Autoimmunity is simply described as a malfunctioning of the immune system, where a persons immune cells target and attack the body itself, leading to chronic inflammation. Autoimmunity is an umbrella term grouping together an array of diseases known as autoimmune diseases. These diseases can occur in many systems and organs of the body, and include Graves’ disease, Rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, type 1 diabetes mellitus, Coeliac disease, Crohn’s disease and psoriasis.
While there are a variety of autoimmune diseases that can affect the body, they are all generally characterised by chronic inflammation with a loss of tolerance to ‘self-reactive’ immune cells that are left to attack the normal functioning cells of the affected organ.
What Causes Autoimmunity?
It is still not known exactly what causes someone to develop an autoimmune disease, however, a commonly recognised theory is that there needs to first be a genetic susceptibility which can then triggered by a multitude of other factors. These factors include bacterial and viral infections, exposure to chemicals such as cigarette smoke and chemicals in permanent hair dyes, reproductive hormones, and exposure to psychological stress in children. Interestingly, women are affected far more than men.
The Gut Link
More and more we are realising that so much stems from the gut! A new theory is currently being explored that may significantly increase our current understanding of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.
Did you know 80% of your immune system is in the gut and the microbes that reside in our gastrointestinal system play an influential role in maintaining the homeostasis of our immune system? Recent studies are beginning to uncover the relationship between our microbiome and autoimmune disease, showing that alterations to the gut microbiome can lead to immune dysregulation, which in turn can affect the development of autoimmune diseases.
Increased permeability of the gut lining, know as ‘leaky gut’ has also been recently implicated in the development of autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis. Increased permeability of the gut allows entry of undigested proteins and antigens to enter the blood stream, causing an over stimulation of the immune system.
Maintaining a healthy gut microbiome and healing the lining of the gut is therefore so important in helping to prevent the onset of autoimmune disease along with the management of autoimmunity.
Diet Modifications to Reduce Inflammation
If you are suffering from an autoimmune disease, dietary changes can have a beneficial effect on the severity of the symptoms you might be experiencing. An autoimmune disease leads to chronic inflammation in the body, causing an array of unwanted symptoms. Over time the Western diet has become pro-inflammatory in nature and this pro-inflammatory diet is exacerbating diseases like autoimmune disease. Correcting these balances in the diet can help to reduce symptoms and may also reduce the reliance on medical intervention. So how can we correct this imbalance?
Two major nutritional factors that can help to reduce inflammation in the body are omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants.
Omega-3 fatty acid – diets low in omega-3 and high in omega-6 fatty acids can promote inflammation in the body. It is important to achieve the correct ratio between omega-3 and omega-6 in our diets to balance the immune system. Unfortunately, the Western diet, dominated by carbohydrates, saturated and trans-fats, can throw out this balance dramatically. To start correcting this imbalance, include rich sources of omega-3 in your diet. Oily fish like salmon, sardines and mackerel are good natural sources. Also, cut down on processed foods and foods containing vegetable oil.
Antioxidants – antioxidants have the ability to block pro-inflammatory mechanisms within the body, and therefore help to reduce the inflammation associated with autoimmune disease. The antioxidants curcumin and alpha-lipoic acid both have major evidence supporting their ability to reduce the inflammation associated with autoimmune disease.