and dairy fats, but the best way to get it is by soaking up some time in the sun – about 20 to 60 minutes a day, depending on your complexion. Consider getting tested every few months to ensure your vitamin D levels are within a healthy range.
3. Vitamin K2 for brain and spinal cord healing.
One study in the Journal of Neuroimmunology found that vitamin K2 was effective at inhibiting the pro-inflammatory iNOS in the spinal cord and the brain immune system in rats that had multiple sclerosis symptoms. That suggests it could do the same for humans, but unfortunately, K2 is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the western diet. You can fix that with the right food medicines!
Food Medicine: Vitamin K2 is best paired with other fat-soluble vitamins, A and D, in whole food form like grass-fed butter oil (ghee) or organ meat. Natto, a Japanese superfood made from non-GMO fermented soybeans, also has high levels of K2.
4. Iron to replenish deficits.
Iron deficiency anemia (IDA) is linked to many autoimmune diseases, but it isn’t clear how much of this is cause and how much is effect. One likely reason is that ferritin (stored iron) is mostly absorbed in the intestines. When absorption is compromised by inflammation and autoimmunity, iron stores can fall too low, and as you may already know, damage to the gut lining and leaky gut syndrome are considered (in functional medicine) to be preconditions for autoimmunity.
Food Medicine: Once the gut is healed, iron-rich foods like grass-fed beef, liver, and spinach can be effective, as well as cooking with cast iron cookware.
5. Micronutrients to quell inflammation and promote optimal function.
Micronutrient deficiencies – especially of selenium, magnesium, and zinc – are associated with several autoimmune diseases. That’s likely primarily due to chronic inflammation, which decreases the absorption of these vital nutrients. Yet, these micronutrients are required for the healthy production and conversion of the thyroid hormone, and thyroid problems such as Hashimoto’s disease are some of the most common autoimmune conditions. Supplementing with these micronutrients can help get thyroid issues back on track as you work on healing the gut and decreasing inflammation to increase micronutrient absorption.
Food Medicine: A variety of nuts and seeds like Brazil nuts, as well as oysters, are good sources of these nutrients.
What Should You Do Now?
If you’re struggling with symptoms of an autoimmune disease, what else can you do besides increasing your nutrient intake? Here are some specific steps to consider:
1. Get your nutrient levels checked
A good place to start is having blood labs done to see where your nutrient levels are. This can help you target your diet and any necessary supplementation. I typically suggest sensitive micronutrient labs such as SpectraCell to get a better idea of nutrient deficiencies that can go undetected on standard labs.
2. Get your nutrient absorption issues checked
You might be eating all the right foods, but that won’t help you if you aren’t absorbing their nutrients. I recommend getting comprehensive labs to address any potential inflammatory microbiome issues, such as leaky gut syndrome, that may be preventing optimal nutrient absorption. Address that first so the food medicines can help you.
3. Avoid your trigger foods
Autoimmunity can cause an immune response from virtually any food. For example, nuts may be a great source of micronutrients in theory, but may not agree with your body in particular. Knowing what your body find reactive will help you customize your diet. Ask your doctor about labs to look at food reactivity, to help you find out what foods to avoid as you heal.
4. Live an anti-inflammatory lifestyle
There are many natural tools for you to use to help dampen inflammatory-immune responses, such as avoiding gluten, sleeping enough, and managing stress. Find out more in my previous article.
5. Consider a functional medicine evaluation
Functional medicine can help you discover and implement sustainable strategies for recovering and rebuilding. Take advantage of a free phone or webcam evaluation to have your questions answered and to see if functional medicine might be right for you.
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