“There are actually 140 autoimmune diseases that we’ve identified, and the only scientifically agreed-upon cause for autoimmune conditions is gluten sensitivity. Gluten tends to be the central core hub that’s always present.”
– Peter Osborne, PhD, expert in orthomolecular and functional medicine
Environmental factors — that is, anything you put in or on your body or absorb from your environment — account for about 90-95% of the autoimmune equation. Your genes only contribute maybe 5-10% of the risk!1CDC Exposome and Exposomics; https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/exposome/ Turns out the food you eat everyday has a profound influence on your risk for autoimmune conditions.
To prevent or heal from an autoimmune disorder, you’ll need to identify your personal triggers so you can eliminate them or minimize your exposure. I categorize the top 6 major autoimmune trigger categories as:
Top 6 Autoimmune Triggers: Food
When it comes to healing from an autoimmune disorder, food and dietary components (e.g., food additives, preservatives, and chemicals), offer the biggest bang for your buck. Just removing your trigger foods can go a long way and sometimes ALL the way to help you reverse and/or prevent autoimmune conditions.
The Before-and-After Stories are Powerful:
- I completely eliminated gluten and dairy in 2010 after discovering I had non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) and a sensitivity to casein–an inflammatory protein found in animal dairy, especially dairy from “A1 cows” like Holstein.2Comparative evaluation of cow β-casein variants (A1/A2) consumption on Th2-mediated inflammatory response in mouse gut. Ul Haq MR, et. al., Eur J Nutr. 2014 Jun;53(4):1039-49. doi: 10.1007/s00394-013-0606-7. Epub 2013 Oct 29. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24166511 I have never had another Multiple Sclerosis (MS) symptom since.
- Linda Clark, M.A., CNC eliminated her food triggers: gluten, grains and dairy, and went Paleo for good. As a result, all of her symptoms vanished and she has been free of multiple autoimmune diagnoses: multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS), fibromyalgia (FM), chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and celiac disease.
- One of the most compelling “food as medicine” stories is that of Terry Wahls, MD, a clinical professor of medicine and scientist who reversed her progressive MS by removing gluten, dairy and eggs and adding copious amounts of nourishing foods and supplements.
It can be daunting to contemplate the dietary changes that are usually needed in order to reverse your autoimmune condition(s). But, many have done it with astonishing results. Once you experience freedom from symptoms by removing your food triggers you may never look back!
Autoimmune Trigger Foods
The top 10 trigger foods cause lots of immune system problems and occasional digestive distress. Not surprising, since 75% of our immune system resides in the lining of our guts! Problems with the top 10 autoimmune trigger foods include gut inflammation, imbalances in gut flora (dysbiosis), tears in the one-cell-thin lining of the intestines (“leaky gut”), nutrient deficiencies, and immune system impairment. Beyond the gut, these inflammatory foods are directly linked to mood disorders, migraines, joint pain, fatigue, skin issues, and even dementia.
You don’t absorb foods well if your gut is leaky. And, if you’re over 40, chances are good that you don’t create enough stomach acid and digestive enzymes to break down the food you eat. Consider taking 500 mg HCL (hydrochloric acid) with pepsin and digestive enzymes with meals. If you have the genetic predisposition for autoimmune disease, a leaky gut puts you on the fast track to autoimmunity.
Often these foods do damage without causing obvious digestive distress or immediate symptoms, which makes them stealthy triggers. Unfortunately, the biggest culprits are often the foods we eat the most – even if those foods are not normally “toxic” — like tomatoes, nuts, and eggs.
The biggest question I get is What should I eat to beat an autoimmune condition?! I created Your Optimal Food Guide, a free e-book to help you find YOUR best foods.
Remove the Top 10 Autoimmune Trigger Foods
A 2002 review in the New England Journal of Medicine, arguably the most well-respected scientific journal, lists 55 diseases that can be caused by eating gluten, including osteoporosis, inflammatory bowel disease, anemia, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and many other autoimmune diseases.3Farrell, R.J. & Kelly, C.P.; Celiac sprue; N Engl J Med. 2002 Jan 17; 346(3):180-8; http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMra010852 More recent research shows that gluten creates a leaky gut in anyone who eats it. Read more HERE.
Drinking cow’s milk has been associated with an increased risk for numerous autoimmune diseases including multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and Type 1 diabetes.4Cordain, L. “The Adverse Effects of Milk”; http://whole9life.com/wpcontent/uploads/2010/10/cordainbastosdairy.pdf If you have trouble with cow dairy, replace butter with ghee — clarified butter, which is delicious and casein free!
