Did you know that our immune system is like a superhero network in our body, working hard to protect us from things with bad intent, like bacteria, viruses, and more? It’s pretty impressive. But sometimes this, frankly astounding, system can go a bit overboard and attack parts of our own body, causing autoimmune diseases.
What is the immune system?
The immune system is a network of cells, tissues and organs in the body that work together to protect the body from harmful invaders like bacteria, viruses, pathogens and even cancer cells. You’re born with a certain level of immunity and your immune system also adapts and develops throughout life as it comes across new things to defend against.
Sometimes your immune system can go into overdrive and attack parts of your body that it shouldn’t. This is termed an autoimmune disease, and there are upwards of 80 types affecting nearly every part of the body, ranging from type 1 diabetes to coeliac disease to psoriasis to multiple sclerosis. This can be partly genetic and partly triggered by the things we encounter in life such as food, stress and other environmental factors.
Manage an autoimmune condition
While some conditions, such as coeliac disease, require specific dietary modifications or certain medications or medical support, as in type 1 diabetes, there are some general dietary and lifestyle factors than can help to reduce intensity of symptoms and frequency of flare ups. Seeking support from a qualified nutrition professional, such as a nutritional therapist, can help you to find the approaches that get you the best individual results.
Making these changes can improve quality of life and in some cases put certain autoimmune diseases (though not all) into remission. Many address inflammation, which can be a significant driver of these conditions and their symptoms.
These are the things that matter
Vegetables, fruits, healthy fats
Regularly (daily) eat anti-inflammatory foods such as colourful vegetables, fruits, healthy fats such as those found in olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocados and oily fish.
Avoid, as much as possible, sugary food and highly processed foods such as shop-bought biscuits, cakes and confectionary, mass-produced bread, ready meals and other foods containing ingredients you wouldn’t find in a home kitchen.
Regularly consume foods rich in Omega-3 fats such as oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines), nuts and seeds. If you don’t tend to eat these foods then you may consider taking a supplement with guidance from your nutritional therapist.
Happy gut bacteria
Support a healthy diversity of gut bacteria by consuming probiotic foods like kefir, plain yoghurt, kimchi, sauerkraut and kombucha. Also eat a variety of foods rich in fibre such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds.
Pay attention to foods and drinks that seem to trigger a flare up; and work with your nutritional therapist or specialist healthcare provider to minimise or eliminate those foods, at least for a while, but ensure you get all the nutrients you need.
Underlying gut issues
Seek professional support to manage any gut issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome or other gut disorders and symptoms. A dysfunctional gut can contribute significantly to autoimmune conditions.
Overweight and obesity are associated with an increased autoimmune risk. Excess body fat, particularly in the abdomen, drives inflammation and releases signalling molecules called adipokines, which over-stimulate the immune system.
An imbalance of hormones can help to drive autoimmunity. Particularly sex hormones but also thyroid hormones and others. Working with a GP to check hormone levels and rebalance them where possible can help to improve symptoms. There are certain dietary and lifestyle factors that can also support improved hormone balance.
Stress can be a common trigger for autoimmune disease and its symptoms. Work on ways to reduce stress, such as meditation, deep breathing, walking in nature, spending time with people you like and love, talking through your stress with someone who is supportive, working less and reducing unnecessary tasks, appointments and time spent with triggering people.
Exercise and activity can help to reduce inflammation and calm the mind. Try walking (especially in nature), an exercise class, a running club or an online video. Try counting daily steps using an app or pedometer, and aim to increase them if you feel you can.
Adequate and good quality sleep is vital for good immune system function. Try going to bed a little earlier and not looking at screens for an hour before sleep. Also try a hot bath and cool bedroom, and avoid stimulants in the afternoon and evening, such as alcohol, tea and coffee.
Relationships, socialising and purpose
Rewarding and happy friendships and relationships can help to reduce inflammation, as can having a sense of purpose. Regularly spend time with those you love to be with and do things that bring you fulfilment.
20 common autoimmune conditions
- Addison’s Disease
- Alopecia Areata
- Ankylosing Spondylitis
- Coeliac Disease
- Crohn’s Disease
- Graves’ Disease
- Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) (including Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis)
- Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis
- Lupus (Systemic Lupus Erythematosus)
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Myasthenia Gravis
- Pernicious Anaemia
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Sjögren’s Syndrome
- Type 1 Diabetes
- Scleroderma (Systemic Sclerosis)