This article, by graduate Adrienne McLaughlin, NTP, outlines some food and lifestyle recommendations to support those with autoimmune diseases.
As a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner, it is of utmost importance to have a basic understanding of autoimmune disease. Autoimmune disease is a major contributor to the ill health of our nation. Many people struggling with their health are actually developing, or already have developed, an autoimmune disease. Some autoimmune diseases are lupus, chronic fatigue syndrome, Lyme disease, multiple sclerosis, scleroderma, vasculitis, sarcoidosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and pulmonary fibrosis. It is valuable to realize that all autoimmune diseases have similar symptoms and similar underlying causes.
When I see someone who suffers from inflammation, fatigue, anxiety, inability to sleep well, short-term memory loss, thyroid issues, digestive issues, and forgetfulness, I immediately suspect an immune issue.
Oftentimes a victim of autoimmune disease (AD) will appear on the outside to be very healthy. Inside however, this person is suffering. The fatigue is of the worst kind, like a general sense of unease. The heart is often racing or fluttering due to decrease in blood flow. Depression and foggy thinking almost always accompany AD and feelings of overwhelm. There is an oxygen deficiency that results in memory loss, forgetfulness, anxiety, fear, deep depression, increased toxicity and infection.
These telltale signs are valuable to us as Nutritional Therapy Practitioners and Nutritional Therapy Consultants because we can immediately cut through the fog (literally) and address the real problem. It is valuable to know that 85% of those with AD have low thyroid function. Even if it doesn’t show up on a thyroid test, it is usually still low functioning. Excess hair loss is a good indicator as is the inability to maintain proper weight, cold hands and feet, and lethargy.
75% of those with AD suffer from gastrointestinal issues. This includes everything from gas and bloating to diarrhea and constipation. If unaddressed, this can lead to more serious issues like Celiac disease or Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
A sure sign of AD is chronic swollen glands, chemical sensitivities, food allergies, and headaches. I had one client who described an out-of-body feeling and skin crawling. Vertigo is also common in AD situations. Pain is a big deal in AD. The worst kind of neck and shoulder pain often develops. This can radiate down the back and into all joints and muscles. Tingling hands, ringing in the ears, metallic taste in the mouth and poor circulation are also common. Candida overgrowth is almost always present. A person with AD may have all or only some of these symptoms.
Oftentimes, I find a correlation with AD and Nutrasweet or MSG consumption. I encourage my clients to stop consuming these immediately as these excitotoxin/neurotoxic agents are believed to actually cause autoimmune disease. Constant exposure to these and to foods contaminated with pesticide residues will create free radical damage. This damage will ultimately lead to nutritional deficiency and a decrease in our body’s ability to defend itself.
Another problem in AD is that it’s often impossible to get a good night’s sleep. Waking up every few hours or sleeping through the night but still waking up exhausted is common. This element exacerbates all the others! One has to wonder, what exactly is happening here, and why are we seeing such an increase in this area of disease?
Several theories suggest that we are being born at a disadvantage and are predisposed to developing AD. These theories support what we have already learned through studying the findings of Dr. Price and Dr. Pottenger. The quality of the foods our parents/grandparents/great grandparents ate, or did not eat, will greatly affect our health and the health of our children, their children, and onward. Are we being born with a nutrient deficit? Is this creating an increase in autoimmune diseases? These are very good questions to ponder.
Another very popular theory is that we are living in a very toxic world and our bodies simply cannot keep up. We are bombarded with chemicals every single day in the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the detergents we use, the skin care we use, the plastics, the water…you name it. Our bodies can only take so much. We eat enzyme-depleted food as well which weakens our system further.
Many autoimmune diseases pop up after years of antibiotic and steroid use. The overuse of antibiotics creates an imbalance in the gut by wiping out beneficial bacteria. This is a vicious cycle, because not only are good bacteria being wiped out, but the bad bugs become stronger and more resistant. Adding insult to injury is that many people also consume antibiotics in the dairy and meat they eat.