If you are dealing with gut inflammation, leaky gut and autoimmune issues, eggs, especially egg whites, could make symptoms worse. Egg white (protein) can permeate the gut lining and cause the immune system to react even more. Remove all eggs for one month to identify whether they are a trigger for you. 5Dr. Frank Lipman, integrative medicine expert; Five Healthy Foods That May Be Making Your Autoimmune Disease Worse; http://www.drfranklipman.com/five-healthy-foods-that-may-be-making-your-autoimmune-disease-worse/
People sensitive to gluten (which may be a third of the population) must also consider eliminating “cross-reactive” foods. Cross-reactive foods are foods that the immune system mistakes for gluten. They include milk chocolate, instant coffee, all cereal grains, corn, rice, yeast, millet and milk.6Cross-Reaction between Gliadin and Different Food and Tissue Antigens; Vojdani, A. & Tarash, I., Food and Nutrition Sciences, 2013, 4, 20-32 http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/fns.2013.41005 Published Online January 2013 (http://www.scirp.org/journal/fns)
There are a number of problems with grains. They often contain gluten; they are often genetically modified; they are frequently sprayed with glyphosate (herbicide) prior to harvesting; they can be tough to digest; they are high in carbohydrates, which can elevate blood sugar and insulin; and they can “cross-react” with gluten — meaning they cause an immune response in people sensitive to gluten. Cross-reactive grains include: rye, barley, spelt & kamut®, oats, millet, corn, and rice.7Vojdani A, Tarash I. Cross-reaction between gliadin and different food and tissue antigens; http://www.scirp.org/Journal/PaperInformation.aspx?paperID=26626#.VVykUc5ZabA
Sugar in all its forms (glucose, fructose, and sucrose) weakens the ability of white blood cells to destroy biological agents. This weakening begins within a half hour of eating sugar and lasts for 5 hours. After 2 hours, immune function is reduced by 50%.
8Sanchez, A., et al.; Role of Sugars in Human Neutrophilic Phagocytosis; American Journal of Clinical Nutrition; Nov 1973; 261:1180-1184; http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/26/11/1180.abstract
The Standard American Diet (“SAD”) is filled with packaged, processed foods loaded with hydrogenated (chemically altered) oils, high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, transfats, refined grains and sodium chloride (processed white table salt). SAD foods promote obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and susceptibility to autoimmune disorders.9Procaccini C, et al. Obesity and susceptibility to autoimmune diseases. Expert Rev Clin Immunol. 2011;7(3):287–294. [PubMed]
White Table Salt
Too much refined and processed salt* may be one of the environmental factors causing an increase in autoimmune diseases. Mice fed a high-salt diet showed a dramatic increase in the number of Th17 cells that cause inflammation and disease in their nervous systems.10Kleinewietfeld, et al., Sodium chloride drives autoimmune disease by the induction of pathogenic TH17 cells; Nature (2013); doi:10.1038/nature11868, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3746493/ *Note: We are referring to white table salt — which contains sodium chloride among other chemicals, iodine, preservatives & sometimes sugar — not sea salt.
Lectins are a sticky protein plants use to defend themselves from being eaten by insects — or us. Problem with lectins is they are difficult to digest, stick to the lining of your intestines, create imbalanced gut flora and a leaky gut. Foods highest in lectins include beans, legumes (includes lentils, peanuts and peas), grains and nightshade vegetables. Cardiologist and health educator Steven Gundry, MD says, “My research and others suggest that lectins cause most heart disease, arthritis, dementia, diabetes and all autoimmune disease.”1115 Ways to Reduce Lectins in Your Diet, May 23, 2017 | Lectins | https://gundrymd.com/reduce-lectins-diet/ | 12Do dietary lectins cause disease? The evidence is suggestive—and raises interesting possibilities for treatment, David L J Freed, Allergist, BMJ. 1999 Apr 17; 318(7190): 1023–1024. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1115436/
Tree nuts are one of the top allergens and most common food sensitivities. People with autoimmune disorders are more likely to have a sensitivity or allergy to nuts (and seeds) than other people. Remove nuts during the elimination diet to isolate whether or not nuts are a problem for you.13Sarah Ballantyne, Ph.D. http://www.thepaleomom.com/2012/09/the-whys-behind-the-autoimmune-protocol-nuts-and-seeds.html
What You Can Do: Detect, Remove, Repair
Aristo Vojdani, PhD autoimmunologist is one of the world’s leading authorities on environmental toxins and autoimmune disease. He recommends three steps to heal from food-immune reactions: 1. Detect, 2. Remove, 3. Repair.
