Autoimmune conditions, where the immune system mistakenly attacks the body's own cells, are complex and challenging to manage. Nutrition plays a crucial role in supporting individuals with autoimmune conditions, with some specific dietary strategies proving very beneficial. In this blog post, I delve into the connection between autoimmune conditions and nutrition, exploring how the removal of gluten and dairy, reducing specific plant foods, and considering an extreme approach – the carnivore diet – as an ultimate elimination diet for autoimmune conditions.
Understanding Autoimmune Conditions and Nutrition
The relationship between autoimmune conditions and nutrition is intricate. While genetics can make you more susceptible to the development of autoimmune diseases it is environmental factors that are usually the deciding factor on whether it may develop. This includes things like infections, stress as well as diet, and evidence suggests that the food we eat may play a significant role in continuing to trigger and exacerbate symptoms. The good news is that the right nutrition can also be used to help support the immune system, to reduce inflammation, and even to put the autoimmune disease into remission in some cases. Along the way this can help you not only feel better, reduce symptoms, give you more energy and promote overall well-being.
Nutrition Strategies for Autoimmune Conditions
What might the best nutrition strategies be if you have an autoimmune condition? Well, I am going to give you my top five tips in this which are to remove gluten, remove dairy and remove other plant foods that may be triggering your immune system and to simply eat more meat and animal fats. Some of these suggestions might surprise you but I will reveal why they can be helpful.
Before we go on to look at the strategies in more detail, I want to tell you a little story about me. After a nasty virus in 2021 I felt my energy was flagging slightly and I had an annoying postnasal drip that I just couldn’t get rid of. I also had puffy eyes and slightly achy joints. These symptoms persevered despite me trying lots of things to get rid of them. I finally had some blood tests done which showed I had raised ANA antibodies as well as antibodies to my thyroid gland as well as a raised TSH (Thyroid Stimulating Hormone). I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis an autoimmune condition and referred to a rheumatologist for further investigation as it was suspected something else might be going on too. At least I knew what was going on now to some extent. I have never eaten a lot of gluten and dairy but I was super careful to cut them out completely, checking all the labels on any package foods. I made sure I was eating lots of foods containing vitamins and minerals helpful to support the thyroid gland including zinc, selenium, etc.. I also took some extra supplementation of vitamin C, iodine, magnesium, B vitamins, D & K. I did all this for three months and it did help a little but not a lot. So I tried Metavive Thyroid extract for a few weeks and again it helped a little. I was beginning to get frustrated and as a nutritional therapist I was aware that there might be a solution in the carnivore keto diet approach so so I decided to give it ago.
Over a couple of weeks I slowly stopped all my supplements partly because I knew that some of them might cause loose bowels on a carnivore diet and because I wanted to get rid of any fillers/cellulose capsules and additives that might be a trigger. I transitioned onto carnivore by slowly reducing the vegetables, salad and fruit in my diet. I ate fatty cuts of meat like short rib, brisket and oxtail, made lots of bone broth and bought high quality additive free bacon. I did eat a few eggs, especially egg yolks and I had a very small handful of berries on the odd occasion. Within 2 weeks I felt amazing, I got my bloods checked and all my thyroid markers were coming back towards normal. A couple of months later they were optimal! All with no supplements, mainly animal food and very little plant food. I have continued to stick with a mainly animal based diet, with periods of pure carnivore interspersed with periods with a little bit of vegetables and fruit. I avoid all gluten and diary (I did try reintroducing dairy without success) and I avoid all grains and legumes and most of the time nuts too.
The Ultimate Elimination Diet
A carnivore diet has been used for a long time by nutritionists as the ultimate elimination diet because it removes foods that might trigger the immune system and it is nutrient dense so you are not exposing anyone to nutrient deficiencies. In fact, this means that you can follow a carnivore diet for life if you really want to and there are many anecdotal accounts of people doing just that after they have healed their own autoimmune conditions from eating this way. Of course, as hunters and gatherers we likely evolved on a high fat animal diet which is why a carnivore diet is sometimes referred to as a species-specific diet for humans. It is the diet we are naturally designed to eat. We would only have seasonal access to berries, nuts and root tubers for short windows or time and likely in small amounts.
Gluten and dairy are common dietary triggers for individuals with autoimmune conditions. Gluten, a protein found in wheat and related grains, has been linked to inflammation and increased permeability of the gut lining. This heightened permeability, often referred to as "leaky gut," can lead to the entry of undigested particles into the bloodstream, triggering an immune response.
Similarly, dairy products, particularly those containing A1 casein protein, have been associated with inflammation and immune system activation. Many autoimmune conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and multiple sclerosis, have shown improvement when gluten and dairy are eliminated from the diet.