What ultimately happens is that our immune system gets overwhelmed and out of balance. This is when an autoimmune disease develops. An imbalance in the immune system can happen for many reasons. Sometimes a very emotional event can trigger this imbalance. Sometimes it is because of the above-mentioned toxic overload from substances such as antibiotics, pesticides or mercury.
Sometimes the problem starts with poor digestion and/or leaky gut and Candida overgrowth. The immune system simply becomes worn out. Usually the severity of the problem is directly correlated to the severity of the symptoms.
I am not an expert on immunity, but can offer the following very simple explanation of what I mean by this. Immune systems are two-sided. Th-1 or T helper-1 cells fight pathogens like viruses, mycoplasma, and bacteria that are inside the cells. Th2 or T helper-2 cells fight pathogens outside the cells. In a healthy immune system, these two sides work together in harmony. They support each other and keep the body well.
When these two sides become imbalanced there is poor cellular communication. As a result, the Th-2 side becomes overactivated and the Th-1 side becomes worn down. This is a problem because the Th-2 side kills pathogens but doesn’t stop them from reproducing. The Th-1 side can actually stop the reproduction of the pathogens. But if the Th-1 never comes because it is worn out, the pathogens never get wiped out. The Th-2 side continues to work away at the pathogens but never gets the help it needs. This activity causes big problems and creates miserable symptoms. Eventually the immune system becomes somewhat desperate and destructive because it never shuts off and never has the opportunity to recover. This is why infections are found in a high percentage (if not all) of AD sufferers. The system is depleted and simply cannot fight any longer. This constant activation also affects liver function which leaves AD sufferers even more susceptible to toxins.
The immune system’s inability to clear toxins from bacteria, viruses, mycoplasma, and parasites is a real problem. Infections can become chronic and nutritional resources become exhausted. Inflammation is always present and hard to resolve. Infection or trauma can initiate the inflammatory process. Left unresolved it increases free radical damage and creates low cellular energy. This can actually create a hypersensitivity to chemicals and additives and even food sensitivities. Both infection and trauma can get the inflammatory process rolling. When inflammation becomes chronic, high levels of free radicals are continuously being generated. This can lead to long-term damage and much discomfort. With inflammation there is often water retention, puffiness, pain and achiness.
You can often tell immediately when examining someone if they are experiencing inflammation of any kind. Most people don’t look well when in a state of inflammation.
This information is critical to understanding and redirecting the future health of all people! You have to acknowledge a growing number of microorganisms that have begun thriving in our ecosystem! These microorganisms are gaining strength and creating new and strong diseases. These microorganisms have learned how to stay alive in the human body by hiding in the fatty tissues and creating inflammation throughout the entire body. They actually trick the immune system into activating the Th-2 cells instead of the Th-1 cells. This increases their chances of survival and in the process, creates autoimmune conditions.
As Nutritional Therapy Pracititioners and Nutritional Therapy Consultants, it is our job to understand what is happening and help our clients turn this awful mess around. What needs to happen is to turn off the Th-2 and strengthen the Th-1. To do this we have to address the digestive issues, cleanse the body of toxins and clear the infections, arm the gut with good bacteria, replenish depleted enzymes, and build the system with nutrient-dense food and supplements.
We can try to change the ever-growing threat by supporting sustainable agriculture, putting our money where our mouth is, and being activists against threatening elements such as GMO crops and pasteurized dairy and factory meat. We can stay educated and educate the people around us. Mostly we need to build our systems to a point of health that can fight off even the most invasive viruses and bacteria.
I like to start my clients off with cleansing along with probiotics, enzymes and liver support. I recommend a slow and safe cleanse as opposed to a rapid and potentially overwhelming cleanse. A Candida cleanse usually shows great results.