Here are two good options to figure out what if any foods or dietary components are causing you harm:
a. Do an Elimination Diet. Many holistic and functional docs say this is the “gold standard” when it comes to discovering which foods are causing your immune system to overreact. In my book I call it a 30-Day Food Vacation, because eliminating things sounds so negative; and during this time you can explore and experiment with many new foods. Studies show elimination diets are extremely effective in reducing or completely eliminating symptoms. 14Time to symptom improvement using elimination diets in non-IgE-mediated gastrointestinal food allergies.Lozinsky AC, et. al., Pediatr Allergy Immunol. 2015 Aug;26(5):403-8. doi: 10.1111/pai.12404.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25963794 Remove gluten, grains, sugar, dairy, eggs, legumes (soy, lentils, beans and peanuts), nuts & seeds, nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, peppers, paprika, salsa, chili peppers, cayenne, chili powder and goji berries), alcohol and coffee for at least 30 days, or until your symptoms disappear. Go slow with reintroducing foods, one at a time, and at least 48 hours apart. Pay close attention to how you feel. Do you have headaches, brain fog, a tummy ache, gas, etc.? Your body will talk to you; you just need to listen.
b. Get Tested.
Three of my favorite labs that offer comprehensive gluten and other food sensitivity tests are Vibrant Wellness, Cyrex Labs and ELISA/ACT®.
To heal, you must eliminate the foods triggers you identified in the Detect phase. For those with gluten sensitivities and any autoimmune concerns – not just celiac disease — gluten needs go for good.
After the elimination diet you can reintroduce other suspect foods one at a time and slowly to see if you react. Remove reactive foods for 6 months. This will give your immune system a chance to settle down and time for you to heal and seal your gut.
a. Heal and seal your leaky gut by removing inflammatory factors, sipping bone broth and taking targeted supplements that repair the gut lining. Gut healing supplements include: vitamin A, l-glutamine, colostrum, quercetin, zinc, and gamma linoleic acid (GLA).
b. Tend to the balance of your gut bacteria with probiotics (beneficial bacteria), prebiotics (fiber that feed the probiotics), fermented foods, and a variety of colorful vegetables.
c. Nourish your body with nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory foods, emphasizing above-ground vegetables. Choose organic whenever possible. Concerned about cost? Visit The Environmental Working Group (EWG) to see which fruits and vegetables made the Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen yearly lists.
The Science of Nourishing Foods & Supplements
Green tea contains many beneficial compounds. One of these, a polyphenol called EGCG, has a powerful ability to increase the number of “regulatory T cells” that play a key role in immune function and suppression of autoimmune disease.15Induction of regulatory T cells by green tea polyphenol EGCG; Wong, C., et. al.; Immunology Letters; 2001; http://health.oregonstate.edu/synergies/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/EmilyHoPDF.pdf Note: Some people — those with lupus, ulcerative colitis and/or genetically don’t deal well with green tea.
Consuming healthy saturated fats in the form of coconut, organic, pastured meats, ghee and pastured lard can help ease inflammation, strengthen your bones, improve lung, liver and brain function, improve cardiovascular risk factors, modulate nervous system function, and strengthen immune system function.16The Truth About Saturated Fat, By Mary Enig, PhD, and Sally Fallon; http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2002/08/17/saturated-fat1.aspx Note: Saturated fats may not be as beneficial for people with SIBO (Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth) and/or celiac disease.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Extra virgin olive oil turns off multiple inflammatory genes that are activated as a consequence of metabolic syndrome. This effectively provides a protective shield against cardiovascular disease and other chronic illnesses driven by persistent inflammation. Note: Rancidity is a huge concern with olive oil. Look at the harvest and bottling dates and make sure you are consuming as close to those dates as possible.17Gene Expression Changes in Mononuclear Cells in Patients with Metabolic Syndrome After Acute Intake of Phenol-Rich Virgin Olive Oil; Camargo, A., et. al., BMC Genomics, 2010, 11:253; http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2164/11/253
Curcumin (from turmeric root) is a powerful anti-inflammatory with far-reaching benefits, as evidenced by numerous studies.18http://www.greenmedinfo.com/substance/turmeric Curcumin is beneficial for multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and inflammatory bowel disease.19Curcumin and autoimmune disease; Bright, JJ; Adv Exp Med Biol. 2007; 595:425-51; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17569223 You can cook with it, make tea with it, and/or take supplements. Just make sure you add some black pepper (piperine) for best absorption. Start with 250 – 500 mg per day.
Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs)
Supplementation with omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs) can alleviate many symptoms of autoimmune disease through their anti-inflammatory activity. EFA’s are abundant in fish, flaxseed, borage oil, evening primrose oil, and blackcurrant seed oil. 20Nutritional Supplements to Improve Autoimmune Health; LifeExtension Foundation; https://www.lef.org/protocols/immune-connective-joint/autoimmune-diseases/page-04 Note: It’s ideal to get your omega-3 oils from small and wild fish, like sardines and salmon. If you do buy capsules, check for purity and best extraction processes. Three of my favorite brands include OmegaBrite, Nordic Naturals and Carlson Labs.
Berries — including blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, sour cherries, pomegranates and cranberries — are especially rich in polyphenols, powerful antioxidants and anti-inflammatories. Studies done on different human populations have shown that those who consume polyphenol-rich foods have lower incidences of inflammatory disease.21High Concentrations of a Urinary Biomarker of Polyphenol Intake Are Associated with Decreased Mortality in Older Adults; R. Zamora-Ros, R. et. al.: Journal of Nutrition, 2013; 143 (9): 1445 DOI: 10.3945/jn.113.177121; http://jn.nutrition.org/content/143/9/1445 Note: If you have blood sugar or insulin issues like diabetes, minimize or avoid fruit until your insulin sensitivity is restored.
Cultured Super Foods
Regular consumption of cultured super foods like sauerkraut, goat or coconut kefir and yogurt introduces beneficial microbes into the digestive tract to aid digestion and detoxification, provide enzymes, vitamins and minerals, and boost immunity.22Caroline Barringer, NTP, CHFS, FES http://nutritionaltherapy.com/taking-the-mystery-out-of-culturing-your-own-superfoods-by-caroline-barringer-ntp-chfs-fes/
White Peony Root
In numerous scientific studies, peony glucosides from the root of the white peony flower, have been demonstrated to significantly and meaningfully restore immune system balance, reduce symptoms, speed onset of remissions, and reduce the amount of dangerous immunosuppressive drugs required.23Life Extension Foundation (LEF); Safely Manage Autoimmune Diseases; http://www.lifeextension.com/Magazine/2014/3/Safely-Manage-Autoimmune-Diseases/Page-01Note: White peony is lighter than green tea and has a more delicate flavor.
Quercetin, an antioxidant that’s found in apples, leafy greens, berries, and broccoli enhances intestinal tight junctions, strengthening the gut barrier.24Role of flavonoids in intestinal tight junction regulation; Takuya Suzuki, et al, The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, 2010; Volume 22, Issue 5, Pages 401–408, May 2011. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jnutbio.2010.08.001; http://www.jnutbio.com/article/S0955-2863%2810%2900187-7/abstract
Micronutrients: Selenium, Zinc & Magnesium
People with autoimmune conditions are often deficient in micronutrients including selenium, magnesium and zinc. Brazil nuts are high in selenium, which is essential for healthy thyroid function.25Low Population Selenium Status Is Associated With Increased Prevalence of Thyroid Disease.Wu, Q. et. al., J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2015 Nov;100(11):4037-47. doi: 10.1210/jc.2015-2222. Epub 2015 Aug 25. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26305620
Follow these three powerful steps: Detect, Remove and Repair and you’ll be well on your way to reversing and preventing autoimmune conditions.
Have you made the connection between food and autoimmune symptoms? If you haven’t yet figured out your food triggers, I’m excited for you to try the elimination diet. Give yourself at least 30 days and commit to doing it 100%.
Once you feel freedom from autoimmune symptoms, you’ll likely realize that nothing tastes as good as feeling healthy feels.
Take very good care!
P.S. Want my personal help? If you live the U.S. and are ready, willing, and able to invest in your best health, I offer Functional Medicine Total Health Transformation Programs over Zoom. I collaborate with skilled naturopathic doctors (NDs) who are expert in resolving root causes like hormonal imbalances, gut disorders, chronic infections and toxic burdens which are almost always part of the autoimmune puzzle. Together we provide comprehensive, customized treatment plans, and collaborative, caring support. If you are ready to beat autoimmune and reclaim your best life please book a 30–minute consultation with me to gain clarity, confidence, and explore the possibility of working together. You can do it. We can help.
This is a great start..to even get more info about yourself, I’d highly suggest doing genetic testing thru 23 and me. Besides learning about your SNP’s by downloading your results onto livewello.com or geneticgenie.com, you can download your results to Nutrahacker.com and find out if your body can actually detoxify or methylate some of these Anti inflammatories. I drank green tea for years and just discovered my body cannot handle it. Wow!
Also: if you have SIBo or Candida, you should avoid fruit -even berries. A good functional nutrionist can set you up with the right foods and anti inflammatories.
Excellent advice, Diana, thank you. Helpful especially for people who are “doing everything right” and still feel bad. For people who are unfamiliar but want to get their genetic info, go to http://www.23andme.com, they will ship you a kit for $99, you spit in a tube, send it in and in a month or so they provide your “raw health data” (they are no longer able to interpret health results), and then you forward to the other companies Diana lists for interpretation. You may also benefit from having a holistic practitioner guide you through the complexities of methylation, etc. Hope you are doing well! Palmer
Palmer, excellent website, great resources and excited about learning more…. congradulations and looking foward to talking to you about this…
Thank you very much, Aida. I hope you are well and I look forward to talking too.
I desire to read even more issues about it!|
I have ocular myasthenia. This is great news and worth a try. Haven occasional cleanups for no apparent reason.
I’m just wondering if anyone reading has chronic atopic eczema and/or psoriasis? I have had the eczema since I was very young. The psoriasis developed on my scalp in my teens. I’m now 26 years old. I eliminated gluten and all animal products (including meat, dairy, and eggs) just over two years ago now. The eczema and psoriasis is still pretty bad. Does anyone have any success curing their skin conditions by eliminating certain foods? If so, what were they? Sometimes, it gets so painful, and I feel so desperate to find answers.
Hi Lauren, Good for you eliminating gluten. In my experience and research, dairy — especially cow dairy — is a huge culprit in autoimmune skin issues. Most people benefit from grass-fed meat and pastured poultry. And, many people are fine with eggs. Curious as to how you’re doing now. My best, Palmer
Thank you Palmer Kippola for your fantastic advice. For someone like Lauren who has been gluten and dairy free, do you think extra Fish Oil and Lysine are useful? As an eczema sufferer, I have found those supplements helpful. Plus, I am just learning how oxalates can cause dermatitis issues. Detoxing slowly from oxalates seems to be another potential opportunity to review and consider. Especially if folks are not getting relief from your empowering and educational work, the oxalates may be creating hidden issues. This topic about oxalates is not well recognized by the medical community currently but hopefully will become more common knowledge in the future. Thanks for all you do!!!
Good point on the oxalates, Laura, thank you for mentioning. I’ve found that adding minerals like potassium citrate, calcium (I like algae form) and magnesium can be helpful in detoxing oxalates, along with a good B complex. As for fish oil and lysine, I’m so glad they helped the eczema. They seem to be especially helpful for addressing inflammation and viruses, respectively, which are often part of the autoimmune conundrum. Take good care!
Did you have brain fog included in your symptoms? Is that gone now? I’m curious because I’m finally on a grain-free diet. Got a food test done and have no allergies or intolerances on paper, so I’m winging it.
I’ve gotten rid of all the worst symptoms just from grain-free, but the brain fog is still in charge. I’d love to know if the fog has disappeared for anyone from diet changes! Thanks!
Hi Samantha. I did not have brain fog as part of my symptoms. Are you dealing with MS? Many people with all types of autoimmune issues have/had brain fog as a big component and report that food removal — gluten, dairy, sugar and nightshades — did indeed clear it up. It’s definitely worth a 30-day try! Keep us posted and take good care!
Try the elimination diet for more than 30 days if you’re seeing some results. You may need to consult with a functional medicine practitioner for some further testing and supplements to support your system. Finding a practitioner was the best thing I’ve ever done for my health. I got answers to questions that I didn’t even know I needed!!
Sounds like you had success healing (in part) with food — so great! I am also with you on finding functional medicine. How are you doing now? I love sharing healing stories — even when we’re heading in the right direction! And can help edit… https://www.palmerkippola.com/category/healing-stories/ Take good care!
Hi, Thank you for such a great article!
I have a leaky gut and I noticed when I eat vegetables it’s going better, but I feel like I can improve it a lot more.
I have a question please, on Phase 1 – Diet, where you’re explaining to reintroduce foods, what foods do you refer?
Are they :
“gluten, grains, sugar, dairy, eggs, legumes (soy, lentils, beans and peanuts), nuts & seeds, nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, peppers, paprika, salsa, chili peppers, cayenne, chili powder and goji berries), alcohol and coffee”?
And for how long (long term)?
Thanks for your comment and question!
For help with foods to eliminate, consider downloading my free Optimal Food Guide:
I talk about a 30-Day Food Vacation and more details about foods to eliminate in my book, Beat Autoimmune, which you can get on Amazon for about $10.
In short, you would follow an Autoimmune Paleo diet for a month, and then add each food back in slowly. Some foods like gluten, sugar, and often dairy need to go for good. Others like eggs, nightshades, and legumes are more variable by person, and their state of gut health.
Hope this helps!
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