Reducing Plant Foods
While fruits and vegetables are typically celebrated for their health benefits, some individuals with autoimmune conditions find relief by reducing their intake of certain plant foods. This might be because there are many compounds found in plants, such as oxalates, lectins, glycoalkaloids, phytic acid and protease inhibitors (and there are more that I don’t have space to cover in this blog), that may be problematic for some people, but not for everyone. trigger an immune system response and contribute to inflammation and exacerbate autoimmune symptoms.
Oxalates are commonly found in green leafy vegetables as well as some fruits, nuts and seeds. Oxalate crystals can be very needle like and they have been associated with gastrointestinal problems and kidney stones. They may contribute to leaky gut which could make them an issue with autoimmune diseases. Many common ketogenic foods such as almonds, spinach and dark chocolate contain oxalates.
Lectins are naturally occurring proteins in many plant foods, including grains, nuts, corn, some fruits and nightshades, legumes and beans. They can bind to cells in the body and contribute to leaky gut, again potentially triggering an immune response.
Glycoalkaloids are found in nightshade plants, a group that includes tomatoes, aubergines, and peppers, these are thought to contribute to inflammation, leaky gut and autoimmune disease and have been linked with irritable bowel syndrome.
Phytic Acid is found in grains, nuts, seeds and legumes and can bin to minerals such as zinc, calcium, magnesium and iron potentially causing deficiencies which may compromise health in various ways including adversely affecting the immune system.
Protease inhibitors are found in legumes, grains, fruits like kiwi, pineapple, papaya, bananas and figs and apples and in vegetables like cabbage, potatoes, tomatoes and cucumbers. They interfere with the activity of enzymes affecting the digestion of protein.
It is important to note that not everyone needs to remove all these plant groups to see benefits. Sometimes just doing one or two of these strategies is sufficient because everyone will respond individually and often it is a case of experimenting to see what works for you.
Animal Meat & Fat
Autoimmune conditions are linked with leaky gut or intestinal permeability and animal fats are very healing for the gut, regular consumption of bone broth being a great way of getting collagen and glutamine and minerals which are essential for good gut health. Animal foods include meat, fish, eggs and organ meats, they are nutrient dense and contain all the essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals you require. Although many people worry about vitamin C deficiency on a carnivore diet it has been shown that when you reduce carbohydrate consumption you need much less vitamin C (because they share a transport mechanism to get into cells) and there is sufficient vitamin C in animal foods to meet our requirements.
The Carnivore Diet
At the extreme end of the dietary spectrum for autoimmune conditions lies the carnivore diet. This approach involves consuming only animal products, such as meat, fish, and eggs, while eliminating all plant-based foods. Advocates argue that the carnivore diet can be an ultimate elimination diet, helping to identify and eliminate potential triggers for autoimmune conditions.
The carnivore diet gained attention for its potential benefits in addressing autoimmune bowel problems like ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease. There is also plenty of anecdotal evidence that suggests that eliminating all plant foods can help reduce symptom severity and in some cases even put the disease into remission.
Thyroid Sensitivity on a Ketogenic Diet
It has been noted by researches looking at ketogenic diets that thyroid markers do change on a ketogenic diet and levels of thyroid hormone (T3) can go down. Sometimes this is explained as your thyroid requiring carbohydrates to function well but but there is an alternative theory which is that on a ketogenic or low carbohydrate diet your body becomes more responsive to thyroid hormone and therefore needs less of it to have the same effect. This is known as increased sensitivity where less hormone is needed to get the same effect and puts less pressure on the production of T4 in the thyroid and its conversion to T3 in the liver. Just like a low carbohydrate diet can improve insulin sensitivity the theory is that it can also improve thyroid sensitivity. One of the difficulties is that much of the research looking at thyroid hormone levels have been conducted on people who may not be metabolically healthy and are a high carbohydrate western style diet which is not species appropriate for humans. Once we eat the right food for health our metabolic markers tend to improve.
Personalised Nutrition & Lifestyle
While there is no one-size-fits-all solution for autoimmune conditions, understanding the intricate connection between nutrition and the immune system is a good starting point when trying to work out what the best style of eating is for you. Working with a nutritional therapist can help you to identify the best starting point which might be a paleo style diet or a low carb gluten and dairy free diet. If these alone don’t shift your symptoms sufficiently then you may want to try a more animal based diet to see what happens. Most people who have tried carnivore found it to have amazing health benefits and many of them never looked back.
In addition to diet there are other lifestyle factors are also important especially managing stress which is known to cause flare ups of autoimmune conditions.
Book A Call To Start Your Health Journey With Me
If you would like to book a call with me to discuss how best to start using nutrition to help you improve, and perhaps even reverse, your symptoms then please use the link below to book a free 30 minute chat. I can help you work out the best place to begin based on your own individual circumstances.
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