What Are Autoimmune Diseases?

You may be familiar with the term autoimmune disease. But what exactly does it mean? In basic terms, it means that the body’s immune system attacks the body it was meant to protect. In these conditions, different parts of the body can fall prey to the immune system, and this will determine the types of symptoms that a person has. For instance, if the body’s immune cells attack the central nervous system, multiple sclerosis (MS) can develop; if the intestines are targeted, Crohn’s disease or Ulcerative colitis may occur. Believe it or not, over 80 types of autoimmune diseases affect more than 24 million people in the United States.

But why would the immune system, which was meant to protect the body, turn and attack the body instead? Is it solely because of bad genes? Well, it turns out that there are several possible reasons why an immune system attacks its own body. As far as genetics goes, some autoimmune diseases, such as celiac disease and ankylosing spondylitis, do have strong genetic components. Conversely, others, such as type 1 diabetes, MS, and lupus, are less influenced by one’s genes. This relationship between genetics and autoimmune diseases can be appreciated by looking at studies of identical twins. Since identical twins have the same genes, it would be expected that if one of them develops an autoimmune disease, the other one should as well. However, many times this is not the case. Thus, other factors must be involved in developing these diseases. 

Other Causes of Autoimmune Diseases

Other possible causes of autoimmune diseases include infections. When we have an infection, our immune system is revved up to fight these invaders. However, on a molecular level, sometimes parts of the invading infection look like parts of our own cells— a similarity that can cause our immune system to attack us. Another interesting fact is that our environment can also affect our risk of developing autoimmune diseases. For instance, MS is more common the farther away from the equator you are, which has been linked to lower vitamin D levels. Moreover, regarding nutrition and MS, a high correlation exists between a population’s milk consumption and the prevalence of this disease.

Keeping on the topic of MS, there have been several published studies that showed a connection between diet, specifically saturated fat, and MS. Some of these studies were published by Dr. Roy Swank, who followed up with his study participants for up to 50 years! His studies showed better outcomes in those patients that remained on a diet low in saturated fat. There have also been a few other studies that showed similar correlations. 

More on Food and Autoimmunity

Let’s switch gears and speak about lupus, an autoimmune disease that can attack many different organs. According to Dr. Brooke Goldner, “there are certain foods like meat, dairy, processed foods and some oils that can cause chronic inflammation that triggers disease, and other foods like raw greens, vegetables and omega-3 fatty acids that give your body the nutrients it needs to heal disease – even Lupus.”  She tells the story of how changing her diet healed her lupus and saved her life. (Just a quick side note on inflammation: in general, inflammation is your immune system at work. When your immune system is fighting an infection, there is inflammation, which is a good thing. However, when your immune system unnecessarily goes into overdrive over long periods, there is too much inflammation with resultant damage to your tissues and organs. This is a bad thing.)

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that attacks joints, most commonly the hands, wrists, and knees. It can cause debilitating pain and eventually lead to permanent joint damage. Again, there is likely some genetic predisposition to this condition. However, there is evidence that elements outside of a person’s genes may play an important role in the development of RA. According to an article in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition, lifestyle factors may be significant contributors to the development of RA. Higher intakes of red meat were associated with inflammation and arthritis in multiple joints (in medical terms called inflammatory polyarthritis). Regarding body weight, studies are showing that overweight people with RA have worse outcomes than those who are not overweight. It has been found that excess fat is connected with increased inflammation. Moreover, the extra stress on weight-bearing joints in overweight individuals will further aggravate the condition.

This, of course, brings up the question—what is the best way to lose weight? Some studies show that a low-fat vegan diet provides great benefits when it comes to weight loss. It is also important to note that people eating a healthy vegan diet do not have to limit their caloric intake to lose weight. Imagine that—you can eat a vegan diet filled with whole, plant-based foods without worrying about counting calories

Get Your Fiber

Another significant benefit of whole, plant-based foods is fiber. You may have heard that fiber is only important to keep you going to the bathroom regularly, but it is so much more than that. You see, bacteria and other microbes live within your body (mostly in your colon). Believe it or not, estimates show that you have about 39 trillion of these microscopic organisms living inside you. Even more astounding is that you are composed of about 30 trillion human cells. Wow—so you likely have more bacteria than human cells as part of you!

Okay, so what does all of this have to do with fiber? Well, most of your immune system is around your gut, and only a single layer of cells separates it from the trillions of bacteria living within your colon. These bacteria, like everything else that’s alive, need to eat. Guess what their preferred food is? Fiber!  

When certain types of gut bacteria are provided with fiber, they convert it into molecules called short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), and these SCFAs are the primary energy source for the cells of your colon. This allows the cells of your colon to maintain a tight seal between themselves, preventing foreign molecules from passing through and interacting with your immune system that lives right on the other side of them. Suppose unwanted molecules are allowed to pass between your colon cells and expose themselves to your immune system. In that case, it can cause inflammation, leading to RA and many other autoimmune diseases. Oh, by the way, animal foods do not contain fiber. Plants hold a monopoly on this nutrient. 

Although fiber is hugely beneficial to our well-being, two things are worth noting. First, if you do not currently eat much fiber, gradually increase your fiber intake so your body can get used to it. Second, for people with Crohn’s disease or Ulcerative colitis, although soluble fiber is beneficial for preventing disease exacerbations, it may worsen symptoms during a flare-up.

Speak With Your Doctor

So, when considering autoimmune diseases, many factors aside from genetics can contribute to their development or worsen their severity—especially the things we put into our mouths. Moreover, it seems like a whole-food, plant-based diet can help treat them. If you have an autoimmune disease, I advise and encourage you to speak with your doctor about the diet and lifestyle changes you would like to make to help your body heal. Besides the abundance of benefits to healthy lifestyle changes, there are no harmful side effects. If your doctor happens to be unfamiliar with this knowledge, please present this article. It’s a great place to start.

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Reducing your meat intake and eating more plant-based foods is known to help with chronic inflammationheart healthmental well-beingfitness goalsnutritional needsallergiesgut health, and more! Unfortunately, dairy consumption also has been linked to many health problems, including acnehormonal imbalancecancer, and prostate cancer, and has many side effects.

For those interested in eating more plant-based, we highly recommend purchasing one of our many plant-based cookbooks or downloading the Food Monster App which has thousands of delicious recipes making it the largest vegan recipe resource to help reduce your environmental footprint, save animals and get healthy! And, while you are at it, we encourage you to also learn about the environmental and health benefits of a plant-based diet.

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