Writing by Mikaela Felstead // Photograph by Del Santana
Writing by Mikaela Felstead // Photograph by Del
Chances are you probably know somebody who has an autoimmune disease, or perhaps you may have one yourself. There are a wide range of different diseases and conditions classified as autoimmune, including (but not limited to):
– Coeliac disease
– Crohn’s disease
– Grave’s disease
– Guillian-Barre syndrome
– Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
– Multiple sclerosis (MS)
– Psoriatic arthritis
– Rheumatoid arthritis
– Type 1 diabetes
– Ulcerative colitis
It is now also thought that endometriosis, chronic fatigue syndrome, dermatitis, eczema, asthma, autism, schizophrenia, and even cancer may too involve some aspects of autoimmune activity.
Each autoimmune disease presents with different signs and symptoms, but the underlying commonality is that they each manifest from an abnormal immune response where the body mistakenly mounts an attack on itself.
What causes autoimmune disease?
Our genes often cop the blame for the appearance of autoimmune diseases, but thanks to the emerging field of epigenetics, we now know that genetic expression can be modified through environmental factors (such as diet, exercise, stress reduction, quality sleep, and avoiding exposure to toxins). According to Dr. Amy Myers, our genes only account for around 25% of the chance of developing an autoimmune disease, with the remaining 75% being influenced by environmental factors, i.e. things that are under our control. This is exciting, in that it means that we can actually modify the likelihood of an autoimmune condition occurring or progressing, even if we’re genetically predisposed to it. And in some cases it is even possible to put an existing autoimmune condition into remission through specific diet and lifestyle modifications, rendering medication unnecessary.
Here are some environmental modifications that can help to reduce the severity of autoimmunity.
1. Heal your gut.
Hippocrates stated that “all disease begins in the gut,” and modern science now shows that he certainly knew what he was on about– at least when it comes to the role of the gut in the context of autoimmune conditions.
Research by Alessio Fasano now suggests that autoimmunity may only be able to occur alongside the presence of intestinal permeability, commonly referred to as “leaky gut” syndrome. It has been hypothesised that a leaky gut allows “molecular mimicry” to occur, which then confuses the immune system, resulting in autoimmunity.
Leaky gut can be caused by a number of different environmental factors, including medication use (especially antibiotics, but also the pill and NSAIDs); a diet high in refined carbohydrates, sugar and processed foods and low in fibre; dietary toxins (such as industrial seed / vegetable oils and the anti-nutrients found within some grains); and chronic stress. Chronic bacterial, viral, and parasitic infections are also potential causes of intestinal permeability and have been linked to many autoimmune conditions.
The appropriate testing and treatment can be arranged with the help of a functional medicine or naturopathic practitioner, but in the meantime, the following tips will help to cheer up your gut:
– remove all processed foods from your diet
– eat/drink fermented foods daily such as sauerkraut, kimchi, water kefir, kombucha, and coconut yoghurt, and/or take a high quality probiotic supplement
– eat/drink anti-inflammatory foods daily such as vegetables, berries, herbs and spices (particularly turmeric, ginger, and garlic), seafood and oily fish, and green tea
– work on reducing your stress levels using a method that works for you, such as meditation, yoga, walking, or reading
2. Give up gluten.
As a naturopath and nutritionist, of all of the interventions and protocols of which I help my clients put into place, by far the most successful has consistently been the removal of gluten from the diet. Although often labelled as simply a “fad,” research actually indicates that gluten is one of the food toxins that can induce and exacerbate leaky gut syndrome, and therefore increase the risk of autoimmunity.
Keep in mind that seeing a “gluten-free” label on a product does not ensure that the food is actually healthy– remember that giving up processed food products in general, not just the gluten-containing ones, is an important step in healing the gut. Eating “gluten-free” junk foods isn’t going to do you any favours, as many still contain artificial additives, high levels of sugar, and unhealthful seed/vegetable oils.
3. Sleep more.
Research indicates that sleep deprivation may be a risk factor for the onset of autoimmune disease. For the highest-quality sleep, make sure you’re in bed by 10 pm, getting 8-9 hours of sleep every night, in a pitch-black room with no electronic devices. Also minimise your exposure to bright lights and electronic screens after the sun sets, as they greatly disrupt the circadian rhythm that allows optimal sleep to occur. Not only will you feel much more energised and radiant, you’ll also reduce your risk of a wide range of health problems from occurring in the future.
Mikaela Felstead is a qualified naturopath and nutritionist who practices in Brisbane, Australia, specialising in autoimmune conditions. She has Hashimoto’s thyroiditis herself, and has been able to remain medication- free through the diet and lifestyle interventions that she now uses in her clinic. Mikaela can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her website; www.ownhealth.com.au.
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