What is Autoimmune Disease: A Complete Guide

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Are you one of 50 million U.S. adults who have one or more autoimmune diseases? In this article, you’ll learn what causes autoimmune disease, common diagnoses and symptoms, and the best natural treatment options.

What is autoimmune disease?

Autoimmune disease is a condition in which immune cells target the body’s own healthy tissues by mistake. Instead of “attacking” pathogens, your immune system attacks itself. 

What causes autoimmune disease?

The exact cause of autoimmune disorders is unknown. One theory is that certain microorganisms (such as bacteria or viruses) or drugs trigger changes that confuse the immune system. 

Most scientists agree that the following factors play an important role:

  • Genetics
  • Diet
  • Infections
  • Environmental factors 

In recent history, Westernized countries have seen significantly higher rates of these diseases suggesting that autoimmune diseases are not just a product of genetics or bad luck. Instead, they may be strongly influenced by our lifestyle choices. Factors like diet, smoking, environmental toxins, and the balance of our intestinal bacteria all seem to have an impact on autoimmune diseases.

Environmental agents have been gaining more attention in recent years for their role in the development of autoimmune conditions. Evidence has linked exposure to mercury and pesticides to a higher risk for autoimmune disease.

Autoimmune diseases and symptoms list

There are over 100 known autoimmune diseases. Some of the most common include:

  • Lupus 
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)
  • Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (overactive thyroid)
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Graves disease
  • Celiac disease (gluten allergy)

You’d think that with such a large variety of conditions, symptoms would vary widely–but they often don’t. Common autoimmune disease symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Joint pain and swelling
  • Rashes or other skin problems
  • Abdominal pain or digestive issues
  • Frequent fever
  • Swollen glands
Related:   Reversing Autoimmunity by Subtraction, not Addition

Diagnosis can be a challenge because other common conditions like rosacea, other skin rashes, or fibromyalgia can cause the above symptoms, too. For it to be autoimmune, you’ll need to have these symptoms as well as specific blood markers, and possibly a tissue biopsy.

Are autoimmune diseases curable?

Unfortunately, there are no established cures for autoimmune diseases. But numerous studies have demonstrated that lifestyle changes, particularly food choices, can play a key role in managing or even reversing many of these conditions. The key is reducing inflammation, “resetting” the controls in the immune system, and helping tissues and organs regenerate themselves.

The link between autoimmune disease and inflammation 

Fundamentally, autoimmune disease is an inflammation issue. According to the Journal of Immunology Research, increasing evidence shows that an abnormal inflammatory response is closely associated with many chronic diseases, especially autoimmune.

Doctors typically turn to medication for dealing with the symptoms of inflammatory conditions–but that methodology fails to address the root causes of the disease, which are more likely allergens, infections, environmental toxins, an inflammatory diet, and/or stress. 

Because nutrition and immunity are closely connected, food can be a powerful tool for fighting excessive inflammation and improving autoimmune symptoms. Certain foods are anti-inflammatory, supporting your body in maintaining an appropriate immune response. Vitamin C and vitamin E are important nutrients that create a healthier gut microbiome, leading to reduced inflammation in the gut and whole body. 

Furthermore, prebiotic foods–such as garlic, onions, leeks, and chicory root–promote the growth of good bacteria in the gut, and probiotic foods like sauerkraut or kimchi replace healthy bacteria in the gut. Other healthy lifestyle habits can help, as well.

Related:   3 Ways to Reverse Your Autoimmune Disease

Natural treatment for autoimmune disease symptoms

Exercise 

Some researchers report that those affected by autoimmune diseases tend to be more sedentary than the rest of the population. Because regular exercise has an anti-inflammatory effect on the entire body, exercise can help you manage your autoimmune symptoms. One of the ways exercise does this is by causing the body to produce more beneficial T cells (cells that help regulate immune function). Physical activity has been proven safe for specific symptoms, and has a beneficial impact on overall quality of life.

A regular exercise program is crucial for good health, but it doesn’t have to be too intensive. A simple, effective option for those new to working out is walking. Aim for 30 minutes, five days a week. 

The best exercise for you is one that you enjoy. Pay attention to what feels good in your body so you can be consistent with it.

Nutrition: Best foods for autoimmune diseases 

Leafy greens

Leafy greens like kale, spinach, and broccoli are packed with Vitamin A, D, E, and K, which help reduce inflammation. Many leafy greens also contain alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fat that’s well-known for its anti-inflammatory effects. Eating them with a healthy fat like olive oil aids absorption of carotenoids in the greens, which are highly anti-inflammatory antioxidants. 

Mushrooms

Fungi have demonstrated some tremendous anti-inflammatory potential. Studies show that mushrooms fight cancer, reverse autoimmune diseases, and relieve allergies.

Onions

These flavorful root vegetables contain quercetin, an antioxidant that inhibits inflammatory triggers, leukotrienes, prostaglandins and histamines, in both osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

Squash

Squash like butternut, acorn, zucchini, and pumpkin contain fatty acids (like omega 3s) and antioxidants, including zeaxanthin, lutein, and beta-carotene–all of which are extremely beneficial for alleviating inflammation.

Related:   Holistic Approaches to Treating Autoimmune Diseases

Turnips and Rutabaga

These root vegetables are packed with antioxidants, such as glucosinolates and carotenoids, as well as vitamin C, potassium, magnesium, zinc, iron, and other vitamins that fight inflammation.

Berries

Strawberries and blueberries are a great source of antioxidants, fiber, and vitamin C, all of which are anti-inflammatory. Berries also contain anti-cancer, antioxidant phytochemicals like ellagic acid which boost their health benefits. Studies have also linked increased berry consumption with lower risks of heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and diabetes.

Fatty fish

Fatty fishes like salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines are rich in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, which reduce inflammation. Plus, fish can help lower your risk of developing heart disease, cancer, and arthritis. Include fatty fish in your diet at least twice a week.

Foods to avoid with autoimmune disease

Certain foods alter the bacteria living in your gut negatively, causing chronic inflammation. Foods to avoid for autoimmune health include:

  • Processed meats like hot dogs, lunch meats, and cured meats
  • Refined grains, such as white bread, pasta, and breakfast cereals
  • Packaged snack foods, including cookies, chips, and pastries
  • Sodas and other sugary drinks
  • Fried foods, which tend to contain trans fats–a big trigger of inflammation

Having an autoimmune disease can be extremely challenging. But by exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, and avoiding some key triggers, you can improve your overall health and rebalance your immune system–so it protects you for years to come.

References:

https://autoimmune.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/1-in-5-Brochure.pdf

https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/conditions/autoimmune/index.cfm

https://www.niams.nih.gov/health-topics/autoimmune-diseases

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4034518/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6970196/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6421792/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8620243/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8389205/#:~:text=High%2Ddose%20vitamin%20C%20supplementation,strongly%20associate%20with%20gut%20health.

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29108826/

https://www.pennmedicine.org/departments-and-centers/ophthalmology/about-us/news/department-news/diet-and-chronic-inflammation

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15277161/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1160565/

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https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30561035/

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/rutabaga

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https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8747047/

https://ard.bmj.com/content/73/11/1949.abstract

Author
Carrie Solomon

Carrie Solomon is a freelance health writer, copywriter, and passionate wellness enthusiast. She’s on a mission to help wellness-focused companies educate, engage, and inspire their audiences to make the world a healthier, happier place. Learn more about her at copybycarrie.com or on LinkedIn.

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