The Health Index
Autoimmune diseases are characterised by an overreactive immune system. This can manifest in one or more of over 100 diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s hypothyroid, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis (MS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBS), hepatitis, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), Coeliac disease and many, many more.
Many of these are debilitating conditions, and it appears that patients who have one autoimmune disease are at a considerably higher risk of contracting another one. In autoimmune disease, the immune system gets confused between its own cells and foreign ones (e.g. from bacterial infection) and ends up destroying our own body cells.
What are the causes?
The causes of autoimmune disease are not yet known, but it appears that their increasing occurrence parallels the increase in allergies and cancer. This points to the ‘Hygiene Hypothesis’. According to this hypothesis, the overuse of antibiotics and excessive cleanliness may be to blame. As a result, the immune system has less exposure to pathogens, and thus less opportunity to learn to differentiate between what is ‘harmful’ and ‘harmless’, and then overreacts.
Although autoimmune conditions tend to run in families, genes do not change fast enough to explain the rise in autoimmune conditions. Environmental factors are much more likely. The emerging field of epigenetics researches the effect that the environment has on gene expression. An expression commonly used to summarise this is ‘genes load the gun, but the environment pulls the trigger.’
How can a nutrition practitioner help?
Autoimmune diseases are complex diseases, but many sufferers experience relief from symptoms following a real-food diet and avoiding foods known to promote inflammation, such as sugar, seed oils and gluten.
Stress and digestive dysfunction are also likely to contribute to autoimmune conditions. Your nutrition practitioner will ask a series of questions about your health and health history, diet, and lifestyle. They may also recommend functional tests to assess, for example, your nutrient status and/or digestive health.
Your nutrition practitioner will then develop a customised diet, supplement and lifestyle plan that addresses potential nutrient deficiencies and – if applicable – stress and digestive dysfunction.