With Candida overgrowth there is damage to the immune system and to the intestinal flora. Again, this condition is so often linked to an overuse of antibiotics or steroids. A coating on the intestinal wall can develop and prevent blood from flowing freely and cutting off oxygen. Without the proper blood flow and oxygen, food does not get digested properly and pathogens thrive. Partially digested food then enters the blood stream and can cause food allergies. The lack of oxygen can also result in short-term memory loss and even hormone imbalance. And of course, fatigue results as well. In severe cases of Candida overgrowth you may find fungal infections on the fingernails and toenails. Dental issues often show up along with poor gum health. Women may find that their cycles become irregular and digestion becomes very uncomfortable. After some time, chronic respiratory infections can become a serious issue. Again, the immune system is so worn-out that almost any virus can take hold.
By working to create an intestinal environment with proper pH balance and by repopulating the tract with friendly bacteria, we can begin to fix the problem. This is where probiotics and enzymes can do wonders.
Most health care practitioners know the value of a good probiotic. In my opinion, every single person regardless of their health ought to take a high quality probiotic every day. There are simply too many threats in our food and in our environment for our bodies to fight alone. Homemade kefir and yogurt make good probiotics as do fermented foods and drinks. In addition, it is wise to add a supplemental probiotic as well.
Enzymes are critical as they are what make life possible! Our food supply today lacks the necessary enzymes to properly digest the food we eat. Supplementing with enzymes enhances the immune system response and destroys harmful organisms in food. Enzymes promote complete digestion and are going to make healing from an autoimmune disease much easier. Anyone with an autoimmune disease or anyone at all who consumes cooked food would be wise to take digestive enzymes with each meal.
Probiotics and enzymes can both be safely taken for life. Along with, or after cleansing, nutritional deficiencies and imbalances need to be addressed. A diet that lacks proper nutrients such as minerals, vitamins, and fatty acids creates a situation wherein the body cannot even begin to come back into balance.
Sugar consumption needs to be looked at. Excessive intake of simple sugars in the form of fructose will make symptoms worse. Patients with AD would be best to eliminate most forms of sugar from their diets.
The best diet for AD is very familiar to what a NTP or NTC would already recommend: nutrient dense and free of processed foods and chemicals. I recommend grass-fed butter and lots of it, pastured eggs, pastured chicken, grass-fed beef, raw dairy, lots of organic vegetables and some fruit. I highly recommend the highest quality, preferably fermented, cod liver oil. Coconut oil and olive oil are also beneficial. Fresh spring water and kombucha and green tea make great beverages. Soaked and sprouted nuts and seeds, and of course, lots of fermented foods round out the diet nicely. For those who love a smoothie, I offer the highest quality whey protein powder and a green powder as well. Celtic sea salt and seaweeds are highlighted in all cooking recipes. The avoidance of toxic foods goes without saying.
Most canned foods, foods with hydrogenated oils, “natural flavors,” MSG, diet sodas and regular sodas are on my evil foods list. Most of the time, various supplements are advised to support the process. These might include grasses (green mixes), colostrums and/or whey, enzymes, minerals and more.
Adequate Vitamin D levels are essential. Vitamin D deficiency is said to be found in almost all AD cases. The best way to get adequate vitamin D is through the sun itself. Exposing as much of the body to natural sunlight every day for 20 minutes is ideal. If the sun is not an option then supplemental Vitamin D will do. I prefer D drops. Having Vitamin D levels checked periodically will insure proper dosage.
Adequate intake of essential fats and the elimination of damaged and processed fats are required to overcome AD. I advise complete avoidance of soy, canola and corn oils. These rancid fats can do much damage.
And finally, when a person with AD is strong enough, I advise removal of silver fillings followed with a heavy metal detoxification.
In summary, in my experience with Autoimmune Disease, there is much that can be done through nutrition and supplements to reverse the condition and be healthy again.
While it may seem overwhelming to get started, even small steps can show encouraging results. By having a basic understanding of the immune system and what can go wrong, we are armed and ready to assist the process.
Adrienne McLaughlin was certified as an NTP in 2008 in Seattle, WA. She enjoys writing about health topics and servicing friends, family, and clients, and has a lifelong passion for real food and sustainable agriculture!
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2010 edition of The Nutritional Therapist.