Wrongly, many people think that since the immune system seems to be over-reacting that anything that could ‘boost’ the immune system, for example, vitamin C, could make matters worse. But auto-immune diseases are a ‘system-control’ problem and many of the foods and nutrients that help an immune system to work make matters better not worse.
Genes and environment
In relation to ‘cause’ there are two sides of equation - the cell and the cell’s environment. A classic example is coeliac disease. This is an extreme reaction to gluten, and usually the gliadin protein, which is in wheat, rye and barley, but not in oats (80% of coeliacs don’t react to oats). Susceptibility to coeliac disease is, in part, genetically inherited. For example, if your mother, father, brother or sister have coeliac disease you have a one in four chance of having it too. It is far more common than most think. Many medical textbooks say it affects one in several thousand. However, studies involving a new diagnostic test called anti-tissue transaminase (ATG), finds that it af-fects 1 in 111.
But for coeliacs to ‘cause’ disease you have to eat gliadin. So that’s the other side of the equation – what you expose your cells to. An example of this is a lady called Jo. She told me she was exhausted all the time. I recommended her doctor test her thyroid and she had an underactive thryroid. An underactive thyroid can occur be-cause the immune system attacks the thyroid gland – a type of auto-immune disease. I recommended she test for ‘anti-thyroid antibodies’. She was positive. This meant that her immune system was producing antibodies that were attacking her thyroid hormone (thyroxine) producing cells. Many people who test positive for anti-thyroid antibodies are also allergic to wheat, milk or soya. She then tested for this and was identified as having coeliac disease. Once she eliminated gliadin her energy came back.
Testing for food allergies
For this reason, for any auto-immune disease I always recommend a proper allergy blood test to find out both if a person is ATG positive and also to find out if their body is producing IgG antibodies or IgE antibodies, indicating intolerance to certain foods. The theory is that if the immune system becomes hyper-alert against foods it ‘cross-reacts’ against certain body tissues. So, the goal is to eliminate the food and lessen the immune system’s belligerent attitude.
In the case of type-1 diabetes, where the immune system selectively destroys in-sulin producing cells, this is very common. A recent study took gut biopsies from 33 type-1 diabetics and found that 14, almost half, had high serum levels of ATG indicating high risk of undiagnosed coeliacs.
There are more immune cells in the gut than anywhere else in the body for the simple reason that the immune system checks out everything you eat to find out if it is a friend or foe. What’s particularly interesting about this study is that, of the 19 who didn’t have high blood levels of ATG, 11 were found to contain these auto-immune antibodies in mucosal tissue in the gut. So it could be that our high gluten diets are triggering auto-immune reactions in a high percentage of those who go on to develop type-1 diabetes. According to a study in the Lancet in 2014 the number of children under 5 diagnosed with type-1 diabetes is expected to double in the next 5 years.
Oats and beta-glucans
What’s interesting is that 80% of coeliacs don’t react to oats, which are not only gliadin-free but also a rich source of beta-glucans. These may help lessen auto-immunity and improve general health in a counter-intuitive way. One of the prevalent theories as to why auto-immune diseases are on the increase is that we live in too clean environments and don’t get enough exposure to early bugs and bacteria. Most such microbes have beta-glucans present in their cell walls and beta-glucans consequently stimulate the immune system and help to build up normal, strong immunity. Many known immune enhancers – from shiitake mushrooms to Echinacea, are rich sources of beta-glucans. Beta-glucans appear to act as an immune system modulator and may also help auto-immune diseases. As well as eating more oats and shiitake mushrooms you can get supplements of purified beta-glucans. Choose those that contain (1-3) (1-6) beta-d-glucans.
Omega 3 and 6 essential fats
One of the biggest promoters or demoters of gut-associated immune reactivity is the balance of omega 3/6 fats in your diet. By increasing the proportional amount of omega 3 you literally switch off the gut’s over-reactivity.
A low glycaemic load diet
Being overweight, or insulin resistant also increase the gut’s inflammatory poten-tial. So, a low GL diet really does help auto-immune diseases. One clear reason for this is the damage caused by too high sugar levels, called glycosylation, which dam-age proteins in such a way that they may start to misbehave, or no longer be recog-nised as friend, but rather foe, by the body’s immune system. These damaged protein are called AGEs (advanced glycation end-products) and the more you have the more your immune system is likely to react.
Particularly bad is fructose (fruit sugar) which the body finds harder to burn, or turn directly into fat than glucose. That’s why fructose is a bit more ‘slow-releasing’ because the body can’t process it as smoothly as glucose. This sounds like good news but more and more evidence is suggesting that high fructose diets, principally from fructose sweetened fizzy drinks, are messing up the body’s control functions. Small amounts are not so much of a problem because the body can metabolise fructose, but once its limit is exceeded fructose becomes a dangerous sugar. If you follow my low GL diet you will naturally be limiting your fructose intake to healthy levels.
A Paleo diet
Another successful diet approach to auto-immune diseases is a ‘paleo’ diet, or a Stone Age diet. Before we became peasant farmers, so to speak, humanity lived on lean meat, seafood, plants, fruit, and nuts. We weren’t yet eating grains or dairy prod-ucts and many people with auto-immune diseases report great improvements eating an essential grain and dairy-free diet. A paleo-diet is also naturally high in omega 3 fats.
Another difference between modern living and paleo-living would have been vit-amin D exposure. Given that we are originally designed to be naked, outdoors and living a lot further south than Watford, our intake of vitamin D, primarily made in the skin in the presence of sunlight, but also in oily fish, has drastically declined. Vitamin D deficiency is linked to increasing risk of multiple sclerosis, type-1 diabetes and oth-er auto-immune diseases. We need at least 30mcg a day and eating oily fish and ex-posing a decent part of yourself for 30 minutes might give you 15mcg, so it’s best to supplement at least another 15mcg a day.
One of the key ‘control’ mechanisms of the body is methylation, dependent on B vitamins and other ‘methyl’ nutrients. It is therefore not surprising to find that a per-son with multiple sclerosis, for example, is much more likely to have a raised homo-cysteine level, which is the best indicator of poor methylation. This can be easily test-ed on a home-test kit. If your homocysteine level is high there are specific nutrients (B2, B6, B12, folic acid, TMG, NAC and zinc) that you need to take in specific amounts to normalise your homocysteine level. To find out more about lowering your homocysteine check out this article.
So, putting all this together for someone with an auto-immune dis-ease the right course of action would be to:
- Increase omega 3/6 ratio in the diet
- Test for, and eliminate food allergies – and also heal the gut with the combina-tion of glutamine, probiotics and digestive enzymes if testing shows multiple aller-gies.
- Follow a low GL diet
- Test for homocysteine and, if high, lower with specific nutrients.
- Take a high potency multivitamin that contains at least 15mcg of vitamin D
- Supplement extra immune-boosting vitamin C (2 grams a day) and at least 15mg of zinc.
Depending on the type of auto-immune disease there may be other specific nutri-ents or foods that help rebuild damaged tissue. So, for example in the case of multiple sclerosis which damages the myelin sheath around nerves, omega 3s, B12 and also phospholipids (especially phosphatidyl choline and serine) are most important.
In the case of rheumatoid arthritis, where the cartilage in the joints gets damaged, taking glucosamine and MSM (sulphur) helps to rebuild the joints, and reduce in-flammation.
Generally speaking all antioxidants and natural anti-inflammatories are likely to help support the immune system. My article on Natural Pain Killers gives you a good break down of the most po-tent anti-inflammatories. The July ’08 issue of the newsletter has an article on the top 20 antioxidants and increasing your intake of these foods is also likely to help.