There are more than 80 different types of autoimmune diseases — diseases that cause the immune system to attack the body. Fifty million Americans suffer from an autoimmune disease, more common in women than men. While certain autoimmune diseases can run in families, such as multiple sclerosis and lupus, most have no known cause. Researchers suspect that the cause could be related to environmental factors such as diet, exposure to chemicals, infections, and stress. Because the specific causes are unknown for a great deal of autoimmune diseases, there are a lot of myths circulating about their prognosis and treatment. Here are some myths about autoimmune disease:
- Pharmaceuticals are the only treatment for autoimmune diseases. While there are certain autoimmune conditions that will require medication — such as type 1 diabetes which requires insulin injections — all autoimmune diseases can be treated with changes in certain lifestyle habits. An underlying symptom of autoimmune disease is inflammation due to an overactive immune system. Certain changes in diet, taking supplements, exercising, reducing stress and immune system support are all key treatments in managing autoimmune disease.
- Gut and digestive health have no connection to autoimmune disease. The majority of the immune system is located in the gut, so the truth is that gut health directly contributes to autoimmune disease and its symptoms. One condition that’s getting more attention lately is called “leaky gut” — inflammation in the gut that leads to undigested food particles, bacteria, and other materials entering the bloodstream and triggering the immune system. This then triggers allergies, sensitivities and inflammation in other parts of the body. Digestive system healing is essential in controlling autoimmune symptoms.
- Naturally reducing inflammation caused by autoimmune disease isn’t possible. While it’s true that medications prescribed by a doctor for inflammation and pain may be necessary, the truth is that inflammation can also be treated effectively with diet and lifestyle changes. Avoid things that increase inflammation, such as sugar, trans-fat, alcohol, and smoking. Focus on things that decrease inflammation, like regular low-intensity exercise and foods such as coconut oil, avocados, olives, vegetables, herbs, salmon and sardines. An elimination diet — in which the most common food irritants are taken out of the diet and then slowly reintroduced to see if they trigger an inflammatory reaction — is a good method to identify foods that should be avoided.
Autoimmune diseases are complex, and unfortunately many people go years with symptoms and no diagnosis. Some common early symptoms are fatigue, achy muscles, hair loss, and skin rashes. While some autoimmune diseases will require medicine, a great deal of symptoms can be managed and healed through diet and lifestyle changes.
This article first appeared in the June 2018 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.