We live in a time where chronic disease is at its highest in history, and the same is true for autoimmune diseases. Approximately 24 million Americans, or 1 in about every 14 people, are now afflicted with some type of autoimmune disease. While genetics plays a part in the possibility of developing an autoimmune disease – called a predisposition – lifestyle makes the biggest impact on whether an autoimmune disease actually develops in a majority of cases.
I had the opportunity to ask a question on The Exam Room, a daily podcast by Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine, about blood cancers that affect both my boyfriend and my grandmother. In my boyfriend’s case in particular, the type that he has is an autoimmune condition due to the fact that he has T-cells that are attacking otherwise healthy skin cells. His cancer (Cutaneous T-Cell Lymphoma) is rare, and Dr. Jim Loomis admitted that not much research has been done on the link between diet and some of these specific blood cancers. However, his opinion is that they are most likely driven by inflammation in the body.
To summarize – high levels of inflammation over time weaken the body’s immune defenses. All that is needed for the inflammation to give way to an autoimmune disorder is the proverbial “straw that breaks the camel’s back”. A sudden and acute spike in inflammation can cripple the immune system, causing it to “break” in a way that it cannot recover. Something like, in my boyfriend’s case, an unexpected divorce that sends cortisol, the highly-inflammatory stress hormone, sky-high. It was during the divorce process that his cancer made itself known. And this seems to be the trend for so many who develop autoimmune conditions – a sudden high-stress situation, a sudden illness – something that places a lot of stress on an already-inflamed body. The autoimmune condition that has been threatening for so long, is finally born.
Unfortunately, we now exist in a time where inflammation is common. You’ve probably heard of the “fight or flight” response to stress, and this response was inborn in all humans during primitive times to keep us safe. When faced with a sudden danger, like the need to escape a predator, this stress response kicked in to save our lives. It was intended as a sudden and acute response to stress, but now live in a world where stress is chronic. In other words, it is constant and ongoing, never letting up or giving us much time for relief. So many of us are now living in a constant state of stress, and the fight or flight response is activated regularly. Demanding jobs, worry about the state of the country and/or world, volatility in our relationships, even social media, tend to keep people stressed all the time.
In addition to chronic stress, we have devolved in our health. The 1950’s brought with it a new, faster-paced life, filled with convenience foods and fast food. Fresh, homemade food was replaced with nutrient-poor, fatty and additive-laden processed foods. Smoking and drinking exploded in popularity. While the dangers of smoking have finally made the practice taboo, eating processed, fatty, heavily-sweetened foods and drinking alcohol have been normalized despite being equally as dangerous as smoking. In fact, processed meats such as lunch meats, hot dogs, sausages and bacon have been classified as class 1 carcinogens just like cigarettes – and yet advertisement for these products is still allowed and no warning labels are required on the packaging.
These same factors – processed and fast foods, smoking, and drinking alcohol – are leading factors of inflammation, which we now know to be a leading contributor to autoimmune diseases. Add to that a much more sedentary lifestyle than we had in the past, and it’s the perfect storm for immune system failure.
The good news is – where diet and lifestyle can be a cause of autoimmune diseases, it can also be a “cure”. I put this in quotations because autoimmune diseases really can’t be cured, but they can go into remission – and stay there. By eliminating inflammation, you eliminate what is driving your autoimmune disease. In a majority of people this allows symptoms to subside and remission to become possible.
What does an anti-inflammatory diet and lifestyle look like? I could give you a short list of inflammatory foods to avoid, and anti-inflammatory foods to eat, but I don’t want to take half-measures. I want to arm you with the full information you need to take control of your disease. Many times health professionals will not give their patients full information on what is needed, because they believe that if something seems too difficult, their patients won’t even try. But I want to give you full information, so that you can decide for yourself what to do with it.
Some of the most inflammatory foods that we consume in the American diet are animal products – meat, eggs, and dairy of all kinds. Dairy is especially inflammatory, which may be troubling to hear for those who have been drinking skim milk and eating low-fat yogurt believing that they are healthy foods. The truth is these are not healthy foods for anyone, but especially not those with autoimmune conditions or chronic inflammation (or at risk for hormonal cancers, but that’s a topic for another day). Dairy drives up acidity in the body and triggers a hard immune response to combat it. This is why dairy is a common irritant for allergies, acid reflux and sinus troubles. It also creates an inflammatory environment in the body.
Other non-animal based inflammatory foods are alcohol and wheat gluten. Alcohol is inflammatory for everyone, and much like cigarettes there truthfully is no “safe” amount. In fact, the amount we are told is safe by the “experts” is double the amount that is recommended as safe by the actual science. But, thanks to the power of the alcohol industry influence, the information has been manipulated to work in their favor. What is actually considered to be the “safest” amount is only one drink per day for men, and one drink every other day for women. In reality, when it comes to inflammation, no amount is safe and alcohol should be avoided – sorry to deliver the bad news!
Wheat gluten is a horse of a different color. Just like meat, dairy and eggs, wheat gluten is a large protein that is broken down before being absorbed through the small intestine and processed through the liver. Where gluten becomes problematic is in people who have leaky gut. Leaky gut is not uncommon in those who have been consuming a poor diet for a long period of time. There is a membrane lining our intestines, and when consuming a poor, low-fiber diet that is lacking in strong and healthy gut microbes, but is rich in the disease-promoting variety of microbes, the membrane can start to break down. Once it thins out enough, it no longer offers protection from the gluten being passed through without first breaking down into small-chain amino acids via the digestion process.
These whole proteins, are recognized by the body as foreign invaders, and so the immune system is activated and goes into attack mode – queue the high inflammation! So while it is not important for everyone to avoid wheat gluten, if you have an autoimmune condition and have been consuming a diet high in animal products and processed food, but low in fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains for a long period of time, cutting out gluten at least in the forefront is not a bad idea. After some time has passed and your body is healing (believe me, you will know when this happens!), you may try to reintroduce gluten and see whether you have a reaction. If you do, then you likely need to eliminate gluten entirely.
The keys to an anti-inflammatory diet are these – cut out all animal products and alcohol. Load up on fiber- and antioxidant-rich plant foods. However, you will probably not want to do this all at once. You can try it if you wish, to see how your body will react. But if your gut microbiome is in poor condition – especially if you have IBS or other autoimmune conditions that directly effect your digestion – you will likely experience extreme discomfort by making the sudden switch. Simply put, your gut just doesn’t have the environment needed to process these new fiber-rich foods, so they will need to be introduced slowly. Beans especially can be difficult to digest on a gut microbiome that isn’t used to fiber-rich foods because of an enzyme called alpha-galactosidase, the digestive enzyme responsible for gas production when digesting beans.
Some people can only tolerate a tablespoon or so of beans per day in the beginning, but your gut is much like a muscle – the more you work it, the stronger it becomes. For some the process may be easy, but for others it may be extraordinarily long. But don’t give up – it will be worth the reward. If you do find the process challenging, I recommend seeing a dietician who promotes a plant-based lifestyle. He or she will be able to work with you to create a diet plan that will get you to where you want to be and help you with the discomfort along the way.
I suggest starting out by replacing one meal per day. Maybe do a smoothie in the morning for breakfast with berries, bananas, oats, flax seed and some sort of plant milk. If this goes well for you, then replace your lunch with a fully plant-based meal and see how your body responds to that. Working your way into a fully plant-based lifestyle to allow your gut time to adjust will likely be the most tolerable for your body.
You may also want to look into low FODMAP foods – a quick google search will bring up a ton of results. FODMAPs are short-chain carbohydrates that are difficult for the body to absorb. When transitioning to a plant-based diet if you have gut issues, a low FODMAP diet will help immensely. I highly recommend the book Fiber Fueled by Dr. Will Bulsiewicz for more information on this, as well as on fiber and gut health overall.
The biggest thing that Dr. Bulsiewicz recommends is consuming 30 different plant species per week. So as an example, in the smoothie I mentioned above there are:
- flax seed
- almond milk
That accounts for six different plant species in one meal. Diversity of plants is the single-most important component of a gut-healthy diet, which doubles as an anti-inflammatory diet. Fiber fuels the healthy gut microbes, which help to eradicate the bad microbes and bring your gut into balance. Once your gut is in balance with a fiber-rich plant based diet and inflammatory foods are no longer on the menu, inflammation will come down and your immune system can begin to heal.
It isn’t all about the food, however. Diet is key, but lifestyle is also important. Above, I talked about stress as a key factor in inflammation. A nutrient and fiber-rich plant based diet will work wonders for combatting inflammation, but keeping stress levels low is also essential. This may seem more daunting for many than a major diet overhaul. Diet is relatively easy to control when compared to stress, because so many factors that bring us stress are out of our control. This is where exercise, meditation and mindset come into play.
Physical activity, aka exercise, releases endorphins and serotonin which combat the stress hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is a big trigger of inflammation, so bringing this down with exercise will also bring down inflammation. As an added bonus, the release of these stress-fighting endorphins and hormones also eases symptoms of depression and anxiety. Scheduling in some exercise each day, or at least a few days per week, will do your body good. Even something as simple as using a fitness tracker, like a Fitbit for example, can be a big help. I have a fitbit and it buzzes at me 10 minutes before the end of each hour if I’ve not taken 250 steps within that hour. It also sets a goal for you to take 10,000 steps per day, so you can keep track and remind yourself to get moving.
Another thing my fitbit has is a “relax” option. It guides you through controlled breathing to relax your body, very similar to meditation. It has a two minute option and a five minute option – I like to do the five minute option twice for a mini 10-minute meditation in the mornings before work. Even better yet is meditation, and if this is foreign to you there are loads of guided meditations out there for you to choose from for assistance. Headspace has some free guided meditations. Spotify has many guided meditations, and YouTube as well. Once you get the hang of it you won’t even need the guidance anymore – unless like me you just find the voice of Headspace founder Andy Puddicombe especially soothing!
I also strongly recommend mindset work. This is something I’ve done for several years now, beginning with a therapist in 2016. My parents divorced during my adolescent years, then I married young and went through a divorce myself at the age of 23. Without giving all of the grim details, I had some bad relationship experiences that impacted my mindset and self-worth, and I made the choice to work through them. All of the self-help in the world (I tried for years!) wasn’t enough to actually push me forward, but my counselor gave me the breakthrough I needed to grow by leaps and bounds. Since then I’ve focused a lot on mindset, adopting tools that she gave me as well as learning from motivational leaders like Mel Robbins and Brene Brown. The phrase “change your thinking, change your life” couldn’t be more true. Working on mindset and mental health will do wonders for depression, anxiety, and coping with stress.
Being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease can be crushing, especially when you’re struck with the one-two punch of knowing it can’t be cured. But with the right diet and lifestyle, and the mindset that you’re ready to commit to giving yourself the best chance at a long and healthy life, you can persevere. Please know that you have options. Medications and procedures only treat the symptoms, but do nothing to treat the cause. By revamping your diet and lifestyle, you hit the disease where it hurts – right in the very root of its existence. This will be your greatest chance at achieving remission. You are not powerless, and I hope that knowing this gives you hope.
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I also strongly recommend following Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, and Nutrition Facts on YouTube for excellent daily nutrition information. You can also check out my Instagram, linked to the right, to see who I’m following for the best recipes and plant based living information and inspiration.